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Food, hormones and our bodies


Food, hormones and our bodies
Recently more research and information has given us a better understanding of how and why certain foods have an effect on our bodies and why it can vary from person to person. The following ‘Food, hormones and our bodies’ article looks at several hormonal effects from the foods we eat.

Insulin

Insulin is a hormone like protein and is created by the pancreas and allows glucose and other nutrients to enter your muscles to be used for energy. Insulin can be raised by all three macros, fat, protein and carbohydrates. However carbohydrates, especially simple carbohydrates have the biggest effect. The body uses insulin to try to keep this under control and balances blood sugar levels as best as possible. However if the body produces too much insulin (hyperglycemia) from the eating of excess sugary foods it will inhibit the body from burning body fat and store excess glucose as triglycerides (fat), hence why sugary foods can lead to people being overweight and getting diabetes. Some bodybuilders will actually try to increase their insulin production post workout as the body becomes more sensitive to insulin and it has an anabolic effect and prevents protein breakdown, creating a powerful muscle building environment and it also inhibits cortisol (see cortisol below), which is produced when you exercise and can breakdown protein and muscle tissue. However I do not recommend this approach for anyone looking to lose body fat, mainly as a healthy balanced nutrition plan you want to keep your body from doing anything extreme and end up making your body insulin resistant where your body no longer recognises the insulin released and keeps hold of the glucose in the blood stream (high blood glucose) which leads to type 2 diabetes. Simple carbohydrates require the least amount of digesting and are quickly transported to the blood stream. Also when you consume too much sugary foods, you can go from a high to a low, known as an energy crash which can lead to fatigue and if that isn’t enough this drop in energy creates a vicious side effect of making you crave more sugar and/or your body will start to seek out energy from fat and muscles. If your body doesn’t produce enough insulin (hypoglycemia), it can cause fatigue/weakness, dizziness, hunger, blurred vision and more.

Glucagon

This is a hormone that does the opposite of insulin. Insulin takes glucose from the bloodstream, puts it into your muscles and liver and inhibits access to your fat and also stores excess glucose as fat. Glucagon however can increase glucose in the bloodstream from fat cells ready for use as energy. It helps keep the body’s blood glucose stable. To reduce insulin and increase glucagon you need to reduce your intake of sugary foods and high GI foods and don’t eat large amounts of carbohydrates, especially in one sitting, eat more protein, good fats and fibre. Also combine foods at each meal to stabilise blood sugar and also gain the advantage of protein consumption that will stimulate glucagon production. It all goes back to when we were hunter gathers and you have just eaten your killed meat and therefore the consumed protein signals to the body that we are fed and so can now release fat for energy.

Ghrelin

Ghrelin is a hormone that notifies the brain that you are hungry, it induces hunger when your stomach is empty or often even when it isn’t. It is largely controlled by your 24hr circadian clock, which encourages you to eat at set mealtimes. Some of this is down to how we used to actively search for and consume food when we were hunter gatherers and may no longer fit into how we live our modern lives.

The good news is that your body is an incredibly good adaptive machine, you just need to train your brain to alter these timings, with both willpower and determination.

Leptin

Leptin on the other hand is a hormone made of fat (adipose tissue) and suppose to switch off the brains need for more food and suppress hunger by regulating metabolic and hunger signals. Sugary diets can cause your body to not be able to use the sugar fast enough and so your body will convert it to triglycerides in the liver and store it instead and the more fat you have the more leptin is produced. However when you consume too much unhealthy foods the brain finds it difficult to read the leptin signals. Obese people can then become leptin resistant and less insulin sensitive and so an increasing circle of eating can happen, more fat, more calories needed, brain doesn’t get the signal from leptin, so you just eat more and more.

How to control ghrelin and leptin

To control Ghrelin and Leptin, eat every 3-4 or so hours, don’t consume too much fructose (1 or 2 pieces of fruit a day, if trying to lose weight), reduce sugar, don’t go low calorie, eat more fibrous food, consume protein at each meal, get more omega 3, but don’t eat too much fat in one sitting, become more active, but still get 7-9 hours of sleep a day, relax and don’t stress.

