Hormonal Wars The Conflict From Within

by Jerry Brainum

While you may not be aware of it, a struggle for biochemical domination is occurring within you. The victor of this war ultimately determines whether you make muscular gains or lose muscle and even get fat. The two combating armies are collectively called anabolic and catabolic hormones. The most familiar of them from a bodybuilding perspective are testosterone (anabolic), growth hormone (anabolic), insulin (anabolic) and Cortisol (catabolic).

Anabolic refers to the metabolic building processes. The actions of anabolic hormones involve either an increase in muscle protein synthesis or a decreased breakdown of muscle protein. Increased breakdown of muscle is the chief characteristic of catabolic reactions. You would think that since Cortisol, the body's primary catabolic hormone, is so outnumbered by the anabolic forces, it would be more or less an ineffectual player in the hormonal battle between anabolic and catabolic reactions, but that isn't the case.

Since Cortisol, a product of the adrenal gland cortex, is a primary stress hormone, it's activated by any type of stress the higher brain centers that govern its release perceive. Since stress is ubiquitous, the body is constantly secreting Cortisol, with peaks in the early morning hours and a low during the initial stages of deep sleep.

While Cortisol has gotten a bad reputation among bodybuilders due to its potent catabolic activity and tendency to promote bodyfat accretion, the fact remains that it's also essential to life. During stress reactions it's the first line of defense in, among other functions, maintaining energy levels and blood pressure. While such reactions can be lifesaving under certain circumstances, when you're resting or after you exercise, the results are hardly desirable. They include muscle loss, mineral excretion, sodium retention and other enemies of bodybuilding progress.

For natural bodybuilders, meaning people who eschew all forms of pharmaceutical bodybuilding assistance, controlling Cortisol is vital for muscle gains. Note the use of the word controlling. You don't want to totally eliminate Cortisol activity in your body, as that would be a life-threatening condition.

The key is to control the catabolic reactions induced by Cortisol while emphasizing the anabolic processes that promote increased muscle growth. You do that by upping your body's production of the endogenous anabolic hormones mentioned above by both following a sensible training program and using certain specific nutritional substances and diet techniques.

Let's get one thing straight, however. No natural food or supplement can match the power of drugs such as anabolic steroids. Such steroids promote muscle gains through two primary mechanisms: 1) increased muscle protein synthesis and 2) decreased catabolic reactions in muscle. The first mechanism involves a genetic alteration of certain protein synthesizing enzymes that simply can't be duplicated by any known food supplement; however, the second process, anticatabolism, can be manipulated without drugs.

Research concerning the mechanisms of anabolic steroids shows that most of their effects come from their anticatabolic activity. The upgraded protein synthesis is relatively ephemeral, lasting only a few weeks at best. After that it's all anticatabolic, as the steroids somehow counteract the actions of Cortisol in muscle.

Exactly how they accomplish this anticatabolic activity is still subject to debate. While some people say that steroids block cellular Cortisol receptors in a manner similar to the way another drug, Nolvadex, blocks estrogen cell receptors, that doesn't add up. For one thing, muscle tissue contains at least 50 times more Cortisol receptors than androgen receptors, the receptors anabolic steroids

Recent studies show that consuming carbohydrates and protein immediately following a workout both increases insulin release and potently blunts Cortisol.

interact with. A more plausible explanation is that such steroids can interfere with Cortisol activity in muscle, most likely at the gene level.

How Cortisol Breaks Down Muscle

Understanding Cortisol's catabolic activity in muscle provides some insight into the way certain food supplements may help spare muscle by inhibiting it. Cortisol is known to reduce body protein stores in all tissues except for the liver. It does that through several mechanisms, including a reduction in the synthesis of cellular RNA, which is essential for protein synthesis. Since anabolic steroids promote muscle protein synthesis by increasing RNA, Cortisol has exactly the opposite effect.

Cortisol mobilizes amino acids from muscle for transport to the liver, where they undergo a process called gluconeogene-sis that results in increased glucose production. While this is vital for a rapid source of energy during severe stress, it also results in muscle breakdown. Insulin opposes Cortisol in the action, but high stress activity promotes Cortisol domination over insulin.

A study conducted about two years ago showed that as little as two grams of oral glutamine significantly increased growth hormone release. That alone would give you an anticatabolic effect, since growth hormone opposes the actions of Cortisol in muscle.

Recent studies show that consuming carbohydrates and protein immediately following a workout both increases insulin release and potently blunts Cortisol. The dosage of carbs required for this effect is one gram per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of bodyweight taken immediately after training and again one hour later. In addition, including at least 50 grams of protein helps maximize insulin release.

