Hormones and Muay Thai


September 17, 2012 by Melissa Ray

Susie Ramadan (left) and Usanakorn Kokietgym (right) trading blows in their WBC bantamweight boxing fight in Melbourne, Australia (July, 2012). Photo by Louie ‘Rockfingrz’ Abigail for http://www.boxingscene.com.

July’s WBC bantamweight boxing fight between Thailand’s Usanakorn Kokietgym and Australia’s Susie Ramadan in Melbourne, Australia was a subject of controversy after media speculation concerning Usanakorn’s gender. Australian newspaper The Age reported that she was detected with 3 times the normal level of testosterone for a woman and refused comprehensive blood testing to prove her female status. According to the article, a ringside doctor proposed several potential causes of her elevated testosterone levels, including use of anabolic steroids, hermaphroditism (having male and female sexual characteristics), and her being born male and taking female hormones. Although Usanakorn went on to lose the fight, Susie’s trainer was quoted as saying that Usanakorn punched “harder than most blokes I know”.

In combat sports—such as boxing and Muay Thai—hormones can have a major influence on performance. Testosterone is the principal male sex hormone and occurs in men and women in different amounts: men typically have plasma testosterone concentrations 7-8 times those of women. Additional to its effects on male sex characteristics, testosterone promotes protein synthesis, serving to increase muscle mass and strength, and increase bone density and maturation. Anabolic steroids mimic the effects of testosterone and can therefore promote muscle development, increase endurance, and accelerate repair. Although banned in sports, it is well-known that they can be purchased in certain pharmacies in Thailand and their use is not widely regulated in Muay Thai.

PCOS is associated with multiple cysts in the ovaries. Image source: Medical Disability Advisor.

However, medical conditions do exist in which women naturally display increased levels of male hormones including testosterone. One such condition is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). PCOS affects 5-10% of women of reproductive age and is associated with irregular or absent periods, infertility, acne, excess hair on the face and body, and obesity. It is thought to have a genetic cause and has no cure, but can be controlled through weight loss and dietary control (in particular, avoiding simple carbohydrates such as white bread and white rice), regular exercise, and taking forms of the contraceptive pill that block the effects of male hormones.

I was diagnosed with PCOS shortly before taking up Muay Thai. My main reason for trying out the sport was to lose weight—I was heavier than 70kg at the time. Women with PCOS tend to gain weight easily and struggle to lose weight because of resistance to the hormone insulin, which prevents the normal breakdown of sugars leading to their storage as fat. Prior to taking up Muay Thai I had not enjoyed sports, but from the first session I felt I had finally found an activity that worked for my body. I loved the feeling I got from training: the rush of endorphins and release of aggression—my heart pounding, muscles burning, and sweat pouring off my body. As my fitness increased, so did the intensity and regularity with which I trained. Over the years the weight came off—at my lightest I was walking around at less than 54kg—and my body shape changed as muscles developed.

Some time ago, I was interested to read an article on the BBC website. It described the research of a Swedish scientist, Dr Magnus Hagmar, who suggested that PCOS might contribute to the sporting successes of some female athletes. It is common for female athletes to suffer from irregular or absent periods, caused by intensive training regimes and strictly controlled diets. Dr Hagmar proposed PCOS as the cause of menstrual irregularity in many of these women (without them necessarily displaying its other associated symptoms) and suggested that increases in testosterone levels associated with the condition might offer a significant competitive advantage in certain “power” sports.

He said, “What we’re dealing with is just a tiny increase in levels, which can make it easier for the women to build muscle mass and absorb oxygen. This means that they might have got quicker results from their training and therefore been encouraged to train harder and more often.” In his study, he had evaluated a group of elite Olympic athletes, comparing them with women from the general population, and observed that 37% of the athletes had polycystic ovaries compared with 20% of the non-athletes. He also observed that polycystic ovaries were more common in the women who competed in power sports such as ice hockey and wrestling than in those who played technical sports such as archery and curling. Dr Hagmar stressed that his results were not connected to doping and that all of the athletes had tested negative for performance-enhancing drugs.

Friend or foe? The chemical structure of testosterone. Image source: The Washington Times.

After reading the article I wondered how many other female Muay Thai fighters are—like myself—women with PCOS. Although it has technical elements, Muay Thai is similar to ice hockey and wrestling in being a sport that requires powerful bursts of force. Is it, therefore, possible that minor increases in testosterone levels caused by PCOS could have positive effects on training or in the ring? I was often told I used to train as hard as the men at my gym. Did testosterone give me that extra drive to train harder? Would I have become so addicted to Muay Thai without the influence of male hormones?

It would be interesting to learn the percentage of female boxers who suffer from menstrual irregularity as a result of the physical stresses of training and making weight for fights, and to identify the proportion affected by polycystic ovaries. If Dr Magnar’s theory on PCOS contributing to sporting success is accurate, does a relatively high percentage of female Muay Thai champions have PCOS? I am also interested in hearing from other women who were aware of having PCOS before taking up Muay Thai and similarly became addicted to training. The effects of hormones on mood and certain personality traits have been well-documented. Do our hormones govern our behaviours to the extent that they influence the sports we are drawn to?


