So many people complain that they can't lose weight. They diet hard, perform lung-burning cardio sessions and take supplements, yet they just can't seem to lose fat fast enough. The same goes for gaining muscle mass. It can all be very frustrating, but what's interesting is that the solution may be inside you. That's right: It's all about your own hormones.
Hormones are biologically active substances that regulate key processes throughout the body. 'Nothing can influence our body's shape more than our own hormones,' says Karlis Ullis, M.D., noted hormone expert and author of Super T, Age Right and The Hormone Revolution Weight-Loss Plan. 'Hormones regulate weight, metabolism, how much muscle we have, food intake and many other factors,' he says. That goes for both men and women.
Some hormones play key roles in fat loss and muscle gain: growth hormone (GH) and IGF-1, testosterone, estrogen, cortisol, insulin and thyroid hormone. 'Without taking into account our hormones and how we exercise, we predictably will regain all the weight we lost on some crash-diet plan,' says Ullis.
Growth Hormone (GH)
Growth hormone is secreted in abundance by the pituitary gland, though the amount usually decreases with age. It's mainly released in pulses during sleep,1 and its most powerful effects come from its conversion in the liver to IGF-1 (insulinlike growth factor 1). Blood tests measure IGF-1 to determine GH levels in the body.
GH has been shown to increase lean body mass, reduce bodyfat, increase energy, enhance immune function'even enhance sexual function.1 Obesity diminishes GH release, and fasting actually helps increase it. Exercise is a potent stimulus for GH release.2 A study published in the Journal of Nutrition showed that men taking soy protein isolate (40 grams daily) had increased levels of serum IGF-1.
Here are a few tips for optimizing your GH levels:
'GH levels seem to be high during a fasting state, so try to avoid eating for one hour before bed to maximize its release during sleep and enhance the recovery process. 'Get seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per night, as that's the main time for GH release. 'Too much insulin seems to interfere with GH release, so avoid carbohydrates before bedtime. 'Weight train regularly. It's been shown to help increase GH levels.
Here are some GH-boosting supplements you may want to try:
'Growth-hormone-releasing peptide (GHRPs). Research proves that these oligopeptides stimulate GH release.3,4 More research is needed, although a relatively new study confirms their benefits in conjunction with exercise.5 GHRP supplements are expensive, but if you can afford them, they're worth trying, especially if you're over 40. Take them an hour before bedtime on an empty stomach. A quality brand is GH Stak by Muscle-Link.
'L-arginine. There's clinical evidence that this nonessential amino acid (sometimes considered conditionally essential) can boost GH levels. Some studies show little effect of L-arginine as a GH booster, while others support claims for its benefits.6,7 High doses seem to work best'upward of five to 10 grams before bedtime'though some users report stomach discomfort.
'Alpha GPC. Short for L-alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine, this is a soy-based acetylcholine precursor, and preliminary research has demonstrated that it boosts GH levels and heightens neurological function. One plus is that smaller amounts (150 to 400 milligrams) seem to boost GH levels, which makes it more cost effective. It's available from a company called Chemi Nutraceuticals. ALL Insulin
Insulin is a peptide hormone released from the beta cells of the pancreas due to the rise in blood sugar levels that occurs when you eat carbohydrates and sometimes when you eat protein. It's primarily responsible for the direction of energy metabolism after eating. It can help transport key nutrients like glucose and amino acids into muscle cells, but it can also cause fat storage. Normal fasting blood glucose levels should be 70 to 110 milligrams per deciliter.
Here are some nutrition tips for managing your insulin output without gaining fat:
'Eat low-glycemic meals, which have little impact on blood sugar. Mixed meals containing high-quality protein, complex carbohydrates and essential fats are the key to stabilizing insulin behavior.
'Don't eat too many carbohydrates at night, which can interfere with GH levels while you sleep and inhibit growth and recovery. Because your metabolism is slower at night, it may lead to fat storage.
'Spike blood sugar levels after a workout. Postworkout is a good time for taking in carbohydrates and protein to maximize recovery from training. A 3- or 4-to-1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio is best'for example, 15 grams of protein and 60 grams of simple carbs, ideally in liquid form. Muscle-Link's RecoverX is a good choice.
Following are a few other supplements that help support insulin and blood sugar levels. If you take these supplements, maximize their effects by combining them with carbohydrate-containing meals:
Alpha lipoic acid. Also known as lipoic and thioctic acid, this powerful sulfur-containing antioxidant and insulin mimic plays a vital role in producing cellular energy.8 Some European doctors actually prescribe it for blood sugar disorders. Alpha lipoic acid can also help your fitness efforts by normalizing blood sugar levels while metabolizing sugar into energy and increasing energy levels. A good dose is 100 milligrams three times daily with meals.
