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


Temporal considerations in Endocrine/Metabolic interactions Part 2


As discussed in the first part of this blog series, the Endocrine system displays temporal variation in release of hormones. Amplitude and frequency of hormonal secretion display a variety of time-related patterns. Integrating external lifestyle factors with this internal, intrinsic temporal dimension is crucial for supporting metabolic and Endocrine health and sport performance.

Circadian misalignment and sedentary lifestyle has been implicated in the increased incidence of metabolic syndrome driven by insulin resistance and associated metabolic inflexibility and decrease in fat oxidation. However, a recent study of overweight individuals, found that increases in fat oxidation from lifestyle intervention, corresponded to different clinical outcomes. Both those who maintained weight loss and those who regained weight displayed increased fat oxidation compared to baseline. How could this be? Increased fat oxidation is only part of the equation in overall fat balance. What adaptations in the metabolic and Endocrine networks were occurring during rest periods? In the case of those that maintained weight loss, increased fat oxidation was reflected in biochemical and physiological adaptations to enable this process. Whereas for those that regained weight in the long term, increased fat oxidation was enabled by increased availability of lipids, indicating increased fat synthesis over degradation.

Clearly there is individual variation in long-term Endocrine and metabolic responses to external factors. Focusing on optimising a single aspect of metabolism in the short term, will not necessarily produce the expected, or desired clinical outcome over a sustained period of time. As previously discussed the single most effective lifestyle change that induces synchronised, beneficial sustained Endocrine and metabolic adaptations is exercise.

It will come as no surprise that focusing on maximising use of a single substrate in metabolism, without integration into a seasonal training plan and consideration of impacts on internal control networks, has not produced the desired outcome of improved performance amongst athletes. Theoretically, increasing fat oxidation will benefit endurance athletes by sparing glycogen use for high intensity efforts. Nutritional ketosis can be endogenous (carbohydrate restricted intake) or exogenous (ingestion of ketone esters and carbohydrate). Low carbohydrate/high fat diets have been shown in numerous studies to increase fat oxidation, however, this was at the expense of effective glucose metabolism required during high intensity efforts. Potentially there could be adverse effects of low carbohydrate intake on gut microbiota and immunity.

This effect was observed even in a study on a short timescale using a blinded, placebo-controlled exogenous ketogenic intervention during a bicycle test, where glycogen was available as a substrate. The proposed mechanism is that although ketogenic diets promote fat oxidation, this down-regulates glucose use, as a respiratory substrate. In addition, fat oxidation carries a higher oxygen demand for a lower yield of ATP, compared to glucose as a substrate in oxidative phosphorylation.

Metabolic flexibility the ability to use a range of substrates according to requirement, is key for health and sport performance. For example, during high intensity phases of an endurance race, carbohydrate will need to be taken on board, so rehearsing what types/timing of such nutrition works best for an individual athlete in some training sessions is important. Equally, some low intensity training sessions with low carbohydrate intake could encourage metabolic flexibility. However, in a recent study “training low” or periodised carbohydrate intake failed to confer a performance advantage. I would suggest that the four week study time frame, which was not integrated into the overall training season plan, is not conclusive as to whether favourable long term Endocrine and metabolic adaptations would occur. A review highlighted seasonal variations in male and female athletes in terms of energy requirements for different training loads and body composition required for phases of training blocks and cycles over a full training season.

Essentially an integrated periodisation of training, nutrition and recovery over a full training season will optimise the desired Endocrine and metabolic adaptations for improved sport-specific performance. The emphasis will vary over the lifespan of the individual. The intricately synchronised sequential Endocrine control of the female menstrual cycle is particularly sensitive to external perturbations of nutrition, exercise and recovery. Unfortunately the majority of research studies focus on male subjects.

In all scenarios, the same fundamental temporal mechanisms are in play. The body seeks to maintain homeostasis: status quo of the internal milieu is the rule. Any external lifestyle factors provoke short term internal responses, which are regulated by longer term Endocrine network responses to result in metabolic and physiological adaptations.

For further discussion on Health, Hormones and Human Performance, come to the BASEM annual conference


Temporal considerations in Endocrine/Metabolic interactions Part 1 Dr N. Keay

Sports Endocrinology – what does it have to do with performance? Dr N.Keay, British Journal of Sports Medicine 2017

Sedentary behaviour is a key determinant of metabolic inflexibility Journal of Physiology 2017

Influence of maximal fat oxidation on long-term weight loss maintenance in humans Journal of Applied Physiology 2017

One road to Rome: Metabolic Syndrome, Athletes, Exercise Dr N.Keay 2017

Metabolic and Endocrine System NetworksDr N. Keay 2017

Nutritional ketone salts increase fat oxidation but impair high-intensity exercise performance in healthy adult males Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism 2017

Endocrine system: balance and interplay in response to exercise training Dr N. Keay 2017

No Superior Adaptations to Carbohydrate Periodization in Elite Endurance Athletes Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 2017

Total Energy Expenditure, Energy Intake, and Body Composition in Endurance Athletes Across the Training Season: A Systematic Review Sports Medicine – Open 2017

Successful Ageing Dr N. Keay, British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine 2017

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




One road to Rome: Metabolic Syndrome, Athletes, Exercise

One road to Rome

Metabolic syndrome comprises a cluster of symptoms including: hypertension, dyslipidaemia, fatty liver disease and type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM).

