Controlling hormones to recapture health
Everyone should be familiar with the concept of hormones but how many really understand how important they are and how to increase or decrease them to optimize health?
The key thing for most people to understand is that hormones act as the switchboard of the human body, turning on and turning off different processes and amping them up or slowing them down when needed.
All hormones in the body are important, but when it comes to body composition and optimal natural health, there are times that we want certain hormones working (and we work with them) and times we want the levels low.
Here are some of the most important hormones and how to optimize them to kick your fitness to the next level.
When it comes to fat loss or weight gain insulin reigns supreme and thus must warrant special attention. We all know (or should) that chronically elevated insulin levels can result in metabolic syndrome i.e. type 2 diabetes. Avoiding this insidious disorder alone is enough to warrant controlling insulin levels, but this hormone is also very important for gaining muscle.
Insulin is the "storage" hormone. When there is excess sugar content in the blood you get what's called hyperglycemia. Too much sugar in the blood for long periods can damage the body in all sorts of ways, so when the body senses too much blood sugar the pancreas manufactures insulin which signals the body to store the sugar in different tissues, one of them being adipose a.k.a. fat tissue. The sugars are often converted to triglycerides in the liver and transferred into the fat cells. Over time this leads to increased fat stores and all of the associated problems with that.
Insulin also signals other nutrients to be stored in muscle cells. This is a good thing, and one of the reasons it is recommended to have a post workout meal to replenish depleted muscles. Of course, whatever is not stored in the muscle will be converted to fat, so you can't simply gorge yourself after every workout. But the more muscle you have, the more you will be able to store carbohydrates (sugars) in muscles instead of fat.
Type 2 diabetes is associated with insulin resistance which is what happens when insulin levels are chronically high as is common with many overweight / obese people. Cells that are insulin resistant require more insulin to "unlock" them and allow nutrients to be stored. This is a cascading cycle: already high insulin levels create resistant cells therefore more insulin is required to lower the blood sugar levels. These compound on each other.
There are certain ways to create insulin sensitivity which is the opposite of resistance and is actually a positive trait. Insulin sensitive cells are generally looking to store nutrients and it takes less of the hormone to "unlock" the receptors in the cell.
One way is weight training, which is recommended for diabetics for this reason as the goal with diabetes is to control blood sugar / insulin levels. Weight training creates insulin resistant muscle cells which leads to more nutrients being shuttled to muscle rather than fat after a workout.
Another way to create sensitivity is through fasting. Long term fasting of several days will deplete the body of much stored sugars and in turn causes insulin sensitivity.
Keeping insulin levels low is a major problem in the West because we now consume so much sugar that it seems "normal" and we may think we're not intaking that much when in reality we are many times over what we should be eating. Adding to the fact that most overweight people also have low muscle mass the metabolism can really get wrecked and make it very frustrating to lose weight. Weight training and sensible eating are keys to lower insulin levels.
Insulin's evil brother is cortisol as the two pretty much do the exact opposite things. Cortisol tells the body to release stored nutrients into the bloodstream. So as insulin is for storage, cortisol is for breakdown of tissues.
Cortisol is naturally elevated during exercise for obvious reasons. Your body needs more fuel during activity so cortisol helps to supply it from various tissues including fat cells. Also stored sugars in muscle and small amounts of protein are released as the fuel for exercise is always a mixture of all three of these.
The problem with cortisol is when it is chronically elevated, just like any other hormone. It has a time and place for optimal use.
Chronic cortisol elevation has a number of factors and causes but one of the most common is high stress, which is a plague on modern society. When stressed even the smallest bit the body shifts into fight or flight mode. Cortisol is released when there is a perceived threat, and the key word here is perceived because most of the things that stress us out aren't even real or even real problems worth worrying about, but that's another matter all together.
Cortisol tends to release alongside of adrenaline and the chronic release of both of these can cause adrenal fatigue which is ever popular in today's fast moving society.
One would think that high levels of this hormone, since it causes the breakdown of tissues, would lead to fat loss, which would be great. But sadly that's not how the body works from an evolutionary standpoint. More often the body chooses to keep the fat and ditch the muscle. One crucial thing to remember is that all threats are created in the mind and the body reacts very similarly to each threat as if it is happening in real time. It doesn't necessarily know whether you are just annoyed and angry at a traffic jam or if there's a wild animal attempting to kill you. Either way, cortisol levels will elevate to help either eliminate or evade the threat.
Elevated cortisol can impact sleep as well leading to less well rested nights. This in turn causes more stress, and we can be in a vicious circle of elevated cortisol. It also negates insulin in ways, so when the two are both chronically elevated your body will yo-yo between storing and shedding pounds...something many are familiar with as they try to get in great shape.
Testosterone is something that separates the men from the women...pretty much literally. Males have massively more testosterone levels on average compared to females which is one reason why they tend to be much stronger and more aggressive.
Testosterone is created in various organs, mainly the testicles. It has more actions in the body than we could name but the three we'll focus here on are muscle gain / bone density increases, sound sleep and energy levels.
Obviously enhanced testosterone can cause dramatic muscle increases as bodybuilding has shown. This makes it a popular "supplement" in commercial gyms (wink, wink). But testosterone levels can be increased naturally which is more important for the average person, because low t-levels in males or females is pretty much never a good thing and can even result in characteristics of the opposite sex i.e. decreased competitiveness in men and in general less desirable traits to the opposite sex (evolutionarily speaking).
Testosterone is created from cholesterol among other things, so healthy meat choices can help to give the body the building blocks to create more testosterone. Foods that naturally promote the creation of nitric oxide, another important nutrient and anti-oxidant, will naturally raise testosterone levels. Some examples of foods that do this are almonds, olive oils and other healthy fats, and my personal favorite; beets.
This is one reason that I encourage my clients to regularly consume superfood salads which can have generous olive oil, steamed beets, cheeses and even almonds or cashews. This type of a salad tastes amazing, is full of nutrition and maintains healthy testosterone levels in men and women alike.
Once again, sleep is crucial to testosterone levels longterm, and lack of sleep can reduce those levels, which in turn causes more sleep problems in a vicious cycle.
There are more hormones but for the time being most people especially beginners should focus on real-world actions that can optimize these three. Knowing about them is great but the application of the knowledge is what counts for results.
And the end result should not be surprising as it is really nothing new. Get great sleep, keep stress levels in check using different applications (meditation, breathing etc), and strive to increase muscle mass and stay active in general.
When these three are working in harmony your body will be burning fat when it needs to, adding muscle when it needs to, maintaining healthy natural energy levels and dialing down for deep and restful sleep. Attaining these characteristics will mean you are well on your way to success.
ACSM / Nutrition Specialist