Chromium. Chromium (Cr) is an essential trace element for normal protein, fat and carbohydrate metabolism. Chromium is important for energy production, appetite regulation, reducing sugar cravings and increasing lean body mass. Its primary function is to potentiate insulin sensitivity and thereby enhance glucose, amino acid and fat metabolism. Research shows that chromium polynicotinate helps reduce weight.9 A great time to take this supplement is after a weight-training session, to enhance insulin sensitivity and improve nutrient transport. Try 200 micrograms three to five times a day.
D-pinitol. This is an excellent supplement that has a lot of potential for people involved in fitness programs. Patented by Humanetics, it's been used to treat insulin-resistant type 2 diabetes and has been shown to decrease blood sugar and free fatty acid levels'great news if you're trying to lose bodyfat. A good dose is 250 milligrams two to three times a day with meals and one dose with postworkout creatine. Quality products that contain this nutrient are Meta-Cel by iSatori Global Technologies and Nitro-Tech by MuscleTech.
Produced by the testes, testosterone is the steroid hormone that promotes development of male sex characteristics and regulates male reproductive function. It's known as the most powerful muscle-building hormone because it does just that'builds muscle and strength fast. Testosterone increases muscle protein synthesis and net muscle protein balance, resulting in increased muscle mass. 'Testosterone is one of the most effective hormones for burning fat in both men and women,' says Ullis.
Signs of low testosterone levels include low energy, muscle weakness, depression and sexual dysfunction. Too much testosterone in males can convert into dihydrotestosterone, or DHT, which can have adverse effects on the prostate and cause hair loss, and estrogen, which can lead to water retention, increased fat storage and gynecomastia. It's important to measure levels of both free testosterone levels'the active form'and estrogen just to make sure an excess of estrogen isn't hampering your muscle building.
Here are a few ways to maximize your testosterone output:
'Eat plenty of essential fatty acids, especially monounsaturated fats. These include natural peanut butter, flaxseed oil, olive oil and canola oil. Eating fish, including salmon, regularly can also help.
'Perform compound exercises like squats and bench presses, and use heavy weight for lower reps. Such training methods have proved to boost testosterone levels more than other types of exercises.
'Stop drinking alcohol. It can kill testosterone production.
'Don't eat too much protein. Most trainees have been indoctrinated with the idea of eating a huge amount of protein, but research indicates that too much can lower testosterone levels.10 Eating .8 to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight does the trick.
Here are a few potent testosterone boosters:
'Pro-hormones. Without going into a biochemistry lesson, I can say that several new pro-hormones help boost testosterone levels without androgenic side effects. They include 1-androstene-3beta, 17beta-diol (1-AD), 4-androstenediol and 17-hydroxyandrost-1-ene-3-one (1-testosterone). Daily dosages range from 100 to 300 milligrams in divided doses. Another pro-hormone, DHEA, can be very effective in women at lower daily doses of 25 to 75 milligrams. T-Bomb by MHP, 1-AD by Ergopharm and Mag-10 by Biotest are quality products. Consult a physician before trying these powerful supplements.
'ZMA is a special combination of zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6 that improves athletic performance and boosts testosterone levels naturally.11 ZMA-T by Muscle-Link and ZMA' by BioTest are quality products. Take the recommended dose 30 to 45 minutes before bedtime. 'Tribulus terrestris. This botanical, also known as puncture vine, boosts testosterone levels naturally by stimulating leutinizing hormone (LH) production in the anterior pituitary gland, which in turn stimulates testosterone production. Take 500 to 1,000 milligrams about 30 to 45 minutes before bedtime or a workout. Quality tribulus supplements are Acetabolan-II by MuscleTech (this product also includes acetyl-L-carnitine, which may improve testosterone levels) and Tribex 500 by Biotest.
A hormone generated in the adrenal glands, cortisol is the body's primary glucocorticoid. It has many catabolic effects and can adversely affect muscle building and fat loss. Too much can lead to a decrease in insulin sensitivity, a progressive loss of protein, muscle weakness and atrophy, loss of bone mass through increased calcium excretion and less calcium absorption. Studies show that a rise in cortisol levels also increases protein breakdown by 5 to 20 percent.12 Cortisol increases vary directly with time and intensity of exercise, especially weight training, and too much of it can also result in sodium retention'which can make you appear bloated'hypertension and potassium excretion. Bottom line: You must minimize it, especially during sleep, for maximum gains in muscle mass. Signs of high cortisol levels include lethargy, muscle weakness, irregular sleep, depression, anxiety and excess muscle soreness after workouts. Cortisol levels vary throughout the day, so for an accurate reading it's important to get them tested first thing in the morning.
Here are some tips on reducing cortisol.
'Diet. Make sure you supply your body with plenty of high-quality protein, complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids and vitamins and minerals. Try not to restrict calories continuously; in one study, restricting normal calorie intake by 50 percent yielded a 38 percent increase in cortisol levels.12
'Don't overtrain. Try not to work out more than three days in a row. Keep workouts to an hour at the most and train efficiently and intensely. 'Relax. Try to avoid getting easily stressed out.
'Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Sleep is crucial to the recovery and recuperation process.
