Exercising Away Your Fertility

 Image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In this New Year's season of renewed rigor for diet and exercise, there's something all women should know: 


Many women may not even be aware that they've lost their fullness of fertility as a result of overexercise until they encounter issues trying to get pregnant -- especially if they have taken artificial hormone replacements like the birth control pill which can mask symptoms of hormonal imbalance. 

Even women who menstruate may not be ovulating and maybe be unknowingly infertile. 




When it comes to exercise, we constantly hear "more is better." There's something socially embarrassing and shameful about admitting we don't have a (rigid) exercise routine. The message we get from many angles is that we better exercise (more) or we're lazy, worthless, and will surely stay or become fat and sick. Some of us may feel we "need" to compensate or punish ourselves with difficult or frequent exercise to maintain or change our body, or "make up for" our eating habits.

Certainly, we need some form of "exercise." But since there seems to be quite a bit of misunderstanding and pressure around the word "exercise," I prefer the term "movement." Too many people associate "exercise" only to big, bold, scheduled sessions of energy expenditure like those in a gym, fitness class, marathon, sporting event, weight-lifting routine, stifling-hot yoga studio, etc. Exercise doesn't have to be big, bold and scheduled. Truly exercise is just "movement" -- a much more comprehensive term that includes traditional "exercise" forms as well as those too often discounted, like household tasks, shopping, chasing kids, cooking, cleaning, walking, etc.

Excess exercise jeopardizes your fertility.

Regular movement is one of the most healing, healthful things we can do for our bodies. A reasonable level of exercise or movement additionally restores our minds and spirits -- an important feature that is lost when we exercise in excess.

If your cycles are infrequent or absent, or if you're having trouble getting pregnant AND you exercise, you might be suffering from any variety of exercise-induced disorders including chronic overexercise, exercise addiction, exercise bulimia, or Female Athlete Triad Syndrome.



Women who are undernourished and/or overexercising are jeopardizing their fertility because they expend too much energy in a way that is perceived as highly stressful to the body. The high energy output demanded to sustain exercise and its afterburn may compete with or surpass the energy + nutrients coming into the body. Over time, the body will perceive this stress of high energy expenditure as a serious threat to its homeostasis, or desired normal operating state. The chronic stress of excess exercise places a great burden on the adrenals, which must pump out higher levels of cortisol to sustain such energy demands.

Cortisol is produced from a continual secretion of a hormone called pregnenolone, which is derived from cholesterol (which is why we need to eat ample amounts of healthy eggs + fats!).

Pregnenolone is a precursor not only to production of cortisol (used by adrenals), but also to production of sex hormones (used by gonads).

Large amounts of pregnenolone are used up by the adrenals when they need to pump out high levels of cortisol to allow the body to "push through" high stress demands from things like excess exercise, lack of rest, sympathetic system dominance, or managing the effects of dietary stressors (esp inadequate energy or macro/micronutrient intake, caffeine, sugar/high carb intake, alcohol, foods one is sensitive to, etc).

Cortisol demands are a much higher priority than sex hormone production, and when pregnenolone is constantly shunted to the adrenals, there's little to no pregnenolone left to fuel sex hormone production, which causes levels of female hormones, particularly progesterone, and sometimes also estrogen, to plummet drastically.

The result is severe hormone dysfunction, contributing to things like cycle irregularity (or absence), PCOS, infertility, early menopause, etc. In the case of excess exercise, pregnenalone is "stolen" by the adrenals to keep up with the high energy output needs, thereby shutting down fertility.

This condition is referred to both as the "cortisol steal" (aka, cortisol is stealing pregnenolone) or the "pregnenolone steal" (aka, the pregnenolone is being stolen by cortisol) - essentially, both terms are referring to the same condition. 

(For more on this relationship between the thyroid, adrenals and sex hormones, you might check out this post).


Signs You MIGHT BE Exercising Too Much

Here are few physical indications that you might be exercising too much:

  • Not getting a regular period (3-5 days long), every month.
  • Constant or excess hunger, binge eating, compulsive eating, eating large volumes of food in the afternoon and/or at night, carb/sugar cravings, waking up hungry at night
  • Excess or prolonged muscle soreness
  • Low body fat, high muscle tone, and/or low body weight
  • Fatigue

Here are a few other considerations. If you answer "yes" to any of these questions, it might indicate that you're exercising too much:

  • Do you feel compelled to exercise?
  • Do you feel [something bad] might happen if you don't exercise on a given day?
  • Do you feel [something bad] might happen if you scale back or stop exercising or choose a less intensive form?
  • Do you exercise every day, including when you're sick, tired, or overly busy?
  • Do you feel guilt or shame if you don't exercise?
  • Do you exercise more than 1 time a day?
  • Do you plan work, home, or social activities around exercise?
  • Do you skip important work, home, or social activities in lieu of exercise?
  • Do you disqualify walking, cleaning, chores, shopping, stretching, and other gentle forms of movement as not counting as "exercise."



In fact, many women can exercise a lot less (or less intensely), eat more, maintain a reasonable state of health and fitness... and not jeopardize their fertility. 

And as far as weight management goes -- many women are holding on to excess weight because they are trying too hard to burn it off, which is causing counterproductive increases in stress and fat-storing hormones.

Holistic nutrition services can help you find some balance with your food and exercise that won't jeopardize your fertility and will still allow you to maintain health and fitness (not to mention sanity!). 

If you feel you have a serious addiction to exercise (and/or undereating) please also seek professional help from an appropriate medical professional like a doctor or mental health specialist.