Health, Hormones and Human Performance Part 1

How hormones determine health and athletic performance

Endocrine and Metabolic aspects of Sports and Exercise Medicine are crucial determinants of health and human performance, from reluctant exerciser through to elite athlete and professional dancer. This is what I set out to demonstrate as the chair of the recent British Association of Sport and Medicine conference, with insightful presentations from my colleagues whom I had invited to share their research and practical applications of their work. The audience comprised of doctors with interest in sport and exercise medicine, representatives from the dance world, research scientists, nutritionists, physiotherapists, coaches and trainers. In short, all were members of multi-disciplinary teams supporting aspiring athletes. The importance of the conference was reflected in CDP awards from FSEM, BASES, Royal College of Physicians (RCP), REP-S and endorsement for international education from BJSM and National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science (NIDMS).

Exercise is a crucial lifestyle factor in determining health and disease. Yet we see an increasing polarisation in the amount of exercise taken across the general population. At one end of the spectrum, the increasing training loads of elite athletes and professional dancers push the levels of human performance to greater heights. On the other side of the spectrum, rising levels of inactivity, in large swathes of the population, increase the risk of poor health and developing disease states. Which fundamental biological processes and systems link these groups with apparently dichotomous levels of exercise? What determines the outcome of the underlying Endocrine and metabolic network interactions? How can an understanding of these factors help prevent sports injuries and lead to more effective rehabilitation? How can we employ Endocrine markers to predict and provide guidance towards beneficial outcomes for health and human performance?

If you weren’t able to come and participate in the discussion, these are some topics presented. My opening presentation (see video below) set the scene, outlining why having an optimally functioning Endocrine system is fundamental to health and performance. Conversely, functional disruption of Endocrine networks occurs with non integrated periodisation of the three key lifestyle factors of exercise/training, nutrition and recovery/sleep, which can lead to adverse effects on health and athletic performance.

In the case of an imbalance in training load and nutrition, this can manifest as the female athlete triad, which has now evolved into relative energy deficiency in sports (RED-S) in recognition of the fact that Endocrine feedback loops are disrupted across many hormonal axes, not just the reproductive axis. And, significantly, acknowledging the fact that males athletes can also be impacted by insufficient energy availability to meet both training and “housekeeping” energy requirements. Why and how RED-S can affect male athletes, in particular male competitive road cyclists, was discussed, highlighting the need for further research to investigate practical and effective strategies to optimise health and therefore ultimately performance in competition.

A degree of overlap and interplay exists between RED-S (imbalance in nutrition and training load), non functional over-reaching and over-training syndrome (imbalances in training load and recovery). Indeed research evidence was presented suggesting that RED-S increases the risk of developing over-training syndrome. In these situations of functional disruption of the Endocrine networks, underlying Endocrine conditions per se should be excluded. Case studies demonstrated this principle in the diagnosis of RED-S. This is particularly important in the investigation of amenorrhoea. All women of reproductive age, whether athletes or not, should have regular menstruation (apart from when pregnant!), as a barometer of healthy hormones. Indeed, since hormones are essential to drive positive adaptations to exercise, healthy hormones are key in attaining full athletic potential in any athlete/dancer, whether male or female. Evidence was presented from research studies for the role of validated Endocrine markers and clinical menstrual status in females as objective and quantifiable measures of energy availability and hence injury risk in both male and female athletes.

Triumvirate of external factors impacting Endocrine system and hence performance

Alongside training metrics, if female athletes recorded menstrual pattern (as Gwen Jorgensen recently showed on her Training Peaks) and all athletes kept a biological passport of selected Endocrine markers; this could potentially identify at an early stage any imbalances in the triumvirate of training load, nutrition and recovery. Pre-empting development of RED-S or over-training syndrome, supports the maintenance of healthy hormones and hence optimal human performance.

Look out for presentations from speakers which will be uploaded on BASEM website shortly.


