Amy Stephens


Licensed dietiTian

specializing in sports nutrition and diabetes

hormones and sports performance

Balance Hormones to Improve Sports Performance

Balanced hormones are responsible for many key functions in the body such as energy production and healthy sleep, as well as for optimizing performance and maintaining a healthy metabolism. On a typical day, hormones fluctuate based on stress, sleep and eating patterns. During intense exercise, hormones fluctuate to provide energy, build muscle, regulate appetite and satiety. Certain hormones are considered stress hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine, and adrenaline and when these levels peak, they interfere with sex hormones estrogen and testosterone. Intense exercise decreases leptin and ghrelin hormones which control hunger and satiety. Diet, sleep and rest are important because they help reset hormones to optimal levels. 

During chronic stress from exercise, poor diet, or inadequate recovery, our hormones do not have the opportunity to function well, and have a negative effect on appetite, mood, energy production, and bone strength, all of which are important to perform at a high level. Ultimately, hormones that are not at optimal levels prevent desirable changes in body composition, causing significant frustration for an athlete. In this post, I’ll review key functions of each hormone and provide some tips to restore normal hormonal balance. 

Hormones and functions

Adrenaline (epinephrine) is a neurotransmitter and stress hormone secreted by the adrenal glands in times of stressful, exciting, or extremely emotional events. This hormone is released before a workout or race to  help the body prepare for optimal performance by increasing heart rate, and increasing blood flow to the brain and muscles, all of which are essential for delivering oxygen and removing metabolic waste. The release of adrenaline is critical to an athlete’s performance. Adrenaline is responsible for the fight-or-flight response which provides an immediate release of glucose which is broken down into quick energy. Chronic emotional stress or stress from physical workouts can lead to elevated insulin and glucose levels which lead to inflammation. 

Cortisol is another stress-related hormone secreted by the adrenal gland that works by releasing glucose into the bloodstream to be used for energy during periods of stress. Cortisol levels are difficult to test because they fluctuate throughout the day, peaking in the morning hours and falling to their lowest overnight. Elevated cortisol levels can impede release of recovery hormones; lower estrogen and testosterone, impacting bone formation and menstrual cycle for females; and eventually lead to adrenal fatigue. The body cannot maintain elevated cortisol for prolonged periods of time. Recovering adequately from exercise, eating a balanced diet, and getting enough sleep are the only ways that cortisol levels can return to normal. 

Dopamine is a hormone that’s responsible for pleasure and rewards. Pleasure from food will activate dopamine release which leads to seeking out more food. If dopamine levels are low, we might find ourselves eating excessive quantities of food to obtain a dopamine surge, rather than eating for nutritional value. Dopamine encourages us to overeat as a way to seek out constant reward. Restrictive diet plans fail because they lead to drops in dopamine which leads to an increased desire to eat. 

Estrogen is a sex hormone that, while present in both sexes, is largely responsible for female sexual development and functioning. Primarily produced in the ovaries, estrogen is vital to brain health, playing a role in emotion regulation, bone growth, mood disorders, and memory, particularly as age increases. There is evidence showing that female athletes perform better in the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle when estrogen levels are lower, compared to luteal phase (post ovulation) when estrogen is higher.  When estrogen levels drop, the following functions are impacted: mood, emotions, memory, menstrual cycle, ovulation, and bone density. The most effective ways to raise estrogen are to consume adequate calories to match what the body needs (energy balance). A woman’s regular menstrual cycle (monthly period) is a good indicator that the exercise level is ideal to promote maximal fitness gains and recovery. Monthly menstruation is a sign that estrogen is normal and that food intake and energy expenditure is balanced.

Ghrelin is a hormone produced primarily by the stomach in the gastrointestinal tract that helps to regulate appetite, hunger and satiety. During periods without food, ghrelin levels increase and signal to increase appetite, making the individual feel hunger. After eating a meal, the body signals that it’s full and ghrelin production slows down. Ghrelin, along with leptin, help control food intake. Ghrelin is typically regulated by the body’s circadian rhythm, the timing of the last meal, and blood sugar levels; however, it can be disrupted by factors such as stress and poor sleep, which can lead to dysregulated appetite. Get more sleep to keep ghrelin levels under control. Chronic stress, inadequate sleep or recovery from exercise will tell the body to release more ghrelin which leads to overeating. 

Leptin is a hormone released by adipose tissue (also known as fat) that works in conjunction with ghrelin to regulate appetite. Leptin is responsible for regulating food intake and body weight by working in conjunction with

ghrelin. When ghrelin is released, hunger increases and signals the body to consume food. Once food is consumed, leptin is released to signal fullness and discourage additional intake. These hormones are essential to help regulate appetite and weight. 

Growth hormone is a hormone that stimulates growth, cell reproduction, and cell repair. Also known as human growth hormone, or HGH, it is produced in the brain by the pituitary gland. HGH production peaks during puberty to increase height, boost muscle mass, and promote bone growth and strengthening. HGH is also responsible for regulating the immune system, rejuvenating tissues and organs, and is an essential component of collagen production, which is responsible for healthy skin and hair. 

