Optimizing hormone levels is critical to good health, as you’re only as healthy as your hormone levels. Hormones influence our moods, thought patterns, (negative and positive) behaviors, appearance, and our ability to handle stress. To best optimize hormone levels is to focus on the big picture, namely the big three: leptin, insulin, and adrenaline and, of these three, leptin is the most important since insufficient leptin further compromises testosterone and growth hormone.
What exactly is leptin? A hormone produced by fat cells, leptin was discovered in 1994. Leptin’s primary job is restoring fat reserves when energy (food) is consumed. This is a biological survival mechanism to increase survival chances in case of famine. (These days, however, the closest most people we know approach famine is their two-hour downtime between meals!) After restoring fat reserves, leptin determines how much energy the body needs and where it’s best spent. Leptin, in fact, leads the entire hormonal cascade.
When leptin levels drop, the brain receives a signal (from another hormone, grehlin) that it’s time to eat. Ideally, you’ll pick healthy options, e.g. high-quality foods to replenish the brain’s neurotransmitters and refill liver and muscle glycogen.
When you eat a meal, leptin levels rise again, signaling the brain that enough calories have been consumed and it’s time to stop eating. Insulin levels also rise with food intake and insulin’s job is to get as much nutrition as possible into the liver and muscles. If the muscles and liver are already full of nutrients then nutrient spillover occurs and excess calories are stored as fat. When leptin is working properly it prevents nutrient spillover by telling insulin to shut off after your tank is full.
When you don’t eat enough calories (or, more precisely, derive enough energy from the food you eat) for too long a time, leptin signals the thyroid hormones to decrease metabolic rate in order to conserve energy. In addition to slowing down fat loss, a sluggish metabolic rate will hamper sex hormone production and anabolism in general. Since the production of sex hormones is energy intensive, if the body isn’t receiving adequate fuel, all stores will go to maintenance and repair before growth–and growth means muscle tissue, among other things, and muscle maintenance and growth are your best tools for fat loss and optimal body composition. Without adequate sex hormone production in particular testosterone and growth hormone, you will not be able to build muscle. The best you can hope for is skinny fat, and taking up less space on the planet does equate to lean and healthy. Skinny fat is still poor body composition.
Neither are high levels of leptin the same as optimal levels. Ironically, overweight people have high leptin levels, but the brain doesn’t “know” those levels are high due to a condition called leptin resistance, wherein the satiety messages issued from leptin never make it to the brain’s receptors, which generally results in excess calorie intake before satiety is registered. Overeating in general obviously results in excess calories being stored as fat.
Hard training athletes can get away with unseemly calorie intake since their energy demand is higher than the average person, their insulin sensitivity is high and their muscles store and metabolize more glycogen. The average person’s insulin liver and muscle glycogen storage are considerably more limited and further, their insulin resistance may be compromised. Once the average person’s liver and muscle glycogen stores are refilled, (if they were ever depleted in the first place) the rest of the meal’s energy value goes to fat storage, to be used–ideally–another day. This is why I think post-workout, high-carbohydrate “recovery” shakes are a mistake, at least for the average person of sub-optimal body composition (ie, too fat) who consumes adequate carbohydrate throughout the day already. Combined with less-than-optimal insulin sensitivity in the muscles, it’s a recipe for increasing body fat.
Excessive calorie intake is the fast track to leptin resistance. Since it’s hard to eat an excess of the so-called “clean” foods, excess calories usually come from junk foods. Junk foods may be appropriate for an elite athlete requiring prodigious calorie intake to fuel training but you’re probably not in that category! For most people, frequent intake of fast foods and other junk foods brings them to a bad end: leptin resistance.
Every time you eat food in excess (of energy required by the body) leptin and insulin levels surge. The larger and more calorie dense the meal, the higher the surge and the longer the duration. You know the rap: the excess stimulation causes the cellular receptors to develop resistance to the continual flood of the hormone. Once the receptors become resistant, they require more stimulation (food intake) to respond with a satiety signal. This condition, leptin resistance, is analogous to becoming a human fat storage organism. An ignoble accomplishment compared to the heights of real human potential.
Leptin resistance leads to insulin resistance which further fixes leptin resistance. With insulin resistance, you no longer have insulin sensitivity. When you have insulin sensitivity, you only need to secrete a small amount of insulin to get calories into the muscle and liver. Your receptor uptake of insulin is strong and efficient. When you have insulin resistance, your receptors are weak and worn out. As a result, you require a much higher insulin response from overeating to get calories into the muscles and liver. Whatever is left over which is a lot will be stored as fat. High insulin also results in an inevitable blood sugar crash, which makes you hungry again. Thus you have an insatiable urge to eat and the entire process starts all over again.
Leptin resistance is a serious health issue. Essentially you are overfeeding your body but the perception from your brain is that you are starving. Thus, even though you’re eating a lot, your metabolic rate will slow down just like someone who is underrating. A slowed down metabolic rate again slows down fat loss or brings it to a screeching halt. Moreover, a hampered metabolic rate puts the breaks on sex hormone production. The end result is you’re fat, tired, and have no sex drive. You do not have the energy to put in intense weight training workouts to build muscle and ramp up testosterone and growth hormone. Even if you do get the intense workouts in you do not have the testosterone and growth hormone production to recover from arduous workouts.
Just like many things in life, you must create an optimal hormone balance that is right for you. This will vary with each person. Just like every hormone you do not want leptin too high or too low. You want just enough for optimal functioning. While there is a blood test that you can do for leptin it is really not necessary. If you are overweight you have leptin resistance.
The way to get out of leptin resistance is to give your body a break. Just like we need vacations from work, our receptors need a vacation from having to deal with large volumes of food delivered often. The first thing you need to do is make better food choices.
Eat a balance of protein, fat, and carbs at every meal. A good starting point is 30% protein, 40% carbs, and 30% popularized by Barry Sears as “The Zone” diet. This won’t be the perfect ratio for everyone–you will have to experiment to see what works best for you–but it is a reasonable starting point.
Trying to lose fat? Take a page from Byron Richard’s outstanding book Mastering Leptin and stick to two to three meals a day, with five to eight hours between meals. The extended food-free meal breaks provide opportunities for the body to call on stored fat for energy. Instead of snacks, your body will fuel itself with free fatty acids, as long as you’re not in the aerobic zone. To ensure a growth hormone surge while sleeping each night, best to quit eating at least four hours before bedtime. GH optimizes fat loss and muscle growth, which is all the more reason to prioritize the recommended 7-9 hours of good quality sleep each night–what could be more hardcore than aggressive sleeping? And the longer duration and greater intensity the sleep, the better the results. So turn off GH killers, such as late-night television and internet–and alcohol, and apply yourself to better sleeping and recovery habits.
For hard training athletes–especially those with low body fat levels–three meals a day will probably not cut it. Four meals per day–with about four hours between meals–is better. Still, cut off eating three hours before bedtime for best recovery from tough workouts.
Nutrition supplements also have a place in optimizing hormones. One supplement that everyone can benefit from is magnesium. Magnesium is needed to extract energy from food and for optimal insulin function. The more energy you extract from food the less you have to eat to feel great. Magnesium’s benefits go on forever. For more information on the best magnesium option on the market go to Aggressive Strength Recovery Oil
For more information on Leptin, make sure to check out Byron Richard’s exceptional books: Mastering Leptin and The Leptin Diet. Ori Hofmekler’s books The Warrior Diet and the Anti-estrogenic Diet are also great reads.