Video of presentation on the Endocrine and Metabolic Aspects of Sports and Exercise Medicine BASEM conference “Health, Hormones and Human Performance”

Study of hormones, body composition, bone mineral density and performance in competitive male road cyclists Investigation of effective and practical nutrition and off bike exercise interventions

Sports Endocrinology – what does it have to do with performance? Keay BJSM 2017




Optimal health: for all athletes! Part 4 Mechanisms

As described in previous blogs, the female athlete triad (disordered eating, amenorrhoea, low bone mineral density) is part of Relative Energy Deficiency in sports (RED-S). RED-S has multi-system effects and can affect both female and male athletes together with young athletes. The fundamental issue is a mismatch of energy availability and energy expenditure through exercise training. As described in previous blogs this situation leads to a range of adverse effects on both health and sports performance. I have tried to unravel the mechanisms involved. Please note the diagram below is simplified view: I have only included selected major neuroendocrine control systems.


Low energy availability is an example of a metabolic stressor. Other sources of stress in an athlete will be training load and possibly inadequate sleep. These physiological and psychological stressors input into the neuroendocrine system via the hypothalamus. Low plasma glucose concentrations stimulates release of glucagon and suppression of the antagonist hormone insulin from the pancreas. This causes mobilisation of glycogen stores and fat deposits. Feedback of this metabolic situation to the hypothalamus, in the short term is via low blood glucose and insulin levels and in longer term via low levels of leptin from reduced fat reserves.

A critical body weight and threshold body fat percentage was proposed as a requirement for menarche and subsequent regular menstruation by Rose Frisch in 1984. To explain the mechanism behind this observation, a peptide hormone leptin is secreted by adipose tissue which acts on the hypothalamus. Leptin is one of the hormones responsible for enabling the episodic, pulsatile release of gonadotrophin releasing hormone (GnRH) which is key in the onset of puberty, menarche in girls and subsequent menstrual cycles. In my 3 year longitudinal study of 87 pre and post-pubertal girls, those in the Ballet stream had lowest body fat and leptin levels associated with delayed menarche and low bone mineral density (BMD) compared to musical theatre and control girls. Other elements of body composition also play a part as athletes tend to have higher lean mass to fat mass ratio than non-active population and energy intake of 45 KCal/Kg lean mass is thought to be required for regular menstruation.

Suppression of GnRH pulsatility, results in low secretion rates of pituitary trophic factors LH and FSH which are responsible for regulation of sex steroid production by the gonads. In the case of females this manifests as menstrual disruption with associated anovulation resulting in low levels of oestradiol. In males this suppression of the hypothamlamic-pituitary-gonadal axis results in low testosterone production. In males testosterone is aromatised to oestradiol which acts on bone to stimulate bone mineralisation. Low energy availability is an independent factor of impaired bone health due to decreased insulin like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) concentrations. Low body weight was found to be an independent predictor of BMD in my study of 57 retired pre-menopausal professional dancers. Hence low BMD is seen in both male and female athletes with RED-S. Low age matched BMD in athletes is of concern as this increases risk of stress fracture.  In long term suboptimal BMD is irrecoverable even if normal function of hypothamlamic-pituitary-gonadal function is restored, as demonstrated in my study of retired professional dancers. In young athletes RED-S could result in suboptimal peak bone mass (PBM) and associated impaired bone microstructure. Not an ideal situation if RED-S continues into adulthood.

Another consequence of metabolic, physiological and psychological stressor input to the hypothalamus is suppression of the secretion of thyroid hormones, including the tissue conversion of T4 to the more active T3. Athletes may display a variation of “non-thyroidal illness/sick euthyroid” where both TSH and T4 and T3 are in low normal range. Thyroid hormone receptors are expressed in virtually all tissues which explains the extensive effects of suboptimal levels of T4 and T3 in RED-S including on physiology and metabolism.

