Our hormones are chemical messengers the body uses to interact between the different systems of the body. Hormones control your mood, body fat , muscle gainz, libido, motivation and many more aspects of who you are.
The hormones in our body are always changing in response to the signals we are sending, and the signals from the environment around us. Our ability to manage and respond to a stimulus is dependent on our hormones.
Two people can follow the same nutrition plan, the same programming and have a similar lifestyle but get entirely different results. How their body responds to this stimulus is heavily dependent on their overall hormonal state.
Here’s what you need to know to perform and feel your very best.
Testosterone, the #GAINZ Hormone.
First, here are the 6 major players
Testosterone is the major sex hormone that controls motivation, fat distribution, the growth of facial/body hair, anabolic to muscles, increases bone density and overall gives men the shape and attitude that we associate with masculinity.
Signs of high testosterone include:
- More muscle mass
- Greater bone density
- Strength #GAINS
- High sex drive and libido
- Decreased body fat
2. Growth Hormone
If testosterone is the superhero of our hormones, then growth hormone (GH) is the sidekick. Testosterone and growth hormone provide a greater response when they are both elevated together. GH is remarkably complicated but for our purposes the list below touches on the main benefits we will be looking at.
Signs of high growth hormone:
- Great overall health
- Better recovery
- Tissue/ muscle growth
- Greater protein synthesis
- Boosted immune function
- And again, marked strength gains
Leptin is the satiety hormone made by our fat tissue that helps us to balance and regulate energy. When leptin levels get too low it signals to the body that we are starving, and causes a large increase in appetite and can slow metabolism leading to fat gain.
When trying to lose fat leptin is a very important hormone to address because you don’t want too much or too little. It has an big influence on the production and secretion of the thyroid hormones, T3 and T4, which control your metabolism.
A beautiful structure: Human Growth Hormone
4. Thyroid: T3/T4
T3 and T4 are the main hormones that control our metabolism. How well your thyroid hormones function control the speed of your metabolism, growth and maturation of the body.
T3 and T4 increase your basal metabolic rate, meaning all the body cells will work harder requiring more energy – Body temperature rises, heartbeat increase, pulse rate quickens, more calories are used overall, even reflexes quicken.
Signs of low T3/T4 include:
- Slowed metabolism
- Low energy and strength
- Low body temperature
- Difficulty losing fat
- Fat gain
Cortisol is the main stress response hormone, it can have negative impacts if it is chronically elevated. Cortisol helps with increasing blood sugar, burning up muscle or fat tissue, increases heart rate and suppresses immune function.
Like many things in the human body, the poison is in the dose. Long-term elevations in cortisol production leads to increased breakdown of muscle tissue. However, acute periods of elevated cortisol leads to lipolysis, meaning, the breakdown of fat.
There are no bad hormones. All carry essential functions.
Signs of high cortisol:
- Suppressed immune system
- Difficulty sleeping
- Fat gain
- Decreased muscle mass
- Low energy/fatigue
Insulin is our main storage hormone. It transports nutrients from our bloodstream into cells. The release of insulin is directly controlled by blood sugar levels.
Insulin is a hormone that can be used to your advantage to get leaner and build muscle, but it can also cause inflammation and rapid fat gain if it secreted at the wrong times.
Here are some signs of impaired insulin function:
- Difficulty losing fat
- Gaining fat
- Sleepiness after meals
- Increased blood pressure
- Mood swings
- Brain fog/difficulty concentrating
Signs of healthy insulin function include:
- Stable energy
- Fat loss
- Muscle gain
- Steady mood and motivation
You should feel great in the gym. If not, we’ll help you fix it.
How to balance your hormones, increase muscle mass, and boost performance
Now that we know the main players in the hormone game, let’s look at how we can keep them in balance, and leverage them for better strength and muscle gains.
There are 7 key considerations, and it starts with recovery:
1. Beware under-recovery
Lifting is an important part of overall health and wellbeing, but specifically, it helps to increase our testosterone and growth hormone levels.