Cortisol

Cortisol is your stress hormone that is produced through times of various stressful situations by your adrenal glands or by low blood sugar levels. The stresses that produce this hormone can occur from both mental stress or physical stress.

Is it bad for you and has the possibility to can make you fat. However, in normal circumstance it is required to help with stressful situations, such as the fight or flight response. There is also an increase in the release of glucose, protein and yes, fat cells for energy use and will not make you fat on its own. It can actually help regulate blood sugar levels also.

The problem mostly arises when too much cortisol is produced for a prolonged period of time, which can cause the body to become insulin resistant, increase ghrelin production and combined with too many calories can lead to excess bad abdominal fat (visceral fat). Excess cortisol can also over work your adrenal glands and eventually lead to various hormonal imbalances. Other issues of over production of cortisol can create fluctuating cortisol production, make the central nervous system deal with stress instead, increase anxiety, up your heart rate, increase fatigue, reduced growth hormone and testosterone, muscle loss, high blood pressure, decrease in memory and have weakened immunity.

Another problems can occur if you workout for too long, usually beyond an hour. It can then start to breakdown muscle tissue to provide energy, due to low blood sugar levels. This is why it is important to provide both carbohydrates and protein post workout when trying to maintain or gain muscle, although as your body gets used to the stresses of working out, it also then produces less cortisol.

So excess cortisol can therefore be catabolic, unlike testosterone, insulin and growth hormone, which are anabolic.

How to control cortisol levels

To keep cortisol levels under control, you need to reduce stress in your life as the number one fight against its prolonged production. Exercise regularly for between 30-60 minutes. Lifting weights will also increase growth hormone, which has some offset to increased cortisol. Post workout nutrition should contain carbohydrates and protein. Eat a balanced diet, drink plenty of water and get sufficient quality sleep and don’t smoke. Cortisol levels can be tested by your doctor.

Foods that can affect cortisol:

  • Foods high in trans fats, high glycemic foods/refined sugary foods/drinks (unless post workout)
  • Low fibre carbohydrates, refined grains
  • Veg/seed oils
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol

Since caffeinated coffee is a favourite of many, I’m adding some information here with regards cortisol and caffeine. Although caffeine is known to be used by many for weight loss due to how it can stimulate energy usage and increase Epinephrine (adrenaline), it can actually also elevate cortisol, causing your body to store fat. This can be down to the fact that as you consume caffeine you can become tolerant to its fat mobilisation and testosterone increasing effects and so the very idea of stimulating and creating fat breakdown for energy use becomes less effective and you get the opposite effect from raised cortisol levels. For this reason I drink caffeinated drinks only prior to working out to limited my intake at only the time when I can benefit from its stimulus.

Carcinogen

Carcinogen is a substance that can lead to cancers. Food that are classed as being carcinogenic are processed meats, alcohol, overcooked meat, red meat, very hot drinks, fizzy drinks, farmed fish, canned foods, animal fats, refined sugar, vegetable oil and many more foods that have chemical compounds added by manufacturers, such as pop corn that uses artificial butter additives and salted seafood. Again I’m not saying consuming these will give you cancer, I’m merely pointing out that many foods are carcinogenic and for you to be aware of them in your diet.

Note: many studies on the effect of such substances are carried out on mice and rats and to be honest we all know that different animals have a different hormonal and physiological structure, so how accurate these studies are against humans is anyone’s guess?

Estrogen

Estrogen are hormones that are essentially the sex hormones of women, but is also found in men to a lesser degree, although this does increase as you get older. For men, high levels of estrogen can be a problem, as it is responsible for low libido, man boobs, belly fat and muscle loss.

Foods that will potentially increase estrogen are:

  • Milk chocolate – which is high in aromatase‚ an enzyme that converts to estrogen (dark chocolate is OK).
  • Vegetable oil
  • Cheese
  • Fizzy drinks
  • Alcohol

Foods that may help reduce estrogen include:

  • Cruciferous vegetables and other fibrous foods
  • Red grapes
  • Pomegranates
  • Foods with vitamin B12, folate, betaine, and choline (meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, spinach, beets and quinoa)
  • Foods with antioxidants

Reducing fat intake, exercising and reducing weight can also help to reduce estrogen levels.