In contrast, a neuroendocrine control axis that is activated in RED-S is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. In this axis, stressors increase the amplitude of the pulsatile secretion of CRH, which in turn increases the release of ACTH and consequently cortisol secretion from the adrenal cortex. Elevated cortisol suppresses immunity and increases risk of infection. Long term cortisol elevation also impairs the other hormone axes: growth hormone, thyroid and reproductive. In other words the stress response in RED-S amplifies the suppression of key hormones both directly and indirectly via endocrine network interactions.

The original female athlete triad is part of RED-S which can involve male and female athletes of all ages. There are a range of interacting endocrine systems responsible for the multi-system effects seen in RED-S. These effects can impact on current and future health and sports performance.

For further discussion on Endocrine and Metabolic aspects of SEM come to the BASEM annual conference 22/3/18: Health, Hormones and Human Performance


Teaching module on RED-S for BASEM as CPD for Sports Physicians

Optimal health: including female athletes! Part 1 Bones Dr N. Keay, British Journal of Sport Medicine

Optimal health: including male athletes! Part 2 Relative Energy Deficiency in sports Dr N.Keay, British Journal of Sport Medicine 4/4/17

Optimal health: especially young athletes! Part 3 Consequences of Relative Energy Deficiency in sports Dr N. Keay, British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine

Keay N, Fogelman I, Blake G. Effects of dance training on development,endocrine status and bone mineral density in young girls. Current Research in Osteoporosis and bone mineral measurement 103, June 1998.

Jenkins P, Taylor L, Keay N. Decreased serum leptin levels in females dancers are affected by menstrual status. Annual Meeting of the Endocrine Society. June 1998.

Keay N, Dancing through adolescence. Editorial, British Journal of Sports Medicine, vol 32 no 3 196-7, September 1998.

Keay N, Effects of dance training on development, endocrine status and bone mineral density in young girls, Journal of Endocrinology, November 1997, vol 155, OC15.

Relative Energy Deficiency in sport (REDs) Lecture by Professor Jorum Sundgot-Borgen, IOC working group on female athlete triad and IOC working group on body composition, health and performance. BAEM Spring Conference 2015.

Mountjoy M, Sundgot-Borgen J, Burke L, Carter S, Constantini N, Lebrun C, Meyer N, Sherman R, Steffen K, Budgett R, Ljungqvist A. The IOC consensus statement: beyond the Female Athlete Triad-Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S).Br J Sports Med. 2014 Apr;48(7):491-7.

“Subclinical hypothydroidism in athletes”. Lecture by Dr Kristeien Boelaert at BASEM Spring Conference 2014 on the Fatigued Athlete

From population based norms to personalised medicine: Health, Fitness, Sports Performance Dr N. Keay, British Journal of Sport Medicine

Optimal health: especially young athletes! Part 3 Consequences of Relative Energy Deficiency in sports

In my previous blogs I have described the adverse effects of Relative Energy Deficiency in sports (RED-S) in both female and male athletes both in terms of current health and sport performance and potential long term health problems. What about young aspiring athletes? There is concern that early sport specialisation, imbalances in training not covering the full range of the components of fitness, together with reduced sleep, all combine to increase injury risk. Young athletes are particularly vulnerable to developing RED-S during a period of growth and development accompanied by a high training load.

Sufficient energy availability and diet quality, including micronutrients, is especially important in young athletes. To investigate further I undertook a three year longitudinal study involving 87 pre- and post-pubertal girls, spread across control pupils at day school together with students in vocational training in both musical theatre and ballet streams. There was a gradation in hours of physical exercise training per week ranging from controls with least, followed by musical theatre, through to ballet stream with the most.

In all girls dietary, training and menstrual history were recorded and collected every six months. At the same visit anthropometric measurements were performed by an experienced Paediatric nurse and bloods were taken for Endocrine markers of bone metabolism and leptin. Annual DEXA scans measured body composition, total body bone mineral density (BMD) and BMD at lumbar spine (including volumetric) and BMD at femoral neck.

