During this Heart Health Month post, I look at the hormones and heart health connection. It’s no secret that you are an integrated being. The health of your bones is related to hormones. Your fat storage and fat burning ability are related to hormones. Your muscle definition is related to hormones.
Your heart health too is related to hormones.
There are over 70 hormones in the body. If any of them are too low or too high you have imbalance. It might seem logical we’re always in some kind of imbalance, right? How can 70 hormones always be well behaved?
But some have a bigger impact than others. The rate and speed of damage from hormone imbalance depends on which hormone and how much it’s out of balance. Some matter more than others and some affect other hormones causing a cascade reaction.
High estrogen levels are most related to your risk of heart disease.
Yet, it’s integrated. Every hormone is influenced or influenced by another. Just as exercise is influenced or influences hormones.
The After 50 Fitness Formula
Exercise for many of us is the catalyst for making other positive health-impacting changes. So in this post about heart health and hormones I address how the After 50 Fitness Formula (used in all my programs) is used in an If-This, Then-That approach.
You, of course, have to know two things:
1) What those positive changes are – you may need not more information, but more specific data about you. Whether you do this through a course, an elimination diet, a food sensitivity test, a stool test or a combination of these, (and I encourage more than one for many of the individuals who have “tried everything” but still don’t have answers), you have to define what “healthy” choices are for you in the right now of your life.
2) What exercise supports hormone balance based on your signs of imbalance- whether you’ve tested with lab work or not. I very recently was surprised to be asked whether “extensive lab testing” needed to be done to tell you the status of your hormones. The answer is no!
Your body doesn’t lie. If you’re not digesting well, you’re losing your hair, you’re tired all the time, you’re hungry right after meals, you’re craving sugar or salt, you can’t remove belly fat even with exercise and healthy eating… these are all signs and can all be usedto adjust your habits for more natural hormone balance.
Exercise more and harder is the intuitive response for both too many trainers, and women who aren’t getting results. That “do more of what’s not working” approach will make matters worse. From hormone imbalance you can go to adrenal fatigue and complicate matters with thyroid disruption, if you don’t listen and respond.
With a little understanding about your hormones, your hormones and heart health connection, and how to achieve a better natural balance, exercise can be an integral part of your overall health. Without it, you could be unintentionally be doing harm.
Hormones and Heart Health
Cardiovascular disease rates increase significantly after menopause and becomes the number one cause of death in women. The need to have adequate and balanced estrogen levels becomes especially important.
Some of the research does suggest negative effects of hormone therapy. You need the full story though. Non-oral estrogens don’t result in the pro-coagulant effect. Natural or bio-identical (not synthetic) progesterone doesn’t interfere with beneficial effect of estrogen in blood vessels. Estradiol and progesterone therapy can have beneficial effects on lipoprotein and cardiovascular health.
Cortisol, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone are the most important pieces of heart health. Positive change in estrogen happens by improving cortisol and progesterone.
Progesterone is important for helping balance testosterone and estrogen, and it’s important in strengthening the heart. While getting breathless does help the cardiovascular system and heart muscle, so too do you need to think about what happens at the cellular and hormone level.
Food and exercise both affect your hormones. It’s pretty clear there’s no neutral: the right food helps the wrong food hurts. Consuming foods with hormones in them (whether added or the animals were fed them or not – since the animal itself has hormones) can negatively affect your levels. Gut health alone is not the only reason to reconsider your milk and dairy consumption.
Hormones and Heart Health: Progesterone
Optimal progesterone levels support optimal cortisol levels, which in turn support the body’s anti-inflammatory process. That is especially important in cardiovascular disease, which is initiated by inflammation. Your hormones and heart health are as intertwined as that yarn around your high school boyfriend’s class ring.
A “progesterone steal” occurs when stress levels elevate (your perceived level as well as too much exercise, too little sleep, or a poor diet). That depletes progesterone stores since progesterone can be used to make cortisol when it’s needed. If your stressors are chronic and continued for a long period of time (hello, overachieving woman of 2019) this has a good chance of happening.
That sets you up for a hormone imbalance (estrogen dominance) caused by that low level of progesterone.
Progesterone has been credited to opening up blood vessels (less resistance due to bigger pathways means less blood pressure), reducing cholesterol and triglycerides, and it regulates collagen. If your skin is just not the same in spite of adding collagen in bone broth or a collagen powder, low progesterone may be a part of it.
Progesterone then is clearly a player in the hormones and heart health game.
What’s the answer to better progesterone levels?
Everything that supports your optimal diet, your optimal sleep will help create the sweet spot of cortisol, and balance blood sugars. If your cortisol is at adequate levels progesterone levels are positively influenced. Start there.
What’s the wonder drug for that?
