Sports Science Panel to Track Hormonal Changes in Female Athletes Related to Menstruation | Menstruation
Ups and downs are a feature of any athletic career, but for some female participants, these performance peaks and troughs may occur more regularly – driven by hormonal changes related to their menstrual cycle.
Now the English Institute of Sport (EIS) is trying to improve the playing field by introducing regular saliva tests to track the rise and fall of two main drivers of these monthly changes: estrogen and progesterone.
Because of the hormones involved, the menstrual cycle underpins many aspects of a woman’s health, from her bone strength to her fertility, her immune system, and her mental function. “If you don’t have a healthy menstrual cycle, it means something is wrong for some reason,” said Dr. Richard Burden, Co-Head of Women’s Health at EIS.
Some women also have symptoms related to their menstrual cycle, such as lack of energy, pain, or gas. According to a recent study of female rugby players, 93% of them reported cycle-related symptoms and 67% thought they would affect their athletic performance.
Even so, the menstrual cycle is one of the least studied aspects of human biology. Last year, Chelsea Women became the first football club in the world to start tailoring its players’ training to their menstrual cycle, although there is little evidence that it is effective.
“There is very thin evidence to suggest that there are ways to manipulate training based on where someone is in their menstrual cycle. The problem is, if you don’t measure the hormones, you won’t know what will happen. Just because you have a normal cycle length doesn’t mean your hormones are behaving normally, ”said Burden.
“Also, all of the research is very generalized right now, and it is not enough to apply what happens in a general population to an athlete who is working at the highest level she possibly can.”
The EIS now wants to change that in order to support female athletes more specifically and individually. By monitoring their hormones, Burden and colleagues hope to gain a better understanding of how athletes’ training plans affect their health or recovery from injury. If abnormalities are found in their cycles, it may lead to nutritional or other interventions trying to correct them.
Last summer, the EIS launched a pilot study of 15 top athletes from eight sports, including soccer, tennis, rowing, cycling, gymnastics, and modern pentathlon, which suggested that hormone testing on another day could provide actionable data in real time.
Although the research is still in the very early stages, the technology is expected to be rolled out more widely after Tokyo to test whether it could really improve the overall health and performance of women in the run-up to the Paris Olympics in 2024.
“I find it exciting that girls are talking about how their periods are affecting them and that we are finding ways not to fix them but to improve and treat the symptoms,” said Pentathlon GB athlete Jess Varley.
Although some athletes already use period monitoring apps, they do not measure hormones; In fact, any form of regular hormone testing has been difficult because, until recently, it required blood tests. The Hormonix system, which was developed by Mint Diagnostics of Kent in collaboration with the EIS, uses saliva tests instead.
During the pilot study, the athletes took a sample of saliva in a tube and then stored it in their freezers until it could be collected and analyzed. The data was then reported back to you. However, Mint Diagnostics is working on point-of-care testing where saliva samples can be loaded into a desktop device and results delivered almost instantly, allowing coaches to process athletes’ saliva samples and provide real-time feedback on their health.
Also under development is a saliva sample to measure hormones that are found in both male and female athletes, such as cortisol and testosterone. These could be used to monitor and potentially improve their response to training and recovery.
Katy Dunne – professional tennis player
Katy, 26, had fairly regular periods until she was around 14 when she started eating less, in addition to participating in junior tennis tournaments. As she got older, her periods became more and more sporadic until they stopped completely. A turning point came in her early twenties when Katy’s coaches noticed that despite hard training, she was no longer gaining strength. “They put one and two together and talked to me about my refueling and whether I hadn’t eaten enough,” she said.
With professional help, Katy began to eat more and her periods gradually returned. “I would say I was happy because I had no more periods and had maybe eight or nine in a year,” she said.
Even so, Katy’s coaches were concerned about the minor injuries she received: bruises on her pubic bone; Groin strain; Stomach strain; a shoulder injury – which prevented her from exercising.
“The greatest risk to performance in any top sport is the loss of training time. The more days you lose, the lower the likelihood of high performance, ”says Burden from the EIS.
Katy was referred to Burden, who enrolled her in the Hormonix study. This indicated that her hormones weren’t fluctuating as they should, despite having a healthy menstrual cycle.
“The menstrual cycle makes up most of a woman’s physiological systems, and someone like Katie needs all of those physiological systems to fire 100% because of the exercise she does and the performance she strives for,” said Burden. “If your hormones don’t really support that, it can have ramifications for things like your immune function and susceptibility to injury.”
Katy said, “It enabled me to see that I need to make another change and keep improving my body’s energy supply. As a result, we brought in a nutritionist to improve that. “
Jess Varley – Pentathlon GB athlete
Jess, 26, has always had regular periods and came every four weeks without exception. However, she had noticed that in the three days before her period she had had stomach cramps, felt less energetic, and suffered from her athletic performance.
“The most obvious discipline that is involved is fencing because you have to be mentally tuned and aware of what is going on around you and then be physically explosive at the right moment,” said Jess. “My fencing performance was just very up and down depending on when it fell on my menstrual cycle.
Jess also took part in the Hormonix study, which found that her menstrual cycle was completely healthy. Even so, this information was extremely useful as it ruled out hormonal abnormalities as the cause of her menstrual cramps. Now Jess and her support team could start tweaking other aspects of her exercise and diet to see if this was affecting her menstrual symptoms while making sure these interventions didn’t affect her health.
“We tried to change my diet, so we left out pasta and bread and reduced them [other] Carbohydrates a little, but not excessive. And because we monitored the hormones, we knew that I still had enough strength on a day-to-day basis to cope with the volume of training, ”said Jess. “We found that not using this type of carbohydrate made a big difference in my symptoms.
“It gave me the confidence to compete and not worry about where I am in my hormonal cycle. And to know that I really fuel up and can trust that I can now give my best at any time, that’s exciting. “