You may think that dieting only affects your weight, your body fat percentage, or your muscle mass.
What you might not be considering is how taking a fitness and nutrition regimen too far can affect your hormonal health.
Your sex hormones (and sex drive) will take a nosedive:
Last month, I wrote an article about how the search for the perfect body can affect our sexual health. More specifically, I explained that punishing your body to make it perfect will only, ironically, make you not want to have sex at all.
In this way, disordered dieting and overexercising can affect our hormones. If we’re not nourishing our body properly, the hormones responsible for our sexual health, namely progesterone and estrogen, will plummet.
Progesterone triggers our uterine lining to thicken and accept a fertilized egg. Both progesterone and estrogen are responsible for our sex drive; so, the less we have of them, typically, the less sex drive we have. Estrogen also affects our bone health and cholesterol.
Speaking of which…
Your cholesterol can become elevated:
When I had my eating disorder in my 20s, I inexplicably (to me, anyway) had high cholesterol. My general practitioner just shrugged it off as genetic, as high cholesterol runs in my family; he told me to exercise, eat healthy, and not smoke.
His professional recommendation was frustrating, and frankly, triggering. I was already exercising and “eating well.” Was I not eating well enough? Exercising enough? His words probably only further exacerbated my issues by causing me to restrict and exercise more.
This was also a lesson in being your own health and wellness advocate—because doctors, contrary to popular belief, don’t know everything.
It was only years later that I read up on the link between eating disorders and high cholesterol. Some believe this connection may be related to the starvation of the liver when you severely restrict your caloric intake.
You can develop insomnia and depression:
If you’ve ever been “hangry,” you know this next correlation to be true:
When you’re really hungry, you feel anxious and stressed. It’s an evolutionary response; when we’re hungry, our natural reaction is to find and consume food. When you’re constantly depriving your body of the nourishment it’s seeking, you’re keeping a steady flow of cortisol (stress hormone) coursing through your body. Chronic stress can lead to insomnia and depression (due to a dip in the hormone serotonin) among a barrage of other conditions.
You’ll still hold onto belly fat:
One result of elevated cortisol that would make a disordered dieter cringe is increased belly fat.
By restricting your caloric intake, you are signaling to your body that you are starving and need to hold onto any fat that you have for survival. So, you’re actually working against your goals by punishing your body with restriction.
Other potential hormonal effects:
I also mentioned in my previous article that I had a benign tumor on my adrenal gland that caused hyperaldosteronism and prevented me from getting pregnant. Hyperaldosteronism is when your body creates too much of a hormone called aldosterone, causing your body to lose too much potassium and retain too much sodium, which increases blood pressure.
I have no evidence that the tumor was, in fact, related to years of abusing my body with disordered eating and restricting, but logic would dictate that it can’t be totally out of the realm of possibility, right?
My only symptom was high blood pressure, so it took 14 months of ruling out diagnoses with a cardiologist, nephrologist, and, finally, an endocrinologist to realize I had this tumor, plus time to schedule surgery to take out my entire adrenal gland. Spoiler alert: things, ultimately and thankfully, worked out and I have a healthy and happy six-month-old son.
But if you can avoid potentially growing a tumor because you’re not starving your body and screwing up your hormones, wouldn’t you rather do that?
Depression. Insomnia. Stress. No sex drive. And that’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of how overexercising and/or disordered and restrictive dieting can harm your body. I find it hard to believe that anyone would want to live with these things if they had the choice not to; and to anyone who would be willing to endure these things in exchange for a “better” body, I urge you to take a long, hard look at your priorities.
Finally, to those who are truly struggling with disordered eating and overexercise, you may objectively know the dangers I discussed above, know that your behaviors are harmful, and truly want to stop; but it’s hard to do it alone—I should know. If you are one of these women who want to change, who wants to truly take care of her health and body, consider consulting a wellness coach.