Many people get health and fitness information from friends or the internet.
This information is often incorrect, and when it comes to something as important as hormones, bad information can be a problem.
After all, hormones affect all aspects of human function, regulating emotions, hunger, and energy levels. They can make or break an athlete. They enable peak cognitive function, stimulate protein and fat synthesis, and govern metabolic rate.
Getting trustworthy information is difficult because hormones don’t exist in a vacuum. Instead, they are constantly in flux, playing off each other and determining how we perform in the world (which is probably how these myths developed in the first place).
Therefore, this article will look in depth at three of the most common myths about hormones and give you facts you can use to live a more fruitful life.
Myth #1: Always Design Workouts To Maximize Testosterone Release
A common belief, especially among body builders, is that workouts should be designed to maximize the release of hormones, especially testosterone (T) and growth hormone (GH). T and GH are considered “anabolic” hormones that will enhance muscle and strength gains from training.
The theory didn't come out of nowhere. It was based on the fact that when trainees take steroids containing huge pharmacological doses of testosterone in conjunction with strength training, they experience large increases in strength and muscle gains.
However, the exercise-induced increase in testosterone is short-lived. The magnitude is inconsequential in comparison to that experienced when steroids are taken.
Sports scientists explain the exercise-induced increase in hormones is an acute, transient stress response that doesn’t have any effect on protein synthesis or muscle development. For example, in 2009, researchers compared strength, muscle, and protein synthesis responses to two different exercise protocols. The training protocol had active young men train a Low Hormone condition and a High Hormone condition.
In the Low Hormone condition they did unilateral biceps curls only on one side of the body. In the High Hormone condition they trained the opposite arm with the same biceps curls followed immediately by a bout of 11 sets of leg exercises. The High Hormone condition significantly elevated testosterone, GH, and IGF-1. The Low Hormone condition did not.
Results after the single workout showed that protein synthesis in the biceps was elevated by 78 percent following the Low Hormone trial compared to only 61 percent following the High Hormone trial (1). Then, they had the subjects perform the Low Hormone and High Hormone workouts twice a week for 15 weeks to see if there was any difference in muscle or strength development in the biceps (2). Results showed that there were NO differences in 1RM elbow flexion strength or muscle fiber cross-sectional area between the two groups.
Take Away: Instead of planning training programs to produce a large hormone response, design them to maximize athletic performance and enhance protein synthesis through muscle fiber loading and nutrition.
Myth #2: Estrogen Is The Enemy Of Fat Loss
Estrogen tends to be best known as the female hormone because women have higher levels than men. Somewhere along the way, estrogen got associated with increased body fat. There are at least two possible theories for this connection:
First, fat tissue secretes estrogen. As you gain fat, your estrogen levels rise, which causes an imbalance in the ratio between estrogen and other hormones such as progesterone.
Elevated estrogen also inhibits thyroid function (3). This is bad news because thyroid hormone is necessary for a healthy metabolic rate. When thyroid hormone is reduced, people feel tired and sluggish, which makes them expend less energy so that they burn fewer calories daily. Fat gain often occurs, which raises estrogen again—and you can see it’s a vicious cycle.
Second, women have more body fat than men. Women also have higher estrogen levels, so it seems logical that higher estrogen is the cause of greater fat deposition. There’s some truth to this but it’s not the same as saying estrogen is the enemy of fat loss. In fact, estrogen is actually a key fat burning hormone!
Estrogen increases activity of hormone sensitive lipase (HSL), which mobilizes fat so the body can use it for energy. At the same time, estrogen decreases the activity of lipoprotein lipase (LPL), which stores fat. HSL activity occurs most often in response to exercise, and having balanced estrogen levels basically helps this exercise phenomenon become more powerful and occur more often.
Another way estrogen is beneficial for body composition is that it stimulates the production of growth hormone. GH upregulates fat burning, while inhibiting the uptake of glucose by fat tissues. One reason high-intensity exercise is so useful for fat loss is that it triggers a huge increase in GH and it just so happens that women have a higher release of GH in response to intense exercise than men, likely due to their higher estrogen levels (4).
The key is that estrogen levels need to be balanced. For women, too little estrogen will lead to poor bone health, fat gain around the abdomen (as is seen in post-menopausal women), and infertility (5). Men also require a small amount of estrogen, however, it’s unlikely that any man has ever suffered from too little estrogen.
Too much estrogen is s a much bigger problem for men. Excessive amounts of estrogen are due to a poor diet, endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure (BPA), or excess body fat (remember fat secretes estrogen) and are associated with a number of health problems including obesity.
Take Away: The role of estrogen in the body (especially the female body) is way more complicated than it seems. If you think you have elevated estrogen levels, check out this article on ways to improve the elimination of excess estrogen, focus on training hard, and avoid endocrine disrupting chemicals like they are the plague.
Myth #3: Take Carbs Post-Workout To Spike Insulin For Greater Muscle
Many people think that it’s necessary to consume carbohydrates after a workout in order to elevate insulin and maximize muscle growth.
In fact, the extra insulin due to carb supplementation has no additive effect on protein synthesis. A recent study found there was no difference in muscle protein synthesis or protein balance when 25 grams of whey protein or the same dose of whey protein with 50 grams of carbs were supplemented after strength training (6).
It should be noted that an elevation of insulin above fasting levels has an anti-catabolic effect on muscle tissue, but this degree of increase can be achieved with whey protein (7). This is important because if your goal is to lose body fat, you don’t want to replace all the calories you just burned doing a hard workout by consuming unnecessary carbs.
That said, it’s worth mentioning that if you’re a hardcore athlete who trains multiple times a day, carb supplementation post-workout will enhance glycogen restoration in the muscle. Glycogen is your muscle’s energy source and it can make or break athletic performance when repeated high volume, intense bouts of exercise are necessary, such as when playing in a basketball or soccer tournament or doing two-a-days for an extended period of time.
For everyone else, unless you are severely restricting carbs in your diet for some reason, glycogen will easily be replenished from regular meals and supplementation is not necessary (7).
To avoid any confusion, another issue worth clarifying is our recommendation that post-workout is one of the best times to eat carbs. If you’re on a lower carb diet with the goal of losing body fat, the hours after your workout are one of the best times to eat carbs because insulin sensitivity is greatly enhanced. The body will digest carbs into glucose in the blood and then store those calories as glycogen in the muscle. However, if you eat carbs at other inopportune times, such as for breakfast, when glycogen stores are full, it’s more likely that those calories will be stored at fat.
Take Away: There’s no need to consume supplemental carbs post-workout to maximally trigger protein synthesis. A whey protein shake containing 20 grams will do the trick and save you carb calories if your goal is fat loss.