Heavy weight training also makes you more insulin sensitive, meaning your body uses carbohydrates more efficiently and requires less insulin overall. And when you are more insulin sensitive, less carbohydrates will be stored as fat. That’s exactly what we’re looking for in the gym.
Lifting and recovery are both key sides of the same coin, but many people neglect recovery because they place such a high priority on lifting. By doing that they are letting all their hard work in the gym go to waste.
Hormones are increased by the stimulus of lifting. But if the stimulus is too strong or too frequent, the hormones are not given time to act on the necessary tissues and promote growth and strength.
We come from the society of more is always better, but keep in mind that you are building muscle and strength when you are recovering, NOT when you are lifting. If you’re dipping into the metcon pain cave six times a week then you are simply not giving your body enough time to recover.
This is a huge distress to the body. Overturning. Poor nutrition. Too little sleep. The cumulative burden of it all will lead to excessive cortisol production, and pretty much guaranteed hormonal dysfunction.
2. Manage your stress
Develop a stress management practice, they come in many shapes and sizes. Find one that fits your lifestyle, and you can do consistently. By doing this first thing in the morning you will start the day in a relaxed fashion, setting a better trend.
Try to begin the day by waking using a nature sounds app or a light lamp instead of a loud jolting alarm clock to start the day with as little stress as possible.
These stress management practices can start small and grow over time as they become a habit for you. Think in terms of a short walk in the morning, a guided meditation, or using a gratitude journal.
3. Sleep as much as you can!
Robb Wolf put it best, “Sleep as much as you can without getting fired from your job or divorced.”
We know that the stimulus from training is important, but we really make our gains and improvements during recovery when we sleep. Testosterone and Growth Hormone are both secreted in the greatest volume and intensity during the deepest stages of sleep. These two hormones are extremely important for fat loss and the gainz.
When you get adequate sleep the next day you are able to control blood sugar better, which improves insulin sensitivity. The body is able to regulate appetite better because of blood sugar control and improved leptin levels.
Trying to jump right into 8-9 hours of sleep will be difficult, sure, but you can start making habits that move you towards better sleep. Every two weeks, pick a habit to start incorporating into your bedtime routine to wind down.
Take a magnesium supplement such as natural calm or ZMA, that will help. Dim the overhead lights to limit exposure to stimulating lights. Start removing screen time in 15 minute increments before bed until you get to 1.5 hours of no screen time. Incorporate 15 minutes of mobility, meditation and reading to replace screen time and help calm the brain before sleep.
Sleep, the 1 thing that will make your better at everything!
4. Don’t compromise digestion
One of the most overlooked factors when it comes to dysfunction in the body is the digestive system. Keeping hormone production humming along is the same story, different system.
You can be eating the best diet in the world filled with nutrients, minerals and vitamins. If you are not properly breaking those foods down so that the body can absorb them, you will not get the benefits or be well nourished.
Your body requires the raw materials in the molecular form to be able to produce hormones. You need the ability to cleave protein into amino acids and polypeptides while emulsifying fats into fatty acids to make hormones, especially testosterone.
5. Absorb more of your food
First and foremost don’t eat on the run or when you are stressed. When you eat in a stressed state the body is not in the physiological state to digest food well.
Chew your food well. Chewing helps with the mechanical and chemical breakdown of food, and takes some of the burden off the stomach to break foods down even further.
Supplement with 1-2 tbs of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice to stimulate the stomach to produce hydrochloric acid which is required to cleave proteins and cause enzymes release. Supplement with digestive enzymes to make sure you are fulling breaking down food and to give the body more raw materials to use.
6. Avoid nutrient deficiencies
Hormones are made from the food and supplements that you eat and digest. The foods that you eat and digest provides the ingredients in the form of vitamins, amino acids, fatty acids, minerals that are needed for neurotransmitters and hormones.
When you eat a diet that excludes certain nutrients, or if you eat the same things all the time, you are not giving your body the raw materials it requires to manufacture hormones. Hell, even when eating a whole foods diet devoid of sugars and processed foods, some of these nutrients can be very hard to get in the amounts required to keep your hormones humming along.
