Every person engaged in strength training should know at least a little bit about hormones. They are the agents that drive muscle development. Therefore, in this article we’ll try to explain as simply as possible how carbohydrates affect hormones and what are the ways we can manipulate with these hormones in our favor.
Carbohydrates and insulin
Carbohydrates cause insulin to release, which is muscle sparing, but which also keeps the body from burning fat. This is the main reason why we often consider insulin to be a double-edged sword hormone. It is therefore important that we construct a diet that intermingles long periods of low insulin levels (in order to maximize fat burning) with short periods of high insulin levels (to protect muscle when it is at the greatest risk of catabolism). You can easily create periods of low insulin levels by extending the amount of time between meals; the amount of time will depend on your body type.
Your body is at its greatest risk of catabolism during your workout. Intense exercise is in fact highly catabolic. As your body remains in a calorie deficit, the catabolic effect of training will be enhanced. During this process the body will attempt to raise low glucose levels by using amino acids from your muscle and converting them to glucose. In effect, your body is feeding upon itself. As a bodybuilder in training, you can combat this and spare your muscles by consuming a whole-food meal or a protein-carbohydrate blend liquid meal replacement 60 minutes before training.
Carbohydrates and leptin
Leptin is a hormone produced mostly by the fat cells and is a regulatory
hormone for our hunger and satiety. Understanding leptin’s role in your body will allow you to understand the importance of “re-feed” days, or high
Leptin is the hormone that signals to your brain that you’ve had enough to eat. In simple terms, it is the fat hormone that tells the brain that there is enough energy stored within the fat cells. Unlike insulin, leptin does not increase when we consume one single meal, like insulin. Instead, leptin rises by increasing our overall carbohydrate and caloric intake over a period of time, usually 12 to 24 hours. Leptin also helps signal your body to begin burning body fat and increase energy expenditure.
When leptin goes down, so does the fat-burning process. An effective way to kick-start fat burn is with “re-feed days,” when you switch your diet to high carbohydrate. These carb days raise leptin and boost the fat burn and can be quite anabolic.
The lesson here is to work in your higher carbohydrate days every 7 to 10 days or as needed during a carbohydrate cycling period of dieting.
Carbohydrates and cortisol
Cortisol (body’s main stress hormone) is the main muscle eating hormone. It is a lifesaver in certain situations, keeping your body from going into shock when traumatized. It also helps energize protein synthesis following exercise. But in high chronic levels, cortisol is catabolic. It breaks down muscle and contributes to increased belly fat.
Studies have shown that obese people have significantly higher levels of this hormone than thin people. Unfit people typically have more cortisol than fit people do. More cortisol means less of the anabolic hormones like testosterone and growth hormone.
Carbohydrates elevate blood sugar more than protein and fat. When blood sugar is up, cortisol goes down, therefore higher carbs push cortisol down. So it makes sense that at times of the day when we want to lower cortisol we should eat higher carbs and when we want to raise cortisol our meal should be lower carb.
However, much better approach for decreasing cortisol levels includes the following: lowering stress, sleeping well, trying relaxation techniques, learning to unwind, laughing and having fun, exercising, eating a good diet, avoiding caffeine at night, taking supplements (fish oil, ashwagandha), etc.
Carbohydrates and endorphins
The primary cause of depression is a problem with the hormone serotonin, which is a substance that makes people feel happy and satisfied. Many things affect the body’s production of serotonin, including attitude, nutrition, and sleep.
Eating sugar and other high-glycemic carbohydrates like white flour triggers the pancreas to secrete a large dose of insulin to control blood sugar levels. Insulin is a precursor to serotonin, so a high insulin level leads to a temporary elevation of serotonin. No wonder they call sugar and carbs “comfort foods”?
Chronic overconsumption of sugar causes the body to produce less serotonin on its own because it starts relying on the external supply from your sugary diet. This lack of natural serotonin production can cause depression and create a situation where you need sugar to feel good, because you’re producing less serotonin without it. This causes a vicious cycle of addiction and can put you at real risk of developing diabetes.
Normalizing serotonin levels is the first step in normalizing weight and feeling great. Normal serotonin levels lead to contentment, well-being, focused concentration, and ability to sleep well. To achieve normal levels, it is important to avoid stimulants and drugs of any kind (including alcohol and tobacco) and to eat a diet balanced in proteins, healthy fats, nonstarchy vegetables, and carbohydrates in a level proportionate to energy expenditure. You need adequate proteins and fats to make serotonin and to normalize brain function.
Because serotonin is made from tryptophan, it is important to obtain enough tryptophan. Tryptophan is found in chicken, milk, almonds, cottage cheese, peanuts, shellfish, soy foods, tuna, and turkey. Other important nutrients used to make serotonin are B vitamins, calcium, and magnesium. Serotonin levels will normalize as the metabolism heals by eating a balanced diet. Tryptophan taken at bedtime will aid sleep.