The Role of Hormones in Athletic Performance

Introduction

Hormones are chemical messengers that are secreted into the bloodstream from glands throughout the body. The endocrine glands include the thyroid and adrenal glands, ovaries, and testes. Hormones play a vital role in athletic performance regardless of whether you are an endurance athlete or a strength athlete.

Several hormones are important in athletic performance. Let’s look at each of them in turn:

Testosterone

It surprises a lot of people that women produce and need testosterone as it is usually thought of as a male hormone.

Testosterone is produced by the testes and ovaries and has several benefits when it comes to athletic performance. Firstly and perhaps foremostly, testosterone helps maintain a strong heart. Testosterone helps red blood cells duplicate through the bone marrow.

Researchers have also found that people with higher testosterone levels are less likely to suffer from strokes and heart attacks. Furthermore, research by Susan Ellenberg has shown testosterone treatment could help mildly anaemic men to get their heamoglobin to a normal level, again because of the duplication of red blood cells.

When it comes to endurance (essential in athletic performance), testosterone treatment can be beneficial to both men and women. Around the time of menopause, women’s testosterone levels decline meaning that maintaining a good level of fitness can be more difficult. In addition, testosterone can help you maintain bone density. Thinning bones will hinder athletic performance.

Oestrogen

Oestrogen is secreted by the ovaries. It helps women to maintain healthy bones and good cardiovascular health, both of which are paramount when it comes to athletic performance.

During menopause, when oestrogen levels decline, women can be at higher risk of developing problems with their bones and cardiovascular system. Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) can help to counteract this.

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Thyroxine and Triiodothyronine (T3 and T4)

Thyroxine, also known as T4, is produced by the thyroid. It regulates the rate of metabolism. Triiodothyronine (T3) is also produced by the thyroid gland although it is produced in much smaller amounts.

The reason for this is that when the T4 hormone reaches organs and body tissue it is converted to T3. If the thyroid gland isn’t working effectively (if it becomes overactive or underactive), it can severely impact athletic performance.

On the other hand, if an athlete trains too much, this can lead to the suppression of the T3 hormone which can again impair performance and metabolism in particular.

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Cortisol

Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands and has several functions.

These include helping the body respond to stress or danger, controlling blood pressure, and increasing the body’s metabolism of glucose. If the body produces too little cortisol, it can lead to tiredness and muscle weakness, both of which will undoubtedly reduce athletic performance.

However, if the body produces too much cortisol, it can result in weight gain, which can be problematic for athletes.

How can hormone levels be controlled?

Maintaining optimal hormone levels is imperative when trying to maintain athletic performance. Whilst unavoidable factors such as illness can sometimes have an impact, there are nevertheless several lifestyle factors that can help to keep your hormone levels under control. 

When it comes to testosterone levels in men, male athletes suffering from low testosterone levels can sometimes increase their levels through a combination of diet, and vitamin and mineral supplements. Additional research has suggested that supplements containing Vitamin D and Zinc can be effective in men with deficiencies. Dietary changes include following a whole-food-based diet with high levels of protein and carbohydrates.

For female athletes, hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle can, unfortunately, lead to an increased susceptibility towards injuries such as runner’s knee and ligament tears at certain times of the month.

In addition, menstrual periods can make women feel more tired and weaker. Some coaches recommend that women athletes take birth control pills, which can help to keep hormone levels stable. However, hormone levels fluctuate and there is considerable variation in the amounts of hormones present in different contraceptive pills. There is also the risk that taking the “pill” could mask underlying problems and potentially cause more difficulty in the long run. 

Sleep

There are several ways that you can work towards controlling your cortisol levels naturally. According to Jim White, it’s important to make sleep a priority. Cortisol levels are linked to circadian rhythm and ensuring that you get between 7-8 hours of sleep a night will help you maintain normal cortisol levels. 

Other lifestyle factors can help, including reducing sugar and alcohol and making sure that you stay hydrated. A 2018 study showed that amongst young footballers, even mild dehydration can increase cortisol levels. Drinking tea has also been shown to lower cortisol levels.

Whilst exercise is important to maintain cortisol levels (partly because it helps to reduce stress levels), overdoing it can, unfortunately, have the opposite effect. Indeed, a 2012 study showed that long-term cortisol exposure was higher in endurance athletes. Perhaps the key to balance is not overdoing exercise, whilst focusing on the ways to help keep your cortisol levels at a normal level discussed above.

Whilst some people are genetically more likely to have difficulties with their thyroid gland and therefore experience the problems brought about by having too high or too low levels of T4 and T3, there are nevertheless things you can do to reduce your risk. Firstly, It goes without saying that if you have a history of thyroid disease in your family, you should pay particular attention to any unusual symptoms and get them checked out. You can also carry out regular thyroid neck checks to look for any unusual swellings or bumps. Other lifestyle advice you can follow includes not smoking, avoiding foods containing soy, and taking selenium supplements.

Summary

In summary, hormones have a large and diverse role in supporting athletic performance. The best thing you can do is to follow a healthy lifestyle and keep a close eye on any unfamiliar symptoms. That way there’s a higher chance that problems caused by hormones can be treated.

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