Improve Your Hormone Levels

As I promised a few weeks ago, I’ll provide some simple steps you can take to improve your hormone levels.

Just to reiterate, your hormone levels dictate a large part of your health, performance, and body composition.

For the actual details about healthy hormone levels and effects, please refer to my post about testosterone.

Without further ado, here are the safest and most effective tactics to manage healthy hormone levels:

• Make sure you are consuming a nutrient rich diet.
Any nutrient deficiency has the potential to negatively impact hormones, but the biggest culprits will be zinc, vitamin A, vitamin D, and magnesium. I’ll do a post explaining which foods have the most nutrient value later on but, for now, I’ll just recommend oysters, liver (if you can stand the flavor and have a high-quality source), avocados, eggs (particularly the yolk), and plenty of naturally-raised, well-treated meats, full of the fats and proteins your body needs to manufacture testosterone.

• Consume dietary cholesterol on a regular basis.
The best sources are eggs, shrimp, and fattier cuts of beef (grass-fed of course!). Cholesterol is a precursor to testosterone production. Keep in mind, the cholesterol you eat will only raise your HDL a little and have hardly any effect on triglycerides (the “bad” cholesterol in the blood).

• Avoid over-consuming carbohydrates.
Starches and sugars will cause insulin spikes in the blood. Your muscles can only store so many carbs before the insulin forces carbs to be stored in fat cells. This insulin will also disrupt normal hormone signaling.

• Get 8-9 hours of sleep a night.
During the first few hours of sleep, your body will release the largest amount of human growth hormone, allowing your body to recover from the day. I know everyone says they can get by with 6 hours…but your body composition, mental performance, and energy levels will always be better with a proper 8 hours of sleep.

• Lift something heavy a few times a week.
This will stimulate the body to produce testosterone to recover from the stimulus. Again, keep in mind that heavy lifting isn’t what produces bulky muscles…that would be higher repetitions (8-15) for multiple sets (3-4) with very little rest (30-90 seconds).

• Do some high intensity interval training.
Refer to my post from a few weeks ago. This has the potential of benefiting hormones more than any other exercise.

• Avoid alcohol.
Or at least try to moderate your intake. Alcohol will convert testosterone to estrogen within the body.

• Avoid stress.
This might be the most difficult but cortisol, released when you’re stressed, will lower testosterone levels. Some of the easiest things you can do are to limit your caffeine intake and take time during the day to stare off into nature or distract yourself from the stresses of our modern lives.

One final method for increasing testosterone levels is to supplement directly with hormones (a.k.a. steroids). However, this is a much more controversial and potentially unsafe method that I’ll save for another post.

Give all these things a try and see if you notice an improvement in body composition, strength, recovery, or just general mood and energy on a daily basis!

Chocolate!

Due to the positive feedback from last week’s post discussing coffee consumption, this week I’ll do a similar analysis of another dark and flavorful food – chocolate!

Chocolate, as we know it, is much different than the cocoa bean that grows in nature. The beans are roasted, de-shelled, and ground into a paste. From there, sugar, cocoa butter, and emulsifiers (usually soy lecithin) are added. Finally, it is refined, treated with an alkalizing agent to reduce the acidity, and often combined with dairy.

The darker the chocolate you consume, the less inputs are added. For the sake of discussion, let’s look at the health benefits of 100% raw cocoa:

  • It has more antioxidants, particularly flavonoids, than any other substance. These help the body maintain healthy cardiovascular function by improving endothelial function, blood lipid levels, blood pressure, and insulin sensitivity.
  • It is predominately saturated and monounsaturated fat, the safest and most stable forms of fuel for the body.
  • One ounce (less than a single square from a bar) fulfills the listed percent of recommended daily values for the following minerals:
    • 50% Copper and Manganese
    • 35% Magnesium
    • 25% Iron and Phosphorus
    • 15% Potassium and Zinc

These are minerals that most people are deficient in…particularly when you consider the anti-nutrient content, and resulting absorption issues, of the foods they are predominately found in (nuts, seeds, and grains).

I would list the following facts as downsides of cocoa:

  • One ounce contains 65mg of caffeine (not nearly as much as coffee but on par with black tea).
  • One ounce also contains 200-500mg of theobromine – another stimulant that takes the body longer to process than caffeine.
  • As mentioned above, it is usually processed with sugar, dairy, and soy.

Again, all these facts are for 100% raw cocoa, often sold in the baking aisle of grocery stores as baking chocolate. In this form, it is very bitter and difficult to over consume.

I’d recommend buying the darkest chocolate you can still enjoy. Most people can find a 75%-85% dark chocolate bar that they like…just experiment with different brands!