19 thoughts on “Hormones and Muay Thai

  1. […] Hormones and Muay Thai (muaythaionthebrain.com) Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

  2. Gem says:

    This is a great article! I actually starting training after being diagnosed with PCOS as a way to stay healthy and feel better, having never really been ‘sporty’ growing up I didn’t think I’d stick with it, but the feeling I get from training made me feel so much better, helped manage some of my symptoms and just made me feel more in control of my own health and fitness.

  3. […] student lifestyle during my first degree, as well as another health issue described in my article Hormones and Muay Thai, I had resolved to get into shape. I noticed a Thai boxing session on a sports centre timetable and […]

  4. Anabolen says:

    Its a great thing that anyone can’t done it requires more and more accuracy with the self confident. Its really a great article and has so many things that we have to learn.

  5. […] ovary syndrome (PCOS), I have always had some issues with my weight (as described in my blog post Hormones and Muay Thai), and a typical unhealthy student lifestyle during my first degree had not helped my condition. I […]

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  9. stephanie says:

    Thank you for your article…inspiring!
    I’ve just started my MuayThai lesson this week..and love it so much!
    Same as you, i also diagnosed with PCOS and having problems with my weight.

    Once again..thank you!

  10. Sue says:

    So glad I came across this blog entry! I’m a 43 year old woman. While I don’t have PCOS, I did get into MT to get fit initially. I did all kinds of exercise, none of which I liked (running was so boring!!!). I did notice, as I got deeper into MT, my personality did change a bit, I’ve had aggressive thoughts. 3-4 months into my training, if you had had asked me if I would get into the ring, I would have said no way but today, 10 months from the time I started, I am thinking very hard about competing. I absolutely love MT! I noticed too that besides dropping 5-6 kgs since I started (I am now 55 kg), increase in muscle mass, my face has changed, like I look less soft, my jaw is wider, could it be testosterone increasing or jaw clenching?

    • Melissa Ray says:

      Hi Sue, thanks for your comment and great to hear you are enjoying Muay Thai so much and feeling the benefits. No, training wouldn’t increase your testosterone to levels that would make your jaw change shape, and I also don’t believe jaw clenching would make your jaw expand. I think because of the weight loss your face will have slimmed off so it just seems like your jaw is bigger. Less padding on the cheeks! Congratulations on losing so much weight and I wish you the best of luck if you do venture in the ring!

      • Anonymous says:

        Yes, Melissa, definitely my face has shrunk. if only I can keep the fats on my face, the rest can go away 🙂 Thank you for your assurance

  11. Eileen says:

    I have been struggling with PCOS for years. While I’m not overweight, I have several other complications that come with this stupid ailment. I recently started Muay Thai and BJJ training and I instantly became OBSESSED. To the point where it’s all I think about day and night. I itch for that next brutal training session and I love every second of it. I am in a great mood after training and my confidence is getting better since like I said, I struggle with some other issues PCOS causes.

    • Melissa Ray says:

      Hi Eileen, great to hear from you. Absolutely Muay Thai is a great mood lifter — I definitely get irritable if I don’t get to hit things regularly! I wish you the best.

  12. dharma says:

    I can truly relate with this article.

    I was supposed to find out what’s causing my dysmenorrhea, only to find out that
    that I have PCOS. I do not know though if having dysmenorrhea and PCOS are interrelated to each other. Having dysmenorrhea is painful while PCOS made it difficult for me to get pregnant, so i had to take pills. Fortunately, me and my hubby is blessed to have a baby boy who is already 6 years old.

    Until now, I still struggle with PCOS and dysmenorrhea but the pain specially on my back already lessens because I ‘m enrolled in Muay Thai session 2 months ago. At first, I told Kru that my purpose is to get fit.. but as training goes by, I am honestly enjoying the drills and sessions. I ask Kru that if there’s going to be an opportunity to participate in amateur competition, i’d be willingly accept the challenge.

    Training is tough but fun! My trainings got harder in order for me to meet my goal. I also treat Kru and the team as a family for i admire their humility and sincerity in the gym, they are really awesome and very supportive to newbies!

    I’m fortunate that i was given a fight for amatuer Muay Thai competition this coming December in our town. So wish me luck, ladies!

    Perhaps, those 2 inconveniences will remain in my system and so as Muay Thai!

    Thank you Melissa Ray for a wonderful article. Wish you all the best!

    • Melissa Ray says:

      Thanks so much for your message and great to hear about your positive experiences with Muay Thai and refusal to let ‘those two inconveniences’ hold you back. Wishing you best of luck for your amateur competition in December! Enjoy the hard training to come and your ring experience 🙂

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