The underlying pathological process is insulin resistance which distorts metabolism. Temporal and mechanistic connections have been described between hyperinsulinaemia, obesity and insulin resistance. Insulin levels rise, potentially stimulated by excess intake of refined carbohydrates and in addition the metabolic actions of insulin are attenuated on target tissues such as the liver, skeletal muscle and adipose tissue. At a cellular level, inflammatory changes play a part in this metabolic dis-regulation. Mitochondrial action in skeletal muscle is impaired, compromising the ability to oxidise fat as a substrate, thus resulting in muscle glycolysis and a consequent rise in blood lactate.

Although much attention has been focused on restricting calories and treating elevated lipids with medication (statins), evidence is now emerging that this does not have the anticipated effect of reducing mortality from cardiovascular disease. In addition, it has been proposed that the gut microbiota plays a pivotal role in metabolism, inflammation and immunity.

Metabolic syndrome usually conjures an image of an overweight person with or on the verge of developing T2DM. However there is an interesting group of slim people who are also are at risk of developing metabolic syndrome due to insulin resistance. The majority of women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) present with menstrual disturbance of some description. However not all display the textbook characteristics of Stein-Leventhal syndrome (overweight, hirsute and with skin problems). There is in fact of spectrum of clinical phenotypes ranging from the overweight to the slim. In all phenotypes of PCOS, the crucial uniting underlying metabolic disturbance is insulin resistance. The degree of insulin resistance has been shown to be related to adverse body composition with increased ratio of whole body fat to lean mass.

Although this confuses the picture somewhat, it also simplifies the approach. In all cases the single most important lifestyle modification is exercise.

Exercise improves metabolic flexibility: the ability to adapt substrate oxidation to substrate availability. Endurance exercise training amongst athletes results in improved fat oxidation and right shift of the lactate tolerance curve. Conversely metabolic inflexibility associated with inactivity is implicated in the development of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.

What about nutritional strategies that might improve metabolic flexibility? Ketogenic diets can either be endogenous (carbohydrate restricted intake) or exogenous (ingestion of ketone esters and carbohydrate). Low carbohydrate/high fat diets (terms often used interchangeably with all types of ketogenic diets) have been shown to improve fat oxidation and potentially mitigate cognitive decline in older people.

However, in the case of athletes, the benefits do not necessarily translate to better performance. Despite reports of such diets enhancing fat oxidation and favourable changes in body composition, a recent study demonstrates that this, in isolation, does not translate into improved sport performance. A possible explanation is the oxygen demand of increased oxidation of fat needs to be supported by a higher oxygen supply. The intermediate group of endurance athletes in this study, on the periodised carbohydrate intake, fared better in performance terms. Another recent study confirmed that a ketogenic diet failed to improve the performance of endurance athletes, in spite of improving fat metabolism and body composition. Despite small numbers, this warrants particular mention as the majority of participants were women, who are in general very underrepresented in scientific studies.

In all likelihood, the reason that these type of diets (ketogenic, high fat/low carb: not always well defined!) did not improve sport performance is that only one aspect of metabolism was impacted and quantified. Although fat oxidation, modified via dietary interventions, is certainly an important component of metabolism, the impact on the interactive network effects of the Endocrine system should be evaluated in the broader context of circadian rhythm. For athletes this goes further, to include integrated periodisation of nutrition, training and recovery to optimise performance, throughout the year.

In addition to dietary interventions, medical researchers continue to explore the use of exercise mimetics and metabolic modulators, to address metabolic syndrome. Unfortunately, some have sought their use as a short cut to improved sport performance. Many of these substances appear on the WADA banned list for athletes. However the bottom line is that it is impossible to mimic, either through a dietary or pharmacological intervention, the multi-system, integrated interplay between exercise, metabolism and the Endocrine system.

Only one road to Rome!

Whatever your current level of activity, whether reluctant exerciser or athlete, the path is the same to improve health and performance. This route is exercise, supported with periodised nutrition and recovery. Exercise will automatically set in motion the interactive responses and adaptations of your metabolic and Endocrine systems.

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


Insulin action and resistance in obesity and type 2 diabetes Nature Medicine 2017

Inflammation: Why and How Much? Dr N. Keay, British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine

The cholesterol and calorie hypotheses are both dead — it is time to focus on the real culprit: insulin resistance Clinical Pharmacist 2017

Skeletal muscle mitochondria as a target to prevent or treat type 2 diabetes mellitus Nature Reviews Endocrinology 2016

The essential role of exercise in the management of type 2 diabetes Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine 2017

β cell function and insulin resistance in lean cases with polycystic ovary syndrome Gynecol Endocrinol. 2017

The many faces of polycystic ovary syndrome in Endocrinology. Conference Royal Society of Medicine 2017

Association of fat to lean mass ratio with metabolic dysfunction in women with polycystic ovary syndrome Hum Reprod 2014

Sedentary behaviour is a key determinant of metabolic inflexibility Journal of physiology 2017

International society of sports nutrition position stand: diets and body composition J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017

A cross-sectional comparison of brain glucose and ketone metabolism in cognitively healthy older adults, mild cognitive impairment and early Alzheimer’s disease Exp Gerontol. 2017

Low carbohydrate, high fat diet impairs exercise economy and negates the performance benefit from intensified training in elite race walkers J Physiol. 2017

Ketogenic diet benefits body composition and well-being but not performance in a pilot case study of New Zealand endurance athletes J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017

Sports Endocrinology – what does it have to do with performance? Dr N. Keay, British Journal of Sports Medicine 2017

Hormones and Sports Performance

Endocrine system: balance and interplay in response to exercise training