Most fat-burning supplements on the market are stimulant-based, thus they work by increasing the neurotransmitter/hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine. Norepinephrine and epinephrine are catecholamines, secreted by the adrenals, which trigger the “fight or flight” response (also known as an adrenaline rush) providing an energy and strength boost by way of the central nervous system for 2-15 minutes. When facing a legitimate stressor, i.e. an emergency, we rely on these hormones to overcome and persevere. Epinephrine, also referred to as adrenaline, is what gets you out of bed in the morning; it further gives you an edge every time you take on a challenge. Adrenaline gives us energy for intense workouts and, in the form of norepinephrine, for the mental demands of problem-solving.
The problem, as usual, comes from too much of a good thing. Most people in modern society have chronically jacked-up adrenaline levels from day-to-day living, and taking stimulant-based fat burners only increases the load on their already overworked adrenal glands. What if you’re on vacation? With no stress in sight? Still, if you take a fat-burning supplement the recommended two to three times a day, you’ll still be increasing your brain’s perception of stress. While epinephrine works in the body, increasing oxygen and glucose levels while suppressing digestive and immune systems, norepinephrine works similarly but adds a bonus psychoactive element. Thus every time you take a stimulant-based fat-burning supplement the message to the brain is a consciousness of stress.
Chronically elevated adrenaline always results in adrenaline resistance, a condition wherein the various adrenaline receptors become desensitized. In an adrenaline-sensitive system, adrenaline causes blood sugar to rise (to be burned for energy) while simultaneously releasing lipids into the bloodstream (the fat-burning part) thus adrenaline can aid us in breaking down fat deposits for energy. Unfortunately, in an adrenaline-resistant system, since the receptors are dulled, the message is either delayed or worse, never gets through. Thus, the system stores–instead of burning–the available energy sources and, worse yet, tends to store the released lipids into already-existing stubborn fat depots, like hips and thighs in women and love handles and upper back fat in men. In addition to increasing depot fat stores, adrenaline resistance–allowed to run its course–ends with severe energy lows and general fatigue Receptors worn out by chronic stimulation eventually shut down, leaving you lagging all day.
Unfortunately, the effects of adrenaline resistance don’t stop at increased fat storage and decreased energy levels. Chronically elevated adrenaline brings inflammation: every secretion of adrenaline triggers a complement of the stress hormone, cortisol, a counter-response to the system’s inflammatory response to adrenaline. Like adrenaline, cortisol–in the appropriate doses–is helpful. The problem, again, is too much of a good thing–when cortisol levels are chronically elevated. In an optimal scenario, cortisol is released to reduce the inevitable inflammation (by way of suppressing the immune response) triggered by adrenaline, and everything is as it should be thus homeostasis ensues. The problem arises when cortisol is chronically released in response to an adrenaline-resistant system–resulting in a continual feedback loop of stress hormones. Worse, unlike adrenaline, cortisol doesn’t release fatty acids for energy but goes the quick and dirty route of muscle catabolism. So you see, between fatty acid storage and muscle catabolism, adrenaline resistance (at least in the realm of optimal body composition) is truly a worst-case scenario.
Building–and retaining–muscle mass is critical to body leanness. If your goals include fat loss, you’ll want to add muscle to improve your ratio of lean body mass to fat–and building muscle is virtually impossible in the face of adrenaline resistance.
We need sufficient testosterone and growth hormone to feel our best and thrive, but the excess cortisol (from the excess adrenaline) pulls the plug on muscle gains on one front by flat-lining production of the anabolic sex hormones. When your central nervous system is in continual survival mode, available energy is no longer delegated to anabolism (i.e. tissue growth and repair) but instead to survival mode (i.e. suppressing inflammation by suppressing the immune system.) Decreased sex hormone production is the kiss of death for muscle gains, fat loss, powerful immunity, and a healthy zeal for life. Do you want to optimize your sex hormone levels and feel great? Here’s the hitch: You must address adrenaline resistance.
When it comes to fat loss, instead of relying on ever-increasing adrenal stimulation (with ever-decreasing returns) focus on what actually needs to happen to burn the fat off–keep it off. One often overlooked key to fat loss is liver health. The stronger and healthier the liver, the less stubborn fat deposits on the body, since the liver assists in clearing out excess fat-retaining estrogens.
Since toxins are stored in fat cells, the body will stubbornly retain fat in order not to release those stored toxins into the bloodstream, since it could overwhelm the system–especially when organs are already stressed. Though you may think it hates you, your body may actually be holding on to that undesired fat to protect your organs.
Knowing this, it makes sense to eat a diet both clean and free of toxins. Consuming ample organic fruits and vegetables provides the liver with antioxidants to counter the effects of toxins released from the fat cells. While the nutrition benefit per se of organic food over non-organic food is negligible at best, organic food has fewer surface toxins from sprays which ideally translates into a lower toxic load on the system, therefore less burden on the liver and finally, decreased stubborn body fat.
Nutritional supplements can play a role in liver health and thus, fat loss. Essential fatty acids are one supplement proven to be effective in fat loss, organ health, and reducing inflammation and intracellular friction. The good news is that supplements for liver health and stress management also function de facto fat-loss aids. For the liver, the amino acid N-acetyl cysteine is a great option. N-acetyl cysteine is a precursor to glutathione, which is critical for optimal immune function, protein synthesis, and repair. Another multi-faceted supplement for increasing glutathione is R-lipoic acid, which further increases insulin sensitivity in the muscles, thus supporting fat loss and muscle gains.