Cortisol appears to promote the synthesis of a protein-degrading substance called ubiquitin that rapidly breaks down muscle. Interestingly, a drug called clenbuterol that's favored by some bodybuilders may work by inhibiting ubiquitin synthesis in muscle, thereby exerting an anticatabolic effect. Other hormones, such as growth hormone and insulinlike growth factor 1 (IGF-1), appear to inhibit the ubiquitin system as well.

Cortisol also works by stimulating the exit of the amino acid glutamine from muscle. When that occurs, rapid muscle catabolism follows. Several studies show that taking supplemental glutamine may block much of the catabolic effects of Cortisol in muscle. The problem is, many of the studies that show an anticatabolic effect of glutamine used intravenous solutions containing a stable dipeptide—up to 40 grams of glutamine in a complex with another amino acid, alanine.

If you attempted to take that quantity of glutamine orally, most of it would not reach your blood or muscle. Intestinal cells, which are replaced about every three days as they slough off during the process of food movement through the gut, use glutamine as fuel. When you take it orally, about 85 percent of a dose of glutamine goes to the intestinal cells. Even if it were somehow to survive the intestinal hijacking, the liver has enzymes just waiting to degrade the rest of it.

Nevertheless, a study conducted about two years ago showed that as little as two grams of oral glutamine significantly increased growth hormone release. That alone would give you an anticatabolic effect, since growth hormone opposes the actions of Cortisol in muscle. In fact, studies indicate that decreasing Cortisol release in the body results in an upgraded growth hormone response.

Some preliminary studies show that vitamin C may also inhibit the catabolic actions of Cortisol; however, the evidence is not particularly impressive. More likely, substances like branched-chain amino acids and even dietary fat are the nutritional Cortisol inhibitors.

A new study reported at the 1997 meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine found that one of the branched-chain amino acids, leucine, successfully reduced the catabolic effects of Cortisol in rat muscle without affecting muscle glutamine levels. That's interesting because past studies showed that BCAAs work by either increasing muscle glutamine synthesis or preventing its release under the influence of Cortisol.

Another study, reported at the Experimental Biology 97 meeting in New Orleans, examined the effects of dietary fats on plasma hormones in runners. The study compared three levels of fat composition in the diets of the runners: 17 percent, 32 percent and 41 percent. The results showed that the 32 percent fat diet significantly reduced Cortisol levels in the runners compared to the 17 percent fat diet. Under the 42 percent, or high-fat, diet, Cortisol levels increased only marginally. The diet lowest in fat produced the highest Cortisol levels.

The authors of this study suggest that higher fat diets may help eliminate some of the excess Cortisol release through an upgraded prostaglandin synthesis. Prostaglandins are hormonelike substances made from dietary fat that, among other actions, influence hormonal secretions. They were recently popularized by the best-selling diet book Enter the Zone, by Barry Sears.

Another possible explanation for the way a high-fat diet dilutes Cortisol involves increased testosterone production. Testosterone has an inverse relationship to Cortisol; that is, when testosterone is elevated in the blood, Cortisol is depressed and vice versa. When testosterone is elevated, anabolic muscle reactions occur.

Natural bodybuilders seeking to key in to the anticatabolic effects of testosterone without using synthetic versions, such as anabolic steroids, often resort to purported testosterone precursors. These over-the-counter products fall into a gray area of legality due to the Food Supplement Act of 1994. Consequently, they are freely available and legal, at least for now.

One example of a reputed testosterone precursor is the adrenal hormone DHEA, which is produced in the pathway that begins with cholesterol and results in testosterone. That could be a problem, however, as DHEA, in some instances, may take divergent pathways, winding up as either an undesirable by-product of testosterone metabolism called dihydrotestosterone (DHT) or, even worse, estrogen. DHT is linked to male pattern baldness, prostate enlargement and acne, while estrogen, in males, leads to gynecomastia, increased fat deposition under the skin and water retention.

Those over age 40 will probably get the most benefit from DHEA. At that point in people's lives DHEA synthesis generally undergoes a precipitous drop, in which case conservative doses of 50 milligrams a day may take the desirable testosterone pathway by converting to the immediate precursor to testosterone, androstenedione.

Recently, androstenedione itself became available as an oral supplement. Some studies show that a liver enzyme can convert androstenedione directly into testosterone, which can increase plasma testosterone levels up to 300 percent over baseline for about two hours; however, it can also be converted by another enzyme, aromatase, into estrogen. In addition, no one has figured out how long an oral supplement of androstenedione continues to remain effective—assuming that it is effective for testosterone-raising purposes.

Still another over-the-counter hormone that has been suggested as a Cortisol blocker is melatonin, a hormone synthesized in the pineal gland of the brain from the amino acid tryptophan. While melatonin is un-

The authors of this study suggest that higher fat diets may help eliminate some of the excess Cortisol release through an upgraded prostaglandin synthesis. Prostaglandins are hormonelike substances made from dietary fat that, among other actions, influence hormonal secretions.

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