Did you stay up late last night? What did you have for breakfast today? Pancakes and coffee? Bacon and eggs? Do you do lots of long-steady endurance sessions? Do you do a lot of high-intensity intervals? Do you do heavy weight training? Like it or not, realize it or not… Just about everything that you do or don’t do will directly or indirectly influence your health and fitness by influencing the huge array of hormones that make our bodies what they are.
Have a tall stack of pancakes for breakfast? A huge shot of insulin. Go out and do a bunch of sprints or heavy strength training? A small shot of testosterone. Losing sleep on a regular basis? A steady drip of cortisol and increased insulin resistance. A big meal after a hard workout with carbohydrate and protein? A huge shot of insulin and IGF-1, which will help you recover and won’t increase insulin resistance, but only because it was immediately preceded by the hard workout.
On the one hand, if you think about it this should be pretty clear. Your body is always trying to maintain a state of homeostasis and adapt to its environment. So, what and when you eat and drink, how and when you exercise, sleep, and do basically everything else will influence your hormones. This has huge implications for your health and fitness over time. Clearly the title of this article is intended to be attention grabbing, but the principle it represents is important and I find it to be a useful way of thinking. This idea represents a key feature of understanding your body and is especially useful when thinking in regards to health, athletic training, and performance… The basic idea: Everything you do or don’t do, when and how you do it, acts like a drug to your body because it affects the cascade of hormones constantly changing in your internal environment.
Keep in mind, your body is very smart and is generally very good at keeping itself running smoothly and efficiently. To optimize its operation, the right stresses at the right times can make it better, whereas the wrong stresses will throw things out of alignment, and a lack of stress altogether will leave your body weak and sick in the long run. And, of course, I’m operating always on the assumption that the best way to do things is to work with your body using its own natural systems (i.e. nothing I’m writing has any interest in or relevance to anything synthetic or supplemental, except perhaps melatonin in the right circumstances).
In any case, let’s look at a handful of key hormones (testosterone, growth hormone, insulin, cortisol, IGF-1, melatonin) briefly and see how they react or can be manipulated for our benefit…
- directly drives muscle growth, positive athletic adaptations
- indirectly increases fat-burning
- increases with high-intensity exercise, high-fat diet
- decreases with high stress levels, low-fat diet
- directly drives fat-burning, indirectly drives positive athletic adaptations
- increases with exercise, fasting
- decreases with high-carbohydrate diet
- shuttles carbohydrate from the blood to muscles, liver
- increases fat storage, protein synthesis
- decreases fat burning, protein breakdown
- increases with consumption of carbohydrates, especially high-glycemic load carbohydrates
- decreases with exercise, fasting
- pathology: too much insulin leads to insulin resistance, diabetes, increased hunger, increased adiposity
- increases fat burning, appetite, protein breakdown
- increases with exercise, lost sleep, fasting, mental/emotional stress
- decreases with sleep, feeding, moderate exercise (e.g. walking), and basically anything relaxing
- pathology: high-stress, low-exercise, l0w-sleep lifestyle results in chronically elevated cortisol and increased risk for most “lifestyle” diseases
- increases protein synthesis
- produced with feeding, i.e. carbohydrate and protein
- increased production after a post-workout meal
- pathology: increasingly of interest for possible/probable links to cancer when found in excess
- helps you sleep, helps establish circadian rhythms
- daily cycles of melatonin, circadian rhythms are sensitive to light, disruption and irregularity of sleeping patterns
- synthetic melatonin is generally considered safe as a means of encouraging sleep and re-establishment of normal circadian rhythms
Coming up next: things we do to affect our hormones.