Here’s a checklist with some of the most critical nutrients:
- Consume Zinc rich foods or supplement (Zinc Citrate): Zinc is an aromatase inhibitor, which blocks the production of estrogen or the reactions that take place at the estrogen receptor site. We are looking to optimize the ratio of testosterone to estrogen in the body.
- Get Selenium from Brazil Nuts: Eat 2-4 brazil nuts daily to get selenium in a high bioavailable form.
- Consume Omega 3 rich foods: Eat wild caught fish 2-3 times a week, if that isn’t a possibility you can always find high quality fish oil to supplement with.
- Optimize Vitamin D3 levels:.It is a very difficult to get enough vitamin D in the diet through foods, but if you live in a sunny region getting outside and getting sunshine on your skin for at least 20 minutes a day is the best way to naturally get vitamin D. For those of us like myself who live in a region where sunshine isn’t always available supplementing some vitamin D is going to be the best bet for optimizing levels.
- Eat adequate protein. We require amino acids to help with muscle growth, satiety and the production of hormones. Getting enough protein gives the body the amino acids necessary for the production of neurotransmitters that control mood; serotonin and dopamine.
- Eat enough carbohydrates. By getting enough carbohydrates with proper stimulus from training you will use insulin to your advantage to shuttle amino acids into the muscle encouraging growth and strength. By getting enough carbohydrates in the diet during the right times you will keep leptin and thyroid hormones elevated and the metabolism boosted.
- Dietary fat is Necessary. Saturated fat,cholesterol and monounsaturated fats are the raw materials for your body to produce testosterone. You can’t build a house without materials just like your body can’t make enough of the right hormones without cholesterol, protein and saturated fats. Consume a healthy amount monounsaturated and saturated dietary fat from sources such as organic coconut oil, pastured eggs, pasture raised meats, avocados, grass fed butter, wild caught fish, olive oil, nuts.
Let Dr. Rhonda Patrick school you about key nutrients.
With the decisions you make in training, nutrition, recovery and lifestyle you can encourage your body to stay in a hormonal state more conducive to greater strength and muscle mass.
Aside from the strength and muscle considerations; by learning to manage your hormones early on you will also enjoy a healthier, happier and longer life overall. You can’t beat that.
If you have questions about performance and hormones, just leave them in the comments below. I’d love to help you out.
More from Alex
- Check out Alex’s blog Evolve Nutritional Therapy. You can also follow Alex on Twitter and Facebook.
- 10 nutrition habits for more strength and muscle.
Thanks, Alex. Very informative. I particularly like the confirmation and explanation on the cortisol issue. I had always thought it was a complete negative until I heard someone mention that it is necessary at certain times.
Question about the apple cider vinegar. Is it 1-2 tbs per day or per meal?
Glad you found the article helpful amigo. Cortisol absolutely gets a bad rap, but we need it. Just like we have a circadian rhythm we also have a cortisol rhythm throughout the day, but how we eat, train and live can disrupt that rhythm and cause problems for our hormones and health.
With the apple cider vinegar I would recommend going with 1-2 Tbs per meal, but it all comes down to your personal context. Some will need it at each meal others are fine using it once daily. Experiment and see how it works, adjust from there.
Awesome!! This article comes out as I am stuggling with anxiety attacks caused by too much stress to which my workouts contributed. I was just told that at an hormone level my body was under stress almost all day long as my workouts were a nice way to blow off the steam but not at a physiological and hormonal level. This obviously led to some kind of exhaustion and my body expressing it by breathing issues (anxiety)! So great article sustaining the information I lately received seen my experience!! Tips if you’re like me, someone who needs or like to workout daily : insert slow pace activities like swimming, a relaxed jog in a nice spot, or, what the hell why not, yoga(!!), once or twice a week and according to the above, your body will react much better to the 3 heavy weight wods per week than ever! Thanks again to the team for all these great articles and tips!!! Great job!!
Thanks for reading and I’m glad the article was helpful. Nothing wrong with some yoga in your life to balance it all out!