Thyroid

The Thyroid is a gland and part of the endocrine system. It produces, stores and releases hormones into the bloodstream that help with the bodies energy and metabolism. If you have an under active thyroid gland (Known as Hypothyroidism) it doesn’t produce enough thyroxine and can’t regulate the metabolism efficiently and things start to slow down. This can cause physical stress and this in turn ups cortisol levels, which in turn increases insulin levels, which can lead to insulin resistance. When you become insulin resistant it stops the glucose from getting where it needs to and floods the bloodstream then gets converted to triglycerides to be stored as fat. There are many reasons for this to happen and beyond the reach of this article. However there maybe some ways to help to optimise your health in this respect, such as:

Reduce added sugars, high glycemic carbohydrates and refined starches, reduce/stop junk food, avoid most fruit juices, alcohol, most breads and cereals. Stop doing those low calorie and yo yo diets. Eat more vegetables, protein rich foods, legumes, nuts and seeds, get more active, but also get more quality sleep, drink more water and increase Zinc rich foods.

Food and sleep

Good quality sleep can make a huge difference to many aspects of your life. It can improve your mood, memory, concentration, reduce stress and depression, actually help you lose weight and make improvements in your general health. With that we are going to take a look at what can make you sleepy and possibly improve your evening sleep time.

Tryptophan

On its own tryptophan will not make you sleepy, however it is an essential amino acid that is needed to create niacin (a B vitamin), which helps produce serotonin (more on that below). Being essential you must get tryptophan through your diet. Incidentally carbohydrate consumption that raises insulin levels a little can removed amino acids from the blood stream, but not the amino acid Tryptophan and therefore this will increase serotonin even further.

Foods that contain Tryptophan include meat, cheese, pineapple, yogurt, eggs, tofu, fish, legumes, nuts and seeds.

Serotonin

This is a hormone that helps your sleep pattern, mood and makes you calm and relaxed. Depressed people tend to have low serotonin levels. It is created in both the brain and intestines. Apart from eating more tryptophan rich foods, exercise and light therapy can be used to increase serotonin. Also eating a small amount of carbohydrates with tryptophan rich foods can help create more serotonin.

Melatonin

This is a hormone created in the brain that can make you sleepy. It is said to control how awake you are and how much sleep you get and is influenced by your body’s internal clock. However lighting and the food you eat can have an effect on its production. Dark light signals the brain to produce melatonin as it is the natural indicator of night time. There are foods that contain Melatonin, but this doesn’t normally mean that it will have an effect on how well it can be used to make you sleepy.

Foods that contain melatonin, include milk, tomatoes, pineapples, cherries, bananas, oranges, oats and rice.

Other foods that can make you sleepy:

Insulin producing foods and drinks can make you sleepy, but as discussed previously, high levels of insulin is not so good, when insulin is induced, you get a high followed by a low.

  • Almonds – contain tryptophan and magnesium
  • Pumpkin & Squash Seeds
  • Foods with melatonin help regulate sleep cycle
  • Herbal teas – contain tryptophan
  • Banana’s yes they have fruit sugar, but contain magnesium and tryptophan that gets converted to serotonin and melatonin
  • Hummus has tryptophan
  • Dark chocolate has serotonin, which relaxes your body and mind
  • Turkey has tryptophan
  • Milk and greek yogurt has tryptophan
  • Pineapple –  serotonin and melatonin

Basically foods that have tryptophan and serotonin and melatonin. Personally I’d choose less sugary foods. Also note there are foods that also contain these but also have other chemicals/nutrients that counter act the effects, such as beer contains melatonin, but stops deeper sleep patterns due to the alcohol.

Foods/drinks that will keep you awake

  • Coffee and other caffeinated drinks
  • Fatty and spicy foods
  • Aged hard cheese have tyramine
  • Alcohol, yes it does make some people sleepy, but it stops you from going into the deeper stages of sleep
  • Milk chocolate – has tyrosine that converts to dopamine, which is a stimulant
  • Soy products have tyramine

Why you should eat before you sleep

Firstly it’s a myth that you shouldn’t eat at night or before bedtime, so long as you are eating the right foods and you are within your daily calorie amount it will not make you fat. Remember you want to keep those hunger pangs away and blood sugar levels in check. This will help the hormone glucagon burn fat. Going to bed hungry will keep you awake and therefore this disruption can lead to fat gain. Combing some of the foods suggested to help you sleep will also keep you satiated when sleeping and can actually boost your metabolism.