Exercise as Medicine
Not “more” exercise but the right kind, the right time, and the right dose. In fact, long endurance training tends to increase cortisol (anything in fact over 75 minutes is more associated with negative affect on cortisol than positive) and decrease progesterone.
Meditation* and relaxation techniques through exercise or breathing sans exercise depending on your status support optimal cortisol. Walking in nature as opposed to a treadmill offers more benefit to your hormones. Leaving the cell phone behind and just being quiet in what’s recently been coined “forest bathing” promotes stress reduction.
That’s not to say that if you’re an exercise enthusiast you have to completely stop. That too is likely to increase cortisol for you. Temporarily (a few weeks) create a new challenge for yourself (focus on yoga, acquire a new skill as opposed to slamming your body with long or hard or both bouts of exercise) in order to support balance without going crazy.
Short high intensity bouts can be appropriate for you. Cortisol needs to be OPTIMAL, not non-existent. It’s supposed to be used for acute situations. We’ve just failed that in our always-connected, superwoman thinking lives. If you think you don’t need to rest, to recover, to take care of yourself… or that doing so is bad, you’re the girl-most-likely to… get dinged by fatigue and issues from real burnout.
That is, interval training for 10 or 15 minutes (plus warm up and cool down) and intense weight training (also short in duration with quality to-fatigue sets and repetitions).
The answer is not all yoga all the time. You are not a delicate flower or broken. It’s also not all intervals all the time. You need to assess several things. What have you been doing that’s not working? What are your signs and symptoms? Could you take a nap after you finish your cool down? Or do you have more energy all day naturally when you’ve exercised?
You have to know if your cortisol levels are too high (when they should be low) or too low (when they should be high) in order to navigate the appropriate exercise prescription. If you can’t get up in the morning (reduce your exercise intensity) or if you’re staring at the ceiling at 2am, or you’re unable to get to sleep and stop that monkey mind (try short bouts of high intensity) you have clues about the best exercise for you right now.
Realize that all humans get comfortable thinking about themselves in a certain way. You may identify with “I like to go hard” or “I’m competitive” or “I’m on the go all the time” and if you find yourself saying, “That’s who I am,” you’re attached to that. It’s defining you. What if you had a different definition? Would that be so bad?
To heal your hormone imbalance you may have to break ties to what you thought made you special.
Nutritional changes benefit cortisol too. Adaptogens, herbs that naturally offer hormone support, like Ashwaganda, Rhodiola, and maca can support optimal cortisol and progesterone levels. I use these, maca, most often in my daily smoothie.
You need testosterone for your heart too. Yes, your libido and romance are a part of that but low testosterone doesn’t just kill a romantic evening. It can increase cardiovascular disease and is closely connected to blood sugar issues (like insulin resistance, and diabetes).
For most women testosterone reduction is associated with inability to gain lean muscle, fatigue, and low libido.
Clinically, testosterone is given to female patients with chronic heart failure and shown to improve functional capacity, muscle strength, and improve insulin sensitivity without any negative side effects.
Vitamin D supports testosterone levels. Yet another reason to be sure you’ve tested and you’re supplementing appropriately for Vitamin D. I have clients who are in need of more than the daily-recommended doses for several reasons. If you’ve been insufficient for a long time or have other things going on – not limited to sun exposure, meet with a physician for recommendations. Taking doses of 5000 or 10,000IU a few times a week is not unusual. It’s important to be tested, have supervision getting a prescription level supplement if needed.
How Exercise Helps:
If you display symptoms of low testosterone levels you want to dump long slow endurance exercise in favor of short high intensity intervals. Limit that to a few times a week. Strength training should be based not on the time you spend doing it but that your workouts have adequate intensity. Hour-or more-long sessions are overkill for you. If you have intensity you can do more good in a half hour or less a couple times a week. The majority of my personal strength training workouts are 10-to-20 minutes. But I don’t put the weight down after a set until I’ve reached muscular fatigue.
Eat and Drink Well
Reduce your stress level to support testosterone levels. Eat the highest quality of calories. Dump or significantly reduce sugar and alcohol while you’re struggling with testosterone levels.
Your cardiovascular health is dependent on your hormone balance and exercise plays a key role in that. The balance of estrogen, cortisol, progesterone, and testosterone are important in heart health. The integrated nature of hormones means that targeting the right one or two hormones with exercise and lifestyle habits can create a positive affect on the overall system.
Exercise for hormones and heart health is more thoughtful and less intuitive for women over 50. The culture of work harder, do more, pain is weakness leaving your body, doesn’t align with hormone balance. It’s often a relief to discover less exercise is more rewarding.
What have you identified as your hormones to target with exercise changes? I’d love to hear from you!