Insulin is a hormone produced by the beta-cells in the pancreas. Insulin is released in response to glucose in the bloodstream. Insulin’s role is to allow glucose into the cells so it can be used to create energy. Insulin also promotes fat storage and muscle repair and acts as a growth hormone when carbohydrates are ingested. However, during periods of chronic stress, including intense workouts without adequate recovery in between, insulin levels remain elevated and the body stores undesired fat. Insulin levels can be lowered by low intensity exercise, rest and by eating a combination of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. 

Melatonin is a hormone released primarily by the brain’s pineal gland that regulates the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin levels increase about two hours before bedtime and decrease just before waking up in the morning. These levels are regulated by sunlight and signal to the body when it’s time to sleep. While the melatonin cycle is strongly influenced by the 24-hour cycle of daylight and nighttime, it can also be affected by food, physical activity, genetics, and travel. Chronic stress will prevent melatonin levels from rising during the night which can disrupt the ability to sleep. 

Norepinephrine is a hormone and neurotransmitter released by the brain and the adrenal glands. Among other functions, norepinephrine is critical for the fight-or-flight response. When you feel nervous before a race or workout, norephrine is responsible for releasing glucose into the bloodstream to

increase alertness, anxiety, speed up heart rate, increase breathing and raise blood pressure. It is also responsible for shunting blood away from the gut and skin to the heart and lungs. Similar to adrenaline, norephrine levels increase before a race or exciting event. While norephrine effects might be helpful before a race, persistent levels of norephrine can lead to weight gain and undesired storage of fat. 

Testosterone is a sex hormone and mainly effects male sexual development, increases muscle size, and is responsible for body composition. Its primary function is to increase muscle mass and decrease fat. Newer research has shown that low levels of testosterone may affect bone density in male athletes. Symptoms of low testosterone include fatigue, low sex drive, increased fat mass, reduced muscle mass, erectile dysfuction and low bone density. 

Follow these diet and lifestyle tips to keep hormones balanced

Target 8-11 hours of sleep for adequate recovery of hormone levels

Eat complex carbohydrates such as quinoa, brown rice, lentils, whole wheat bread, potatoes, sweet potatoes, starchy vegetables  Choose fresh fruits and vegetables 

Eat Lean proteins such as chicken, fish, turkey, and low-fat dairy Choose healthy fats such as avocado, nuts, seeds, and olive oil 

Finish eating two hours before bedtime

Reduce stress by practicing meditation, yoga or work with a sports therapist



Sample meal plan


Toast with peanut butter & banana or low-fat cottage cheese 

Post-workout snack 

Yogurt with fruit and chopped almonds


Eggs and toast with sliced tomato 


Burrito with rice, beans, veggies, chicken, avocado 

Mixed berries 


Apple and peanut butter 


Grilled turkey or veggie burger on whole wheat bun 

Roasted broccoli or side salad with beets, oil/vinegar dressing 

Snack (at least 2 hours before bedtime) 

Plain-lowfat yogurt 


How do hormones affect sports performance? 

During exercise, cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones) are elevated which suppress the sex hormones, testosterone and estrogen. As noted earlier,improving bone strength, both of which are necessary for peak performance. Before a race, cortisol and adrenaline help our bodies with fast energy production, increasing heart rate and improving oxygen delivery in the body, all of which are critical for optimal performance. 

How do hormones affect mood? 

Low levels of estrogen and testosterone from overtraining or under-fueling can cause a negative mood. Periods of sustained stress from exercise or emotional stress (lasting longer than one week) can keep cortisol and adrenaline levels elevated. These hormones cause an elevated heart rate, cravings for carbohydrates and disrupted sleep, further worsening mood. Overstimulation of cortisol can lead to adrenal fatigue which is responsible for excessive fatigue, irritability, and poor mood. 

How does cortisol affect sleep and metabolism? 

Cortisol peaks in the morning hours and remains elevated throughout the day. Since cortisol is a stress hormone that responds to fight-or-flight, chronic daily stressors such as exercise (overtraining), work, or other emotional stress can keep cortisol levels elevated. The body feels like it’s constantly under stress and instead of recovery and repair after a workout, the body continues to break down tissue. Chronically elevated cortisol levels increase sugar and insulin levels which signal to the body to store fat. There is no medication to lower cortisol; the only way to lower cortisol is by reducing daily stress, eating well and getting plenty of rest. 

How do hormones affect your appetite? 

The natural signal from our body is to eat until satiated; hunger drives us to seek out food. At a resting state, ghrelin and leptin regulate our body’s hunger cues. However, during stress or exercise, the release of ghrelin and leptin are affected. During stressful periods, ghrelin levels increase in response to stress and signal the body to seek out food, and leptin levels drop, making it harder for the body to sense fullness or satiety. In addition, ghrelin and leptin levels fluctuate throughout the day and are influenced by the body’s circadian rhythm, the timing of the last meal, and how much food is eaten. However, poor sleep, stress, or other physiological factors may lead to increases or decreases in hormone amounts that can disrupt appetite. 

Do hormones play a different role for male versus female athletes? While most research has been conducted with male subjects with respect to athletic performance, over the past few years, female athletes have increasingly been studied. For females, there is research showing slight improvement in performance in the follicular phase (days 1-14) versus luteal phase (days 15-30). Much of the research on bone mineral density and bone formation has been focused on estrogen (female athlete triad). However, there is newer data showing testosterone has similar impacts on bone health. Higher testosterone levels can improve body composition and performance. Eating every four hours has been shown to raise testosterone levels in men and estrogen levels in women. 


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