How To Optimize Your Body’s Hormonal Response
When receiving nutrition advice, which I assume you have as a reader of this article, you always get recommended a minimum fat intake. On top of that, most coaches (hopefully) will recommend that you consume 80% of your calories from wholesome, nutritious foods. When I give this number to clients, nine out of ten times I get asked, “Why do I need a certain amount of fat?” Or, “Aren’t calories the only things that matter?” There is a reason us professional coaches make these recommendations.
I also always tell my clients (and anyone I talk fitness with) to listen to their body. Training with high intensity and also living a normal life—working, having friends and going out can get daunting. When physical and or mental stress become to high, give yourself a day off and take your mind off of things—relax.
Wondering why? It does not have anything to do with nutritional practices or off-days. Today, I want to discuss hormones—not only the types that exist, but also the effects that they have on the body and what causes them to release. Every hormone? No—the four that are associated most with exercise—human growth hormone, testosterone, estrogen and cortisol. In my opinion, this is the most unexplored topic in fitness and at the same time, plays a huge role in the way we shape our physiques. With that said, let’s not waste any time; let’s jump in.
Human Growth Hormone
The first thing I would like to mention is that HGH is NOT testosterone. That is a common misconception within the fitness world. They do, indeed, have a relationship, but they are completely different hormones. Found naturally in the body and secreted by the pituitary gland, HGH is a key component to the body’s growth especially when speaking about bodybuilding. Upon its release into the body, it is taken in by the liver and converted into Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1.) IGF-1, like its name states, performs functions similar to that of insulin and is essential for growth. Therefore, without adequate levels of HGH, growth cannot take place.[sup]4[/sup]
Do not get IGF-1 and actual insulin confused—IGF-1 is a byproduct of HGH; insulin actually blunts the release of HGH. It is recommended that the level to which one allows their insulin to spike be reduced to maximize HGH secretion (the level to which insulin blocks the release of HGH in a single period is not significant enough to make a great difference.)
With that in mind, there are many ways that one can maximize their production of HGH and can also better their body’s ability in using what is already produced. The first way is by obtaining a good night’s sleep. Most HGH is secreted during the night hours when the body is resting, so adequate sleep is very important to high amounts of HGH. Other ways to better the body’s ability to use HGH at an optimal rate are by consuming a sufficient amount of protein and training with intensity. The body’s hormonal response to intense physical exercise is to secrete more of its anabolic hormones.[sup]4[/sup]
Now, just because someone’s levels of HGH may be high does not mean they’re benefitting fully from it. A poorly functioning liver will not convert HGH to IGF-1 at an optimal rate and thus, will not allow is to do its job. Practicing overall healthy nutrition and consuming the necessary amounts of micronutrient dense sources of calories will allow the body to grow at its maximum rate.
This is the most crucial hormone in men. A man without testosterone may as well not be a man at all! Why? Because testosterone is responsible for so many functions and aspects of a man’s life and body, including muscle mass and strength, increased energy and sexual drive, better moods and higher quality of sleep. A man suffering from low testosterone will absolutely know it; he will feel lethargic, no motivation and suffer from aches and pains. Women also produce testosterone, but in much smaller amounts that are not sufficient enough to give them a man’s masculinity. It is important for their sex drive, muscle mass and bone strength.
In men, testosterone is produced primarily in the testes. It begins in the brain, which sends a hormone known as GnRH to the pituitary gland. This triggers the production and release of two hormones, known as luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone. Once in the testicles, the luteinizing hormone triggers cells to start producing testosterone from cholesterol. It is then released into the bloodstream and the release of GnRH is signaled to stop. In women, the same process takes place, but the production takes place in both the ovaries and adrenal glands.[sup]4[/sup]
Like HGH, the body produces testosterone naturally. However, there are a few things men must do to optimize their levels. The one that I truly cannot stress enough is adequate fat intake because high-fat foods are more likely to contain cholesterol (the building block of testosterone.)
