Hormones; we all have them. Produced by organs called glands, hormones are chemical messengers that instruct cells, tissues and organs how to act. Hormones can enhance your strength training, muscle building and fat-loss efforts or sabotage your results – it’s all a question of balance.
There are hundreds if not thousands of different hormones but in this article we’ll focus on the big hitters that relate directly to building muscle, losing fat and getting healthy.
Anabolism vs. catabolism
Broadly speaking, hormones can be placed on one of two categories; anabolic or catabolic. Anabolic hormones are primarily responsible for tissue growth and repair – a process called anabolism. In contrast, catabolic hormones are responsible for breaking tissue down – think catastrophe. As a general rule, your aim should be to optimize anabolic hormone production while minimizing catabolic hormone production.
Testosterone, produced mainly in the testes in men and the ovaries in women, is THE anabolic hormone; so much so that some people will take extraneous testosterone in the form of anabolic steroids which are predominately synthetic versions of the big T.
Men produce, on average, ten-times more testosterone than women which helps explain why men tend to be a) more muscular than women and b) naturally leaner; testosterone is known to help burn fat. Low testosterone levels, especially in men, can make building muscle and burning fat very difficult and often lead to elevated estrogen levels…
Testosterone’s opposite hormone is estrogen – the primary female sex hormone. Estrogen is not really anabolic and nor is it strictly catabolic but it is still an important hormone. Too much estrogen can increase body fat levels, make gaining muscle harder than it needs to be and make men, well, less manly.
While some estrogen is necessary for health and well-being, excess estrogen in both men and women can interfere with reaching your fitness goals. Increased estrogen levels can be caused by and result in lowered testosterone levels. Estrogen and testosterone are like two sides of the same coin and keeping them balanced will make your fitness endeavors more rewarding.
Cortisol is not all bad, is actually a vital part of your recovery process and is also an important for regulating your daily energy and sleep cycle, called your circadian rhythm, but too much can interfere with your gains and may also promote fat storage and muscle loss. Keeping a lid on cortisol is generally a good idea.
Another important hormone that relates to exercise and fat loss is insulin. Insulin is a double-edged sword that, at times,is highly beneficial but can also interfere with fat loss. Insulin is an anabolic hormone that is partially responsible for transporting nutrients such as glucose and amino acids into cells (GOOD) BUT it can also interfere with fat burning and promote the uptake of unused nutrients into fat cells (BAD). Taking control of your diet means you can harness the power of insulin while minimizing its fat storing function. More on that later…
Human growth hormone
Unlike testosterone, which is a androgenic anabolic hormone (androgenic means male or masculine), human growth hormone is a non-gender specific hormone meaning it helps build muscle and burn fat without also effecting male sex characteristics such as facial hair, depth of voice or sexual organ development.
Human growth hormone does exactly as its name implies – it helps you grow. Remember that summer when you went to camp weighing 110 lbs. and were five feet tall but then came back weighing 130 and had gained six inches? That was your major growth hormone spurt. Growth hormone is produced when you sleep although in much smaller amounts than in your summer of transformation!
Optimizing hormone levels
If you are serious about getting the most out of your exercise and dietary regimes, you need to get serious about your hormones too. Remember, they can enhance or hinder your progress. Follow these TEN hormone optimizing tips to get these powerful agents on your side…
- Lift heavy
Heavy lifting has been shown to increase testosterone and growth hormones levels. What constitutes heavy is debatable but if you perform at least some of your training in the four-to-six repetition range you should hit the right spot. For example, if you are doing a leg workout, focus on the four-to-six repetition range for your first one or two exercises and then shift gears to the classic eight to twelve range for the rest of your exercises. This will maximize anabolic hormone production and muscle growth.2. Avoid overtraining
Long workouts tend to tip the anabolic/catabolic hormone axis toward catabolism; not something any of us want. While it’s impossible to say exactly when this shift occurs without blood tests, most experts agree that limiting your workouts to 60 to 90 minutes is best for avoiding excessive cortisol production. While two-hour long workouts might work for professional bodybuilders, remember that these guys are often using steroids which means the normal hormone rules cannot be applied to them. Keep your workouts short and intense to avoid the catabolic trap.
