Optimising Health and Athletic Performance


In order to improve sports performance, athletes periodise their training, nutrition and recovery within the context of a training season. For those not in exercise training, these controllable lifestyle factors correspond to exercise, diet and sleep, which require modification during the lifespan. In old money, this was called preventative medicine. Taking this a step further, rather than preventing disease, this proactive, personalised approach optimises health. Health should be a positive combination of physical, mental and social well being, not simply an absence of illness.

Failure to balance these lifestyle factors in an integrated fashion leads to negative outcomes. An athlete may experience maladaptation, rather than the desired adaptations to exercise training. For non-athletes an adverse combination of lifestyle factors can lead to suboptimal health and a predisposition to developing chronic disease.

What are the fundamental pathophysiological mechanisms involved in the aetiology of the clinical spectrum of suboptimal health, suboptimal sports performance and chronic disease?

Inflammation A degree of systemic inflammation and oxidative stress induced by exercise training is required to drive desired adaptations to support improved sport performance. However, prolonged, elevated levels of inflammation have adverse effects on health and underpin many chronic disease states. For example, inflammation is a contributing pathophysiological factor in the development of atherosclerosis and atherothrombosis in cardiovascular disease. What drives this over-response of the inflammatory process? Any combination of adverse lifestyle factors. Adipose tissue has an Endocrine function, releasing a subgroup of cytokines: adipokines which have peripheral and central signalling roles in energy homeostasis and inflammation. In a study of Belgian children, pro-inflammatory energy related biomarkers (high leptin and low adiponectin) were associated with decreased heart rate variability and hence in the long term increased risk of cardiovascular disease. For those with a pre-existing chronic inflammatory condition, response to treatment can be optimised with personalised lifestyle interventions.

Metabolism Non-integrated lifestyle factors can disrupt signalling pathways involved in glucose regulation, which can result in hyperinsulinaeamia and insulin resistance. This is the underlying pathological process in the aetiology of metabolic syndrome and metabolic inflexibility. Non-pharmacological interventions such as exercise and nutrition, synchronised with endogenous circadian rhythms, can improve these signalling pathways associated with insulin sensitivity at the mitochondrial level.

Intriguingly, evidence is emerging of the interaction between osteocalcin and insulin, in other words an Endocrine feedback mechanism linking bone and metabolic health. This is reflected clinically with increased fracture risk found amongst type 2 diabetics (T2DM) with longer duration and higher HbA1C.

Hormone imbalance The hypothalamus is the neuroendocrine gatekeeper of the Endocrine system. Internal feedback and external stimuli are integrated by the hypothalamus to produce an appropriate Endocrine response from the pituitary gland. The pathogenesis of metabolic syndrome involves disruption to the neuroendocrine control of energy homeostasis with resistance to hormones secreted from adipose tissue (leptin) and the stomach (ghrelin). Further evidence for the important network effects between the Endocrine and metabolic systems comes from polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Although women with this condition typically present to the Endocrine clinic, the underlying aetiology is metabolic dysfunction with insulin resistance disrupting the hypothamic-pituitary-ovarian axis. The same pathophysiology of disrupted metabolic signalling adversely impacting the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis also applies to males.

In athletes, the exact same signalling pathways and neuroendocrine systems are involved in the development of relative energy deficiency in sports (RED-S) where the underlying aetiology is imbalance in the periodisation of training load, nutrition and recovery.

Gastrointestinal tract In addition to malabsorption issues such as coeliac disease and non-gluten wheat sensitivity, there is emerging evidence that the composition and diversity of the gut microbiota plays a significant role in health. The microbiome of professional athletes differs from sedentary people, especially at a functional metabolic level. Conversely, an adverse gut microbiome is implicated in the pathogenesis of metabolic dysfunction such as obesity and T2DM, via modulation of enteroendocrine hormones regulating appetite centrally and insulin secretion peripherally.