'Spike insulin levels after a workout. Insulin actually interferes with cortisol and may help clear it from the body. A high-glycemic-index carbohydrate may help minimize the significant postworkout cortisol spike.
Here are some supplements that help control cortisol:
'Phosphatidylserine (PS). PS is a phospholipid, a type of fat found in every cell of the body that contains the mineral phosphorous. The clinical literature indicates that PS is a powerful cortisol-suppressing agent and that PS supplementation can blunt cortisol release significantly.13,14 Taking 200 to 400 milligrams about 30 minutes before bedtime can make a huge difference in recovery. Muscle-Link's Cort-Bloc is a quality PS product.
'Vitamin C. This well-known antioxidant can also help reduce cortisol levels, according to some research. Taking 500 to 1,000 milligrams one hour before a weight-training workout can be helpful. Thyroid Hormone
When people are trying to lose weight, they often experience a decrease in basal metabolic rate, or BMR, which represents the number of calories that you burn at rest. That's especially true after long periods of low-calorie dieting, use of stimulants (including ephedra and caffeine) and excessive physical activity (like too much cardio). The body seems to lower metabolism as a defense mechanism after long periods of dieting. That helps explain why some people can't seem to lose that last bit of fat.
The decrease in BMR is directly related to the level of thyroid hormone activity, which is defined by the levels of two hormones released by the thyroid gland: thyroxine, or T4, and triiodothyronine, or T3. T4 is a low-activity thyroid hormone, and T3 a highly active one. T4 converts to T3 in the liver.
Thyroid hormones are very important for normal growth and development. They maintain metabolism, bodyweight and intermediary (energy-related) metabolism15 and affect thermogenesis and body temperature. Thyroid hormones can also enhance lipolysis (fat burning) in adipose (fat) tissue.
Here are some tips on how to boost your thyroid hormones:
'Eat five to seven small meals throughout the day. A study published in the Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology showed that increased frequency of feeding helped stabilize insulin secretion16 and that 'increasing the number of meals increased thermogenesis and fat utilization.'
'Have one high-calorie 'cheat' day or meal per week. That can help boost your metabolism. Here are a few supplements to help support thyroid hormone levels:
'Guggulsterones. Also known as guggulipid, from the plant Commiphora mukul, guggul has been around for hundreds of years in Ayurvedic medicine. It can boost metabolism by increasing thyroid hormone levels (both T4 and T3). Several studies have shown the fat-reducing effects of guggulipid.17,18 A good dose is 25 milligrams of active guggulsterones after standardization three times daily. A good guggul supplement is Guggulbolic by Syntrax.
'Phosphates. Mineral compounds that contain phosphorous and may help boost metabolism and possibly exercise performance. According to a study published in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, a combination of calcium, potassium and sodium phosphates increased basil metabolic rate in overweight women on a low-calorie diet.19 The authors of that study concluded that phosphates may play a role in the peripheral metabolism of thyroid hormones by preventing a decrease in T3 output. A good dose is one gram of phosphates taken one hour before exercise. Try Phosphate Edge by FSI Nutrition.
There are two accurate ways to measure hormone levels. One is by testing saliva, the other by testing blood.
Saliva. The benefits of saliva testing are convenience and lower cost. Hormones present in saliva are in their 'free,' or active, states, which makes for an accurate reading.20 Except in California and New York you don't need a doctor's help to do the test. On the other hand, thyroid hormone and IGF-1 levels can't usually be tested with this method. A good source for saliva tests is ZRT Laboratory in Oregon (www.salivatest.com), which provides instructions and excellent customer support. Although you can measure many different hormone levels in saliva, the tests relevant to muscle building and fat loss are for testosterone, estradiol (a form of estrogen) and AM cortisol. Each test costs about $30, and it's generally not covered by insurance.
Blood. Blood tests are a more comprehensive and expensive way to measure hormone levels. The benefit is that you can test virtually anything using this method, and a blood test is more likely to be covered by insurance; however, it requires a visit to the doctor or a medical lab, which can be an inconvenience. You should also realize that blood tests for some hormones'AM cortisol, for example'are time-of-day sensitive. Plus, you have to measure the 'free' form of the hormone to get an accurate reading, though the 'bound' form can show up.
Your doctor can order the blood tests, or you can go to a blood-drawing station of the Life Extension Foundation (www.lef.org; 1-800-208-3444). The cost of testing both males and females for free testosterone, estradiol, AM cortisol, IGF-1 and free T3 is around $340 if you're a member and $490 for nonmembers.
Hormones can make the difference between a hard, lean body and a soft, flabby one. By learning to optimize their effects, you can maximize your fitness routine. Hormones can be powerful allies in your battle for a great physique.
Editor's note: Rehan Jalali is president of the Supplement Research Foundation (www.tsrf.com). He is a nationally recognized biochemist and sports nutritionist who has published some 250 articles on nutrition and supplementation. He has been studying the science, efficacy and safety of sports supplements for more than 10 years. He can be reached via the Internet at [email protected].
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