- Don’t overdo the cardio
Just as long strength workouts increases cortisol production and drives down anabolic hormone levels, so too can long cardio workouts. Of course, if you are a runner or triathlete, that’s something you just have to live with but if strength training and fat loss is more your bag, reigning in the cardio may actually give you better results from your workouts.
If you are doing lots of cardio for fat loss, you may actually be better off overhauling your diet and focusing more on short but intense interval training rather than doing hour after hour of cardio. Getting your hormones on side will mean you’ll get better results from less exercise. Cool eh?!
- Get some sunshine
Low vitamin D levels have been linked to lowered testosterone and elevated estrogen levels. Needless to say, this creates the opposite environment needed for optimal muscle growth and fat loss. Make sure you are getting enough vitamin D by exposing your skin to sunlight for 20 minutes per day.
If you live somewhere that the sun seldom shines, Alaska for example, consider taking a vitamin D supplement and/or eating plenty of vitamin D-rich foods such as oily fish, egg yolks, cod liver oil, cheese, beef liver and mushrooms.
- Keep a lid on stress
Stress elevates cortisol levels and, as you know, cortisol can interfere with muscle growth and can also lead to fat gain. Stress is a common part of modern life but learning to avoid and deal with stress better will reduce cortisol levels in increase testosterone and growth hormone production. The next time you feel the urge to Hulk out, try some deep breathing, meditation or exercise to get you back to a more Banner-like state.
Testosterone and growth hormone levels are highest during sleep so it makes sense that too little sleep can interfere with anabolic hormone production and may also increase cortisol levels while increasing insulin resistance – a combination of events all-but guaranteed to make you fat and weak. Make sure you get at least seven and preferably eight hours of sleep per night and also try and sneak the occasional power nap; 20 minutes is all you need to give your anabolic hormones a boost.
- Time your carbohydrate intake around exercise
Insulin is a powerful anabolic hormone that is produced when you eat carbohydrates but as it also interferes with fat burning it is important that you learn to effectively time its release. The best way to do this is to consume the majority of your carbohydrates just before and during the two hours following exercise. This ensures that you have plenty of energy for your workouts, provide a great kick start to the recovery process but then minimize insulin levels when you are less active and should be using fat for fuel.
Low carb diets are good for fat loss but may also make intense workouts all but impossible and there is a link between low carb diets and low testosterone. Harness the anabolic power of insulin by carbing up before and after exercise and then going low carb the rest of the day.
- Avoid toxins
Environmental toxins can play havoc with your hormone levels and can cause your testosterone levels to fall, your estrogen and cortisol levels to rise and make you insulin resistant. Processed foods, plastic food packaging, air-borne and water-borne toxins can all create hormonal imbalances.
Do your best to limit exposure to these toxins by eating mostly organic foods, limiting your exposure to plastics, drinking filtered and not tap water and avoiding chemicals in general. Needless to say, completely avoiding toxins is all but impossible but cutting down your exposure is a very good idea.
- Eat cruciferous vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables, meaning cross-shaped, are naturally anti-estrogenic and can help tip the estrogen/testosterone axis in favor of anabolism. Examples include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, collard greens and rutabaga. Include at least a portion of cruciferous vegetables per day to help keep a lid on estrogen.
- Don’t fear fats
Low fat diets are inextricably linked to lowered testosterone levels and therefore increased estrogen levels. Fats are essential for hormone production and this is especially true of saturated fat and cholesterol. It makes sense to avoid too many fats because they are calorically dense but you still need to eat them if you want to avoid crashing your testosterone levels. Make sure you include at least some healthy fats like coconut oil, olive oil, nut butters and butter from grass-fed cows in your main meals to ensure your body has the resources it needs to manufacture those oh-so-important anabolic hormones.
Endocrinology, the study of hormones, is a huge and complex subject but by having a solid understanding of some of the basics, you can make sure that you aren’t inadvertently sabotaging your workouts and diet so you’ll get the best results for your efforts. We all have hormones; the trick is to make them work for you and not against you!