This article is great! I’m reading it thinking “check, yep, that’s me, check, check, check. So…….I’m in the first month of trying to get balance. I’m a 46yr. old female, work six days a wk., I coach , and have 3 kids all in their own activities. Never home, eating on the run constantly. Signs of imbalance, midsection weight gain, can’t seem to lose fat, constantly tired, moodiness, libido, wake up multiple times during the few 5-6 hrs. of sleep I get. I just finished my 3rd wk. of crossfit and I do a 20min. stretch routine every morning. I have had awesome results from the stretching and am already feeling and seeing results from crossfit. I have been doing workout 4-6 times a wk. Based on article maybe too often? Or more is better in this case because I have weight to lose and alot of technique to learn? I know in my heart alot of my issues are hormone related. When I talked to my ob/gyn about this she suggested anti-depressants because I’m really too young to be menopausal yet! HELP…..what kind of dr. should I see to get on track, where do I start to get on the right path??!!
I’m glad to hear that the article got you thinking. Just from what you have said I think six times a week may be excessive and causing some problems. More is not always better when it comes to dipping into the pain cave. You should be able to get a solid stimulus from 3-4 days week and then incorporating lots of low level stuff like walking and hiking. Do you have any kind of stress management practice ? What does your nutrition look like ? Remember recovery needs to be a huge part of this puzzle to maximize hormones. Also getting extremely lean sometimes will tank peoples hormones, and make them feel like shit.
Great article, great podcast episode, and lots of knowledge bombs dropped. I also love how in your serious articles you guys spell gains with a Z lol.
Thanks for reading Caleb. You only spell Gainz with Z if you are serious about them!
I was so excited to see this article because I feel like most people don’t take into account their hormones and neurotransmitters when training. I would love to hear/read a more in depth explanation of how mental illnesses affect training like depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, etc…because even at my own, small box we have multiple athletes battling mental illnesses. Also, (sorry! I know this is asking a lot) you seem so informed about hormones. What do you know about how a female athlete would be affected with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome)?
Appreciate you taking the time to read! The link between, hormones, diet, digestion and training and mental illness is a subject that could fill books. I know a tiny bit about PCOS mainly pertaining to the insulin resistance aspect of it. Because of the insulin resistance impact it makes losing weight difficult, and a lower carb diet would make sense to help with blood sugar and insulin management. Seems like women who PCOS can have a variety of different symptoms that makes PCOS difficult to identify and diagnose. However I am not a doctor and I would recommend a good naturopath to help troubleshoot this with you.
[…] What you need to know about your hormones […]
What are the dimensions of the rope you guys typically pull the sleds with?
From what I’ve read they are 1.5 – 2 inches in diameter and 50ft in length.
Great article! Any recommendations for a good digestive enzyme supplement?
I am a big fan of the Now Foods Super Enzymes – I prefer to get the capsules because they contain ox bile which is really helpful for fat digestion. I also have used and recommend the Garden Of Life digestive enzymes as well.
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In point #6 Avoiding Nutrient Deficiencies, you mention that with enough carbohydrates in combination with exercise your cells are more receptive to insulin (therefor take in more of the sugar from the blood).
My question is, does insulin also cause the cell membrane to become more permeable to the amino acids?
I know exercise stimulates Growth Hormone which in turn causes the liver to make Insulin Like Growth Factor (IGF’S).
The second question is, do the IGF’S also play a role in communicating with the cells to allow more amino acids in (as the name would imply)?
Hope the questions make sense! Thanks!
To the best of my knowledge the exercise is what stimulates the protein synthesis however insulin is what delivers the amino acids to the cells for the muscle growth.
That second question is a great one and to be perfectly honest I’m not as versed in the communication between IGF-1 and muscle cells ,that sounds like a question Dr. Andy Galpin could answer for you. Thanks for reading!
Great Podcast but hose microphones are so distracting.
What are the best test to get to figure out your levels as a starting base? I have been looking into getting test done for that and food sensitivity.
If you get tested I would look into a full thyroid panel, C- reactive protein to measure inflammation and then a women full hormonal profile. Hope that helps!