If you know anything about fat loss and athletic performance, you’re aware that hormones are easily one of the most important factors.
In fact, hormones affect all aspects of human function. They dictate mood, allowing us to be upbeat and on top of the world, or depressed and tired.
They trigger muscle contractions and stimulate protein and fat synthesis.
They enable world champion athletic performances, govern metabolic rate, and tell us when we’re hungry.
But hormones don’t exist in a vacuum. Instead, hormone levels are constantly in flux, playing off each other and determining how we perform in the world.
The complexity of hormones makes most people throw up their hands in bewilderment. This doesn’t need to happen if you start by developing a basic understanding of hormones and how they affect health, athleticism, and body composition.
This article will give you the ten most important facts about hormones for optimal body composition and health.
#1: There are three ways the body balances hormone levels:
First, hormones influence secretion of other hormones. For example, when you experience stress, the anterior pituitary gland secretes ACTH, which triggers the release of cortisol from the adrenal gland.
As cortisol levels rise, they exert negative feedback to the pituitary, inhibiting further release of ACTH so that cortisol levels don’t continue rising.
Second, changing levels of nutrients in the blood and other body fluids stimulate hormone release. For example, when you eat a meal containing carbs, blood sugar (glucose) increases, prompting the pancreas to release insulin. Insulin binds with cells to facilitate glucose entry into the cells to be burned for energy. Blood sugar levels decline, and the stimulus for insulin release is reduced.
Third, brain activity affects hormone release. For example, when you experience psychological stress, neural activity stimulates the adrenal medulla to release epinephrine and norepinephrine, which are hormones that help us respond to stress by releasing fuel stores.
#2: Hormones tend to be released in cycles. It’s when these cycles are disrupted by light, food, or stress that hormones become imbalanced.
For example, the stress hormone cortisol peaks in the early morning to get you out of bed. Then it slowly curves downward over the course of the day with pronounced dips following meals. By nighttime, cortisol should be low so you can sleep.
However, this cortisol curve can become easily disrupted. Say you want to lose body fat and you slash calories down to 1,200 calories a day or even lower. A low-calorie diet and periods without food of longer than 3 or 4 hours will cause cortisol to become elevated because one of cortisol’s main actions is to release energy stores.
If you top that off with intense exercise or long-duration cardio because you’re not getting the fat loss results you’d like, cortisol will become chronically elevated in response to the physical stress you experience from eating too little and exercising too much.
Sleep will be inhibited and stress will be exacerbated, throwing your circadian rhythm completely out of whack. Poor sleep and stress will also increase hormones that regulate hunger, and you’ll crave sweet foods, eventually giving in to overeating. The result is calorie intake fluctuates the other way and fat gain occurs.
This scenario is one example of how imbalanced hormones lead to behaviors that cause fat gain, poor muscle development, and reduced athletic performance. This is an important point—in many cases if we just stop doing the behaviors that disrupted the hormone levels in the first place, we’d be able to get back in balance.
#3: Hormones behave differently depending on the environment they are in.
If you start working out, cortisol, and energizing hormones like the catecholamines and growth hormone are released in order to free fat stores so the body can burn them for energy.
Insulin, a storage hormone, will be lower at this time. This is the perfect fat burning environment because when cortisol is elevated, but insulin low, a fat burning enzyme called hormone sensitive lipase (HSL) will increase. A fat storing enzyme called lipoprotein lipase (LPL) will be blocked.
What if you eat a meal of simple carbs pre-workout as is often recommended by mainstream nutritionists?
This would elevate insulin, raise LPL and reduce HSL, effectively lowering the body’s ability to burn fat. Instead the body will run on carbs in the bloodstream and burn glycogen in the muscles—a combination that can be beneficial for peak athletic performance such as doing 10 repeated 200-meter sprints but is contraindicated if the goal is body composition.
#4: Hormone release follows a domino-like cascade—any weak link in the cascade will throw the whole thing off.
