If you’ve been working out regularly for a while and yet aren’t feeling great and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better, it might not be a problem with overtraining or your diet. Rather, your hormones might be to blame. Naturopath Lia Sonnenburg sees this all the time in athletes, especially female ones. You don’t have to be training like an Ironman to run into hormone issues, either—exercise might just be the icing on a chronic and acute stress cake that messes with your body and your overall health.
When we talk about hormones, we don’t just mean testosterone and estrogen, though those are two of the big ones. For athletes, regular fitness fans, and wellness-oriented people, you also want to keep an eye on cortisol and progesterone levels. Now, there's no need to panic: Sonnenburg says you don’t need to hit the OB-GYN or a naturopath or another kind of doctor right away if you suspect something is off. But you should pay attention to your body because there are a few warning signs that might mean you need to back off and get your hormones reset. Let’s check them out, below.
You’re Not Getting Results
If you’ve been running three times a week for six months now, and in the last two months, you haven’t gotten any faster, despite training just as regularly and working just as hard, that’s a warning sign. The same applies to workouts like strength training: If your numbers are stagnant despite your best attempts to increase weight or reps, you might be starting to have an imbalance in your hormones.
Your Body Isn’t Changing (But You’re Trying)
Now, this isn’t a “working out will make you lose weight” symptom. But if losing weight is your goal, and you’re adding more exercise and eating a balanced diet, but the numbers on the scale still won’t budge, there may be something amiss in your hormone panel. Particularly, Sonnenburg says, if you just can’t get rid of that last bit of visceral fat (ahem, muffin top), but you just don’t know what else you can be doing. And if your muscles just won’t get toned or buffed up, that’s another signal from your body that something is out of whack. Typically, this response has to do with the fact that your cortisol—that stress hormone—is too darn high.
You Lose Your Period
One of the most obvious—and major—hormone imbalance red flags is losing your period (amenorrhea), says Sonnenburg. This can happen because your body fat has gotten perilously low, or you might just be stressing your body too much. Either way, this is a sign that you need to dial your regimen back and focus on getting back in balance.
You’re Freaking TIRED
If every workout makes you super-fatigued—on a need-a-nap-for-every-workout level, not that good fatigue that comes with absolutely slaying a spin class—that’s another warning sign from your body. (This one can also be a nutritional issue, but if it happens despite changes to your diet, take note.)
Your Mood Sucks
Normally, exercise makes you happy. (Remember the explanation of endorphins in Legally Blonde? Elle wasn’t lying.) But if a run that used to leave you feeling like a freaking rock star is making you feel irritable or depressed, your hormones might be to blame, says Sonnenburg. (Especially if your mood is swinging so much that you’re pretty sure your PMSing 99 percent of the month.) Irritability and depression can mean different things, though, Sonnenburg adds. Depression tends to be the symptom when your progesterone is too high, while estrogen getting too high can lead to irritability (yep, blame that for PMS).
…And So Does Your Sex Drive
People aren’t always comfortable talking about their sex drives, says Sonnenburg, but she notes that your desire to get it on should probably be increasing the more you work out and the better your overall health is. So if your libido has unexpectedly dropped, it might be from your testosterone taking a plunge.
Fantastic. You have a low sex drive, and those cuts you get on your legs when shaving don’t heal as well as they used to. Plus, you’re breaking out around your chin and mouth. Yep, it’s probably those pesky hormones.
Don’t freak out. Sonnenburg says that most minor imbalances are pretty easy to fix, and even major ones can often be remedied without relying on a ton of supplements, medicines, or pricey fixes. It’s not super sexy, but the best things you can do for your body when you suspect hormonal issues are the ones you should be doing anyway.
Keep Calm and Carry On
Chilling out is the number one piece of advice Sonnenburg has for pretty much anyone, but especially those in stages of imbalance. The less stress you’re under, the better your cortisol levels will be, and the better your body can regulate all of your hormones. If that means swapping your long runs or HIIT sessions for a chill yoga class for a while, that’s fine. Don’t drop your exercise to nothing so you can put in more time at the office, though. Taking time for low-stress exercise like a nature walk will be great for getting back to status quo. “Take away shit that you can,” says Sonnenburg. “We’re most thrown off when cortisol levels get crazy.”
Clean Up Your Act
“You also need to just remove crap out of life: Clean up your diet, drop alcohol and smoking, sleep enough,” says Sonnenburg. Sorry, but if you’re serious about bringing hormones back in line, laying off the booze and doughnuts for a month might be in your best interests.
Lastly, if you’ve tried to clean up your lifestyle and you’re feeling Zen and your diet is as clean as it can get, but you’re still not feeling like yourself and experiencing any of the above symptoms, that’s when you should seek professional help. That doesn’t mean using WebMD to suss out which supplements might be helpful. In fact, Sonnenburg cautions that the issue with supplements is that they can have the opposite effect of what you’re trying to correct or have unpleasant side effects, so even over-the-counter options and herbal remedies should be discussed with a professional. The important thing is to go to a medical professional who can help you with your problem, and get you feeling good again.