A study done in 1990 (Meikle, AW) showed that dietary fat intake has an effect on the production of male sex hormones. The concluding factors stated that a diet with a low fat intake (below 20% caloric intake) could result in low testosterone. Further, a diet with adequate fat intake (20-30% caloric intake) will stabilize testosterone at normal levels with no further increase, regardless of increased fat intake.[sup]5[/sup]
A small note that must be made when discussing fat intake and testosterone is which types show the greatest levels of testosterone. A book of studies titled Testosterone Research Trends contains evidence that saturated fat produces the largest levels of testosterone. A recommended source of saturated fat is coconut oil because it provides other health benefits. Following saturated fat in consumption/testosterone production correlation is monounsaturated fat. Recommended sources are nuts and nut oils.[sup]6[/sup]
The man’s archenemy! When men hear the word estrogen, they do everything that they can to steer clear of high levels. Why? Estrogen is the main sex hormone in women and is responsible for the production of breast tissue. Primarily, the ovaries release it, but it also released from fat cells.
Although males do need estrogen for some the same reasons females do (the growth of bodily hair, brain function) there are problems that can arise with high levels. Have you ever seen overweight males that appear to have…breasts, and I don’t just mean fat on the chest, I mean actual breasts! Gynecomastia (otherwise known as “man boobs”) is the reason males tend to stray from having high levels estrogen. Aside from the fact that it is the female sex hormone and thus, isn’t very “manly”, high levels of estrogen can cause this disorder to take place. Because estrogen is released by fat cells, males that contain a high level of body fat or gain weight too rapidly are susceptible to falling victim (that is why we recommend bulking slowly.)[sup]2[/sup]
Believe it or not, a male’s estrogen levels will increase with testosterone because free testosterone is the starting site for estrogen. Fear arises as testosterone levels begin to decline, for estrogen levels can either stabilize or further increase. Ways for males to keep estrogen in check include eating a well-balanced diet, staying in a healthy weight range, possessing lean body mass and not abusing performance enhancing drugs. It must also be noted that consuming soy will not raise levels of estrogen to a significant level; men are safe if they consume soy.
Ah, cortisol…another “enemy.” When your body is under physical and/or mental stress, the adrenal gland begins to release it to halt the body’s response to pain. That way, exercise can continue without the body constantly trying to counteract the pain. It is generally viewed as one of the bad hormones for bodybuilding because when there is no glucose present for bodily functions, cortisol does what it can to find other sources of fuel…in this case, muscle tissue. Cortisol encourages the breakdown of lean muscle tissue to use the amino acids as an input to gluconeogenesis.[sup]3[/sup]
This means that, when the body is starved of energy (whether it is because of malnutrition, exercise or a fasting period) cortisol builds up and breaks down your muscle for energy. Some people take this fact and overreact by shortening training sessions or lessening the intensity of their workouts to maintain the current muscle mass. Although the breakdown of muscle tissue is the exact opposite of what is desired, training hard and breaking down muscle/rebuilding it is what we want to do. One should not allow their workouts to suffer out of fear of cortisol.
A topic surrounding cortisol build-up is peri-workout nutrition. It is said that supplementing with either essential amino acids or carbohydrate directly before or intra-workout will provide the body with free-floating sources of glucose. These can be used instead of muscle tissue to fuel the rest of your workout. True? Yes. Absolutely necessary? No. Consuming adequate calories and protein will provide the body with the amino acids and glucose that it needs.[sup]3[/sup]
Wrap Up
I know I seem to say this at the conclusion of all of my articles, but today, I am even more excited and happy that I got the opportunity to share this information with you. Hormones are tricky, and it takes good information, in-depth descriptions and vast amounts of knowledge to pinpoint their location, function and effects. Having gotten this far, I know that you have the information to now optimize your training, nutrition and lifestyle to maximize your body’s hormonal responses and thus, improve your fitness, physique and everyday life.
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