Many hormones are released at the same time each day when balanced. Here’s a basic overview of how the circadian hormone cascade works optimally:
1) In the morning when you wake up, your body temperature is low and you get a surge in cortisol that increases blood pressure and gives you energy.
2) Exposure to light shuts off melatonin production (a hormone that induces sleep), and increases testosterone release, resetting the clock for the day
3) The body warms up through the middle of the day, and reaction time and physical performance peak between 2:30 and 6 pm.
4) As sunset approaches, light exposure is reduced, and cortisol drops.
5) You eat dinner and a few hours later, blood sugar and insulin will fall.
6) As insulin is reduced, the hormone leptin is released to inhibit hunger.
7) Leptin causes thyroid hormone release to keep you warm and burn stored fat during the night, and it’s followed by melatonin release, which induces sleep.
8) Body temperature is reduced over night, reaching a low point at 5 a.m., which triggers cortisol release, kickstarting your circadian rhythm all over again and making you feel energized.
There are both simple and complex ways the hormonal cascade can be disrupted, but the most common culprits include the following:
* Caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and other stimulants.
* Light exposure at the wrong times.
* Eating late at night.
* Excessive stress that causes an altered cortisol curve.
#5: Hormones can exert potent but indirect secondary effects in the body. For example, insulin release increases glucose uptake by muscle fibers (primary effect), which in turn increases muscle glycogen synthesis (secondary effect).
The main benefit of spiking insulin post-workout is to replenish glycogen stores. It may also have some long-term benefit on building muscle, possibly due to how carb intake helps lower cortisol, but it isn’t necessary to maximally trigger protein synthesis.
#6: Exercise has a powerful effect on hormone levels both acutely (right after your workout) and chronically (long-term). For example, high-intensity workouts lead to a large release of growth hormone for elevated fat burning. Short-term this is great for fat loss.
Long-term it’s useful as well because you’ll have a more responsive flight or fight system. However, if done too frequently without adequate rest, it can lead to a depressed autonomic nervous system and overtraining.
#7: A simple way to improve hormone balance is by taking control of what you put in your mouth.
Insulin is a storage hormone that regulates glucose entry into fat and muscle cells. It is beneficial in the sense that it improves protein synthesis in response to exercise and stores glucose as glycogen in the muscle.
However, insulin will store any excess sugar in the blood as fat. Therefore, if you consume greater calories than you expend, insulin is no longer your friend because that excess energy will go straight to fat.
For a lot of people, a higher protein, lower carb diet is the solution so that blood sugar release is moderate and you can keep insulin levels relatively stable all day long.
#8: The post-workout hormone release is overrated.
It used to be that testosterone and the other “anabolic” hormones like growth hormone and IGF-1 were thought to be one of the most important factors for building muscle. Producing a big testosterone and overall anabolic hormone response was the main focus of training programs for hypertrophy.
Today, we know that although baseline levels of these hormones dictate athletic success and recovery ability, the post-workout hormone elevation isn’t the force driving growth. Instead, protein synthesis and gene signaling are the principle factors for building muscle.
#9: Baseline testosterone is underrated—it predicts athletic performance in both men and women.
Baseline testosterone levels are one of the most important predictors of success in athletics. For example, among professional rugby players, those with higher free testosterone levels during training workouts had a greater chance of winning weekend games. Lower free testosterone scores predicted a team’s chance of losing.
The principle applies to other sports—weight lifters, sprinters, netball players—and females. Women with higher testosterone are more likely to win during head-to-head competition.
#10: Your brain is one of the most powerful tools you have to balance hormones.
One of the most effective ways to improve hormone balance is to perform meditation and other mind-body activities. For example, research shows that meditation improves activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis from which metabolic, stress, and resproductive hormones are released.
In one study, young men who did a 4-month meditation program experienced much lower average cortisol and higher testosterone. Interestingly, the cortisol response to stress was elevated, but it passed quickly. This is favorable because it indicates subjects where dealing with day-to-day stressors better, thereby producing lower stress hormones. When experiencing a threat they have a higher stress response to help them cope with danger.