When you think of anabolic hormones, what comes to mind first?
Chances are, it’s not the hormone estrogen. Still, a few recent studies reported that female sex hormones are vital for muscle mass, strength, and even post-exercise recovery.
Sub-optimal estrogen levels are a common reason for muscle weakness and loss of lean muscle mass in women. Loss of lean muscle mass, without an apparent reason, could lead to poor physical performance in the gym and competitions.
So, what are the most common causes of low estrogen levels? Who’s at risk? How do estrogens affect the muscles in the first place?
Let’s sort out the details, one question at a time.
Common Causes of Low Estrogen in Women
According to studies and statistics, the major causes of hypoestrogenism (low estrogen) in women are:
- Age (perimenopause and menopause)
- Stress (especially chronic or intense)
- Premature menopause, also known as ovarian insufficiency or failure
- Severe malnutrition, anorexia
- Chronic kidney disease
Of course, age is the single most common cause of low estrogen. Estrogen levels naturally decline in women starting around the perimenopause age (47.5 years on average). Menopause begins around the age of 50 to 52 years, and that’s when the symptoms of low estrogen start to show themselves.
About 1% of women, however, start menopause much sooner. This condition is known as a primary ovarian failure or premature menopause and can manifest even before the age of 40. Early menopause isn’t just a matter of physical performance in the gym.
It also increases the risk of a whole bunch of dangerous diseases and even increases the chance of premature death.
That’s why many women around the world look for hormonal solutions to keep their estrogen levels healthy—either through conventional hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or plant-based alternatives like phytoestrogens.
Premature menopause aside, how does estrogen affect physical performance?
Are Estrogen and Physical Performance Connected?
Estrogen promotes muscle recovery and regeneration. First of all, estrogen plays an essential role in the process of muscle recovery. Multiple studies reported that estrogen could:
- Attenuate muscle damage caused by physical exercise
- Soothe muscle inflammation after workouts
- Enhance the healing of micro-injuries in the muscles
- Stimulate the growth of atrophied muscle mass
That’s quite an impressive list. But how is this even possible?
Not all the details are clear in this matter, but it seems that estrogen can stabilize the membranes of muscle cells and significantly reduce local oxidative stress.
This helps to prevent a great deal of damage to the muscles (including exercise-related loss) and speed up the recovery of existing injuries.
Estrogen Enhances Muscle Growth
Let’s get this straight: none of the body’s estrogens is an anabolic hormone in the traditional sense of the word. You can’t inject yourself with estradiol and expect to double your lean muscle mass in a few weeks; it doesn’t work that way.
Still, studies have revealed that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) with estrogens leads to muscle growth in postmenopausal women. Instead of boosting muscle growth directly (like testosterone and DHT do), estrogen enhances the effects of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1).
That’s why women tend to lose muscle mass when they approach menopause. Also, that’s why both HRT and phytoestrogens are a fabulous but little-known way to prevent muscle and performance loss in women with sub-optimal estrogen levels.
Estrogen Somewhat Increases Muscle Strength
Most likely, you already know that muscle tissue consists of two types of muscle fibers—actin and myosin. One of the factors that determine the strength of a given muscle is the force of the bond between its actin and myosin filaments.
Well, studies revealed that’s one of the effects of estrogen on muscle tissue. Estrogen somewhat strengthens the connection between myosin and actin fibers in the muscle, leading to a slight boost in physical strength.
Fixing Low Estrogen Levels
The first and most crucial step to restoring your estrogen is to find and treat the cause of your condition.
For instance, if you suspect your drop in estrogen is the result of the chronic stress you’re dealing with, get enough rest and try to solve your most pressing issues ASAP. Most likely, fixing your stress would result in a good boost in estrogen levels.
And still, the solution is rarely that simple. In most cases, the only way to fix a low estrogen problem for good is to start HRT or resort to natural phytoestrogens.
But how effective is that approach?
One study looked into the effect of HRT on physical performance and muscle mass in 15 pairs of identical twins. All women were in the 54 to 62 age group, so it’s a matter of menopausal and postmenopausal hormonal changes.
In every pair of twins, one woman took conventional HRT hormones, and the other twin did not receive any menopause-related therapy (conventional or otherwise).
After seven years of this treatment, the twin who took HRT:
- Walked about 7% faster
- Had 16% stronger muscles
- Was more muscular in general
- Had a lower body fat percentage
A few other studies on the link between HRT and strength, muscle mass, and physical performance in women reported that HRT:
- Promotes muscle synthesis
- Increases muscle strength (judging by running speed and vertical jump height)
But wait for a second, don’t go out there and stuff yourself with estrogens. These effects were observed in the first place when a woman is low on estrogens. If you are a healthy woman with normal estrogen levels, there’s no need to look for HRT.
This diagnosis is particularly relevant because HRT is available only through a doctor’s prescription and is serious enough to be continuously monitored, and even then comes with quite a few side effects. In some cases, the side effects might be as severe as an increased breast cancer risk.
That’s why so many women resort to phytoestrogens as a natural HRT alternative.
Phytoestrogens As An HRT Alternative
In a nutshell, phytoestrogens are plant substances that work sort of like the estrogens the human body produces. Women all around the world have been taking different sources of phytoestrogens as a way to relieve menopause symptoms way before doctors even knew what’s menopause in the first place.
Now, women approaching their 40s have one more good reason to look for some extra phytoestrogens in their diet: to support physical performance and prevent menopause-related loss of muscle mass.
Need a quick grocery list? Here are some of the richest (and most delicious) dietary sources of phytoestrogens:
- All soy products, excluding soy sauce (soybeans, tofu, soy milk)
- Legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans)
- Berries, especially red and pink-colored (strawberries, cranberries, raspberries)
- Red grapes and red wine
- Alfalfa sprouts
- Dried fruit
- Sesame seeds
If you don’t want to change anything in your diet, another valid option would be to take supplements or use skin care products with phytoestrogens, like serums and creams.
The latter approach is particularly suitable for athletes, as then the lion’s share of the phytoestrogens would act locally on the skin and muscles.
For example, one of the world’s most powerful sources of phytoestrogens is Pueraria Mirifica, a Thai plant that local women have been taking for centuries as an elixir of youth.
Note that Pueraria Mirifica can slightly increase breast size due to its high estrogen content, so keep that in mind when applying it on your chest area to support your pectoral muscles.
The Bottom Line
Although this fact remains unknown to most athletes, trainers, and even healthcare professionals, low estrogen levels have a huge impact on a woman’s strength, muscle mass, and post-exercise recovery rates.
If you’re a woman approaching your 40s and you think you might be dealing with a case of sub-optimal estrogen, ask your doctor to run a few tests and discuss your treatment options.
Keep in mind, though, that you don’t have to drive your estrogen levels through the roof for the sake of gym performance—or even general health, for that matter.
While estrogen is great for the health and performance of your bones and muscles, studies have found that too high estrogen levels can make your tendons and ligaments weaker and more prone to injury.
So, moderation is key. Having low estrogen levels is probably as bad as having them too high.
An excellent first step to return your estrogen to a normal range would be to eat more dietary sources of phytoestrogens—like soy and other legumes. If your goal is to boost local recovery after physical exercise, try applying a skincare topical product. Any source of phytoestrogens will work great, but Pueraria Mirifica is probably the most cost-effective option.