I personally buy 100% raw cocoa and melt it into smoothies or shave it on top of yogurt and homemade ice cream. When mixed with other foods, particularly sweeter foods, I find the bitterness of the 100% dark to be perfect.

I use 1-2 ounces (one square from a full bar) on each day of the weekend. I personally would not want to consume cocoa on a daily basis due to the stimulant properties. However, if you are consuming 85% or darker cocoa, there is no reason not to enjoy one square a day (just try to eat it earlier in the day due to the stimulant properties). Be on the lookout for bars loaded with sugar, milk, or other inputs that could lead to over consumption.

One separate matter worth mentioning, that I unfortunately did not touch upon in my last post, is the environmental and humanity issues involved in the production of cocoa. Very often, child slaves and impoverished farmers are subject to terrible treatment. Also, deforestation is a major concern when growing and harvesting cocoa beans.

Try to find cocoa that is certified Fairtrade. This implies that a certification body has approved the environmental, labor, and developmental standards involved in the production of a food. Like many other bureaucratic systems however, this certification is far from perfect and does not guarantee fair treatment of every person involved in the cocoa trade.

In closing, I would like to reiterate: check the list of ingredients on the back of whatever you buy. Find a product with the shortest list that does not contain any ingredients you could not find in nature. And also, consume in moderation. Just because a food has more benefits than detriments, doesn’t mean more is better.

Enjoy!

Optimizing Sleep

In my post regarding recovery I mentioned the importance of sleep. With our busy lives, it’s easy to forgo the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night. I’m sure many of you will agree that, after enough nights of only 4 to 6 hours of sleep, and enough caffeine, it’s not difficult to survive. But, even if you feel like you can perform just as well, there is no substitute for a full 8 hours of sleep on a regular basis.

Some of the benefits of adequate sleep include: recovery from exercise or injury; release of human growth hormone; improved immune system; healthy brain development; and improved memory function.

Below are some recommendations I find extremely helpful when trying to optimize my sleep quantity and quality.

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Room Darkening Shades – In my bedroom I have typical pull-down shades that are sufficient at blocking out stray car headlights. However, I also have fabric curtains that I draw over the shades to provide an even darker environment. This way, when the sun starts to rise in the early hours of the morning, I don’t wake up too early.

As night falls and the sky darkens, the body naturally starts producing melatonin, a hormone that maintains healthy circadian rhythms (sleep-wake cycles) and also acts as an antioxidant. This brings us to the next tactic…

Eliminate Blue Light – Just as darkness will promote the release of melatonin, bright lights, particularly blue/white lights (such as the sun, fluorescent bulbs, or electronic screens), blocks its release in the brain.

The best thing to do is turn off all electronic devices an hour or two before bed. However, I know how difficult it is to get home at 7 or 8 at night and avoid relaxing in front of the television or responding to last minute e-mails. For this reason, I would recommend downloading “f.lux” for computers. This is a program that will adjust the color of the screen according to the time of day. It is free and runs as a benign background program.

Besides this download, I also use candles in my house at night. Not only will this help prepare my mind and body for sleep, it saves on electricity and creates a very comfortable environment.

Wind Down Ritual – This is one tactic that will require some experimentation. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that humans are “creatures of habit”. Just as regular release of melatonin will develop proper wake-sleep cycles, so will other habits or rituals.

Starting at around 8 PM every night, I roll on a foam roller to massage my muscles from the day. I usually listen to a fitness and nutrition podcast during this time as a substitute for watching television. Finally, I take a quick shower and occasionally have a cup of herbal tea (chamomile and mint blends are my favorite) with a teaspoon of magnesium.

By the time 9 or 10 rolls around, there is nothing I want to do more than lay down on my comfy mattress and crawl under my cool sheets.

Reduce Coffee Intake – Key word being “reduce”…I’d never be as bold as to suggest entirely eliminating coffee! I personally start every day with a cup of the darkest roast coffee I can find or a couple shots of espresso.

In terms of sleep, studies show that one cup of coffee consumed at noontime results in heightened cortisol at 10 PM. High levels of cortisol can have negative effects on the brain and body. An important note is that this study was conducted with decaffeinated coffee! This would suggest that it is not the caffeine content of the coffee that raises cortisol. Due to this fact, I’d recommend finishing your coffee with breakfast and switching to tea for the rest of the day (many teas contain compounds that actually lower stress).

White Noise – Finally, you can buy an inexpensive white noise machine or run a fan while you’re sleeping. This ambient noise will help block out disturbing sounds that may prevent you from falling asleep.  Just don’t forget to blackout any lights that these electronics may give off!

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There are plenty more things you could try, including meditation or melatonin supplementation, but these are the specific tactics I found most useful when developing healthy sleeping patterns. If you want any more methods tailored to your lifestyle, don’t hesitate to contact me directly!