Energy metabolism and the evolution of reproductive suppression in the human female

Acta Biotheor. 2003;51(1):1-18. doi: 10.1023/a:1023035321162.


Reproduction places severe demands on the energy metabolism in human females. When physical work entails higher energy expenditure, not enough energy will be left for the support of the reproductive processes and temporal suppression of the reproductive function is expected. While energy needed for reproduction may be obtained by increases in energy intake, utilization of fat reserves, or reallocation of energy from basal metabolism, several environmental or physiological constraints render such solutions unlikely. For human ancestors increases in energy intake were limited by availability of food, by labor of food preparation and by metabolic ceilings to energy assimilation. Energy stored as fat may support only a fraction of the requirements for reproduction (especially lactation). Effects of intense physical activity on basal metabolism may also interfere with fat accumulation during pregnancy. Finally, the female physiology may experience demands on increasing the basal metabolism as a consequence of physical activity and, at the same time, on decreasing the basal metabolism, when energy to support the ongoing pregnancy or lactation is inadequate. The resulting metabolic dilemmas could constitute a plausible cause for the occurrence of reproductive suppression in response to physical activity. It is, therefore, likely that allocating enough energy to the reproductive processes during periods when energy expenditure rises may be difficult due to physiological and bioenergetic constraints. Females attempting pregnancy in such conditions may compromise their lifetime reproductive output. A reproductive suppression occurring in low energy availability situations may thus represent an adaptive rather then a pathological response.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue / metabolism
  • Basal Metabolism
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Energy Intake
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lactation / metabolism
  • Motor Activity
  • Pregnancy / metabolism*
  • Reproduction / physiology*