The key findings included a correlation between hours of training and the age of menarche and subsequent frequency of periods. In turn, any menstrual dysfunction was associated with low age-matched (Z score) BMD at the lumbar spine. There were significant differences between groups for age-matched (Z score) of BMD at lumbar spine, with musical theatre students having the highest and ballet students the lowest. There were no significant differences in dietary intake between the three groups of students, yet the energy expenditure from training would be very different. In other words, if there is balance between energy availability and energy expenditure from training, resulting in concurrent normal menstrual function, then such a level of exercise has a beneficial effect on BMD accrual in young athletes, as demonstrated in musical theatre students. Conversely if there is a mismatch between energy intake and output due to high training volume, this leads to menstrual dysfunction, which in turn adversely impacts BMD accrual, as shown in the ballet students.

I was fortunate to have two sets of identical twins in my study. One girl in each twin pair in the ballet stream at vocational school had a twin at a non-dance school. So in each twin set, there would be identical genetic programming for age of menarche and accumulation of peak bone mass (PBM). However the environmental influence of training had the dominant effect, as shown by a much later age of menarche and decreased final BMD at the lumbar spine in the ballet dancing girl in each identical twin pair.

After stratification for months either side of menarche, the peak rate of change for BMD at the lumbar spine was found to be just before menarche, declining rapidly to no change by 60 months post menarche. These findings suggest that optimal PBM and hence optimal adult BMD would not be attained if menarche is delayed due to environmental factors such as low energy density diet. If young athletes such as these go on to enter professional companies, or become professional athletes then optimal, age-matched BMD may never be attained as continued low energy density diet and menstrual dysfunction associated with RED-S may persist. Associated low levels of vital hormones such as insulin like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) and sex steroids impair bone microarchitecture and mineralisation. Thus increasing risk of injury such as stress fracture and other long term health problems. The crucial importance of attaining peak potential during childhood and puberty was described at a recent conference at the Royal Society of Medicine based on life course studies. For example, delay in puberty results in 20% reduction of bone mass.


It is concerning that RED-S continues to occur in young athletes, with potential current and long term adverse consequences for health. Young people should certainly be encouraged to exercise but with guidance to avoid any potential pitfalls where at all possible. In my next blog I will delve into the Endocrine mechanisms involved in RED-S: the aetiology and the outcomes.

For further discussion on Endocrine and Metabolic aspects of SEM come to the BASEM annual conference 22/3/18: Health, Hormones and Human Performance


Optimal Health: including female athletes! Part 1 Bones Dr N. Keay, British Journal of Sport Medicine

Optimal health: including male athletes! Part 2 Relative Energy Deficiency in sports Dr N. Keay, British Journal of Sport Medicine 4/4/17

Keay N. The modifiable factors affecting bone mineral accumulation in girls: the paradoxical effect of exercise on bone. Nutrition Bulletin 2000, vol 25, no 3. 219-222.

Keay N The effects of exercise training on bone mineral accumulation in adolescent girls. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research. Vol 15, suppl 1 2000.

Keay N, Frost M, Blake G, Patel R, Fogelman I. Study of the factors influencing the accumulation of bone mineral density in girls. Osteoporosis International. 2000 vol 11, suppl 1. S31.

New S, Samuel A, Lowe S, Keay N. Nutrient intake and bone health in ballet dancers and healthy age matched controls: preliminary findings from a longitudinal study on peak bone mass development in adolescent females, Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 1998

Keay N, Dancing through adolescence. Editorial, British Journal of Sports Medicine, vol 32 no 3 196-7, September 1998.

Bone health and fractures in children. National Osteoporosis Society

Lifetime influences on musculoskeletal ageing and body composition. Lecture by Professor Diana Kuh, Director of MRC Unit for Lifelong Healthy Ageing, at Royal Society of Medicine, conference on Sports Injuries and sports orthopaedics. 17/1/17

Relative Energy Deficiency in sport (REDs) Lecture by Professor Jorum Sundgot-Borgen, IOC working group on female athlete triad and IOC working group on body composition, health and performance. BAEM Spring Conference 2015.

Health and fitness in young people