Circadian disregulation As previously discussed, it is not just a question of what but WHEN you eat, sleep and exercise. If there is conflict in the timing of these lifestyle activities with internal biological clocks, then this can disrupt metabolic and endocrine signally. For example, in children curtailed sleep can impact glucose control and insulin sensitivity, predisposing to risk of developing T2DM. Eating too close to the onset of melatonin release in the evening can cause adverse body composition, irrespective of what you eat and activity levels. In those with pre-existing metabolic dysfunction, such as PCOS, timing of meals has an effect on insulin levels and hence reproductive Endocrine function. The immune system displays circadian rhythmicity which integrated with external cues (for example when we eat/exercise/sleep) optimises our immune response. For athletes competing in high intensity races, this may be more favourable in terms of Endocrine and metabolic status in the evening.

Psychology Psychological stress impacts the key pathophysiological mechanisms outlined above: metabolic signalling, inflammation and neuroendocrine regulation, which contribute to Endocrine and metabolic dysfunction. Fortunately stress is a modifiable lifestyle risk factor. In the case of functional hypothalamic amenorrhoea (where nutrition/exercise/sleep are balanced), psychological intervention can reverse this situation.

Conclusion Putting this all together, if the modifiable lifestyle factors of exercise, nutrition, sleep are optimised in terms of composition and timing, this improves metabolic and Endocrine signalling pathways, including neuroendocrine regulation. Preventative Medicine going beyond preventing disease; it optimises health.

BASEM annual conference 22/3/18: Health, Hormones and Human Performance



Athletic Fatigue: Part 2 Dr N. Keay

From population based norms to personalised medicine: Health, Fitness, Sports Performance Dr N. Keay, British Journal of Sports Medicine 2017

Endocrine system: balance and interplay in response to exercise training Dr N. Keay

Saturated fat does not clog the arteries: coronary heart disease is a chronic inflammatory condition, the risk of which can be effectively reduced from healthy lifestyle interventions British Journal of Sports Medicine 2017

Longitudinal Associations of Leptin and Adiponectin with Heart Rate Variability in Children Frontiers in Physiology 2017

A Proposal for a Study on Treatment Selection and Lifestyle Recommendations in Chronic Inflammatory Diseases: A Danish Multidisciplinary Collaboration on Prognostic Factors and Personalised Medicine Nutrients 2017

Assessment of Metabolic Flexibility by Means of Measuring Blood Lactate, Fat, and Carbohydrate Oxidation Responses to Exercise in Professional Endurance Athletes and Less-Fit Individuals Sports Medicine 2017

Skeletal muscle mitochondria as a target to prevent or treat type 2 diabetes mellitus Nature Reviews Endocrinology

Insulin and osteocalcin: further evidence for a mutual cross-talk Endocrine 2017

HbA1c levels, diabetes duration linked to fracture risk Endocrine Today 2017

The cellular and molecular bases of leptin and ghrelin resistance in obesity Nature Reviews Endocrinology 2017

Metabolic and Endocrine System Networks Dr N. Keay

Adiponectin and resistin: potential metabolic signals affecting hypothalamo-pituitary gonadal axis in females and males of different species Reproduction 2017

Optimal Health: For All Athletes! Part 4 – Mechanisms Dr N. Keay, British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine 2017

Ubiquitous Microbiome: impact on health, sport performance and disease Dr N. Keay

The microbiome of professional athletes differs from that of more sedentary subjects in composition and particularly at the functional metabolic level Gut. BMJ

Interplay between gut microbiota, its metabolites and human metabolism: Dissecting cause from consequence Trends in Food Science & Technology 2016

Temporal considerations in Endocrine/Metabolic interactions Part 1 Dr N. Keay, British Journal of Sports Medicine 2017

Temporal considerations in Endocrine/Metabolic interactions Part 2 Dr N. Keay, British Journal of Sports Medicine 2017

Sleep Duration and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Paediatrics 2017

Later circadian timing of food intake is associated with increased body fat Am J Clin Nutr. 2017

Effects of caloric intake timing on insulin resistance and hyperandrogenism in lean women with polycystic ovary syndrome Clin Sci (London)

Immunity around the clock Science

Effect of Time of Day on Performance, Hormonal and Metabolic Response during a 1000-M Cycling Time Trial PLOS

Type 2 diabetes mellitus and psychological stress — a modifiable risk factor Nature Reviews Endocrinology 2017

Recovery of ovarian activity in women with functional hypothalamic amenorrhea who were treated with cognitive behaviour therapy Fertil Steril


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

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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