Lignans

Umm where do I start, I just had to mention these, but before I do, there seems to be a lot of controversy and confusion about the benefits of lignans for men as far as estrogen goes. However some people suggest it increases estrogen levels, while other say the opposite. It is also said to lower Human Growth Hormone and testosterone. However,  I have researched this quite a bit as I use Flaxseed and Flaxseed has the highest concentration of lignans. Anyway I personally, after all the research that I’ve done, am happy to continue consuming flaxseed (which I buy milled).

So what exactly are Lignans? they are antioxidants that help balance women’s hormone and mens testosterone levels, as well as support the immune system. They also help reduce cortisol and of course if you believe some, is even considered an anti-estrogen. In fact they have been and are used to help fight many ailments, including cancer, viruses and bacterial diseases,.

Human growth hormone (HGH).

For men looking to reduce body fat and increase muscle mass, you may be or not be aware that as you get older, particularly once you reach your 30’s your HGH levels starts to fall, which is known as somatopause. HGH is secreted by your pituitary gland and is most active in childhood and adolescence. When this starts to drop, muscle gains slow down, you start to put more fat on, get more tired and generally get more of those age related issues.

There are several ways to naturally increase this hormone however. These include following a better nutrition plan, exercise, especially HIIT and working many muscles of the body in one session, the more muscles activated the more HGH is released, this is why compound exercises that work large and multiple muscles like squatting are known to be great builders of muscle mass. Again avoid insulin spikes from high glycemic/sugary foods/drinks as this suppresses HGH.

Testosterone

Testosterone is a mainly a male hormone, although women also produce it at a much lower level. It is a steroid hormone produced by the sex organs and also to a lesser degree by the adrenal gland. It rises along with HGH and helps control body fat, muscle gain, libido, improve your mood, improve bone strength and fight against heart disease. Low levels of testosterone can be attributed to genetics, poor diet and sedentary lifestyle and can lead to tiredness, low sex drive, erectile dysfunction, depression, fat gain, loss of muscle and poor physical performance. Physical exercise, especially high intensity and resistance training can help increase testosterone, as well as stress relief activities and good quality sleep. Higher calorie diets increase testosterone, especially complex carbohydrates and fats. Testosterone drops significantly as you age and is the biggest factor in trying to increase muscle gains as you get older. The biggest problem however is as you get older you put on fat more easily, however fat consumption can also increase testosterone production.

Foods that can help increase HGH and testosterone include:

  • Almonds
  • Avocados
  • Beetroots
  • Coconut Oil
  • Dark berries
  • Eggs
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Fava Beans
  • Garlic
  • Goji Berries
  • Lean beef – grass fed
  • Lemons
  • Nuts
  • Organic chicken
  • Oysters
  • Parmesan
  • Pineapple
  • Plain yogurt, preferably Greek-style
  • Quinoa
  • Raisins
  • Salmon
  • Tempeh
  • Tuna
  • Watermelon
  • Whey Protein

Food that reduce testosterone include:

  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Simple carbohydrate foods
  • Chemical riddled foods

Final word on Hormones and food

It’s important to note that while some foods reduce or increase the various levels of hormones mentioned above, the diet that you follow and particularly the types of foods you consume with each other will have an effect on what they do. For instance while some foods are said to reduce testosterone, they may very well have no effect in doing so if you are on a higher fat diet or you consume them with more fats. That is because higher fat diets tend to increase testosterone already.

In order to work out what works best for you will require some experimentation as we each have a different hormonal makeup. Also there are of course many more hormones that effect the body and the way it handles its energy, growth and bodily functions. You are more than welcome to look these up, be prepared to stare at the screen for long hours and to have to re-read some of it several times – good luck.

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Please also see About resistant starch