Sunday, February 27, 2011

Stimulating Anabolic Hormones

Acting against the muscle-eating stress hormone cortisol are anabolic hormones, such as testosterone, growth hormone and insulin. It turns out that BCAAs stimulate the activity of all three anabolic hormones, which may help explain why BCAAs spare muscle protein.5 Leucine in particular potently partners with insulin, which is anticatabolic and which, along with the essential aminos, encourages muscle protein synthesis.

Several studies point to leucine as a means of maintaining muscle, while dieting to lose body fat. If you do aerobics while dieting, taking a BCAA supplement prior to training-a dose of about five grams ought to do it - will prevent muscle loss. To get the most out of the BCAAs, include a source of vitamin B1, or thiamine, which is required for BCAA metabolism. A B-complex vitamin would work.

  1. Shimomura, Y., et al. (2004). Exercise promotes BCAA catabolism: Effects of BCAA supplementation on skeletal muscle during exercise. J Nutr. 134:1583S-1587S.
  2. Tang, F. (2006). Influence of branched-chain amino acid supplementation on urinary protein metabolite concentrations after swimming. J Am Coll Nutr. 25:188-94.
  3. Busquets, S., et al. (2000). Branched-chain amino acids inhibit proteolysis in rat skeletal muscle: Mechanisms involved. J Cell Physiol. 184:380-84.
  4. Shimomura, Y., et al. (2006). Nutraceutical effects of branched-chain amino acids on skeletal muscle. J Nutr. 136:529S-532S.
  5. De Palo, E., et al. (2001). Plasma lactate, GH and GH-binding protein levels in exercise following BCAA supplementation in athletes. Amino Acids. 20:1-11.
  6. Blomstrand, E. (2001). Amino acids and fatigue. Amino Acids. 20:25-34.
  7. Rieu, I., et al. (2006). Leucine supplementation improves muscle protein synthesis in elderly men independently of hyperaminoacidemia. J Physiol. 575:305-315.

Sparing Muscle

One great advantage of BCAAs is that they spare muscle under hard-training conditions

In an experiment that used swimmers as subjects, one group received BCAA supplements, while another group got a placebo. Those in the BCAA group experienced decreased muscle breakdown following intensive exercise.2 Elsewhere, researchers who observed the behavior of rat skeletal muscle found that BCAAs block catabolic pathways in muscle by activating ubiquitin lysosome enzymes.3

Recent studies show that taking essential amino acids, including BCAAs, before exercise kick-starts anabolic processes. That's because the increased blood flow you get from training promotes greater amino acid entry into muscle

One study showed that BCAAs help diminish muscle damage during exercise and block what is called delayed-onset muscle soreness following intense training.4

Sixteen women and 14 men took five grams of BCAAs prior to doing seven sets of 20-rep squats, resting two minutes between sets. Some of the subjects got a placebo. Those who took the BCAA supplement had significantly less soreness than the placebo group, the effect being more pronounced in the male than female subjects.

The authors suggest that the mechanism may be a combination BCAAs' blunting muscle breakdown and leucine's stimulation of muscle protein synthesis

BCAAs Help Diminish Muscle Damage During Exercise
And Block Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness.

Improving Exercise Performance

Another controversy related to BCAAs is whether they improve exercise performance or efficiency. In one experiment, presented at the 2004 conference of the Strength Training Anatomy-3rd Edition (Sports Anatomy) , six healthy men took either BCAAs or a placebo, then engaged in weight training.

When they took BCAAs, their levels of the stress hormone cortisol and creatine kinase, an enzyme released during muscle breakdown, went down and their testosterone count went up. The authors noted that participants who had more body fat needed a bigger dose of BCAAs to experience any anabolic effect.

Studies show a relationship between the oxidation, or burning, of fat in muscle and the subsequent oxidation of BCAAs in the body.1 Exercise promotes the activity of an enzyme (BCKDH) that controls BCAA oxidation. That implies that any exercise leading to fat oxidation also raises the requirement for BCAA intake, explaining why those engaged in endurance exercise, which uses fat as an energy source, need more BCAAs. The same may apply to those engaged in extensive aerobic exercise to lose body fat.

Taking BCAAs Before Weight Training Can Reduce Levels Of
Cortisol And Creatine Kinase While Boosting Testosterone.

Preserving Protein

    BCAAs offer a definite protein-sparing action in muscle during low-carbohydrate dieting. When glycogen stores in muscle and the liver are low as a result of limited carb intake, the body tends to tap into muscle aminos as a source of energy. That's more likely to happen when total calories are very low in relation to exercise or when body fat is below a certain point.
    The leaner you are, the higher the risk of tapping into muscle amino acid stores, especially during aerobic exercise. Taking BCAAs before cardio spares - that is, doesn't gobble up-muscle aminos, thus preventing excess muscle protein breakdown during training.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Over-40 Nutrition: Pt 1

Contrary to popular belief, the primary health benefits of bodybuilding become most apparent after age 40. That’s the beginning of the end for many people, a time when the insults they’ve inflicted on themselves through four decades of health neglect–smoking, drinking excessive alcohol, eating poorly and not exercising–manifest themselves. At 40, unless you do something about it, your immune system goes into a gradual decline, opening the door to potentially fatal diseases, such as cancer. Since the heart is a muscle, a lack of exercise leads to cardiac flabbiness and weakness, culminating in heart failure, a heart attack or a stroke.

The body recovers from health insults far more easily when you are young; degenerative diseases don’t become apparent until you’re past 40. A proper bodybuilding lifestyle, however, can either delay or prevent many of the diseases and infirmities linked to the aging process. The quality of life you experience as you age is up to you. Exercise, typified by a balanced bodybuilding program that includes weight training, cardiovascular training and flexibility or stretching exercises, is an effective way of forestalling the effects of aging while maintaining quality of life.

Nutrition is another key to the equation. Once you hit 40, adopt an optimal nutrition program to slow the aging process and maintain muscle. Much research suggests that only one technique truly slows the aging process: restricted calorie intake, usually by about 30 percent. In various animal species, including rats, mice, dogs and fish, cutting calories leads to several beneficial changes that reflect a slowing of the aging process, starting with a vastly decreased incidence of the degenerative diseases associated with aging. Animals that eat less usually show less incidence of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and they maintain brain function. While we don’t have scientific proof of the benefits of calorie restriction in humans, we do know that in societies in which people routinely eat far less as they age, such as on the Japanese island of Okinawa, older citizens rarely contract medical conditions common in the West. That’s why many of them reach the age of 100 or more in good health.

From a bodybuilding perspective, however, severe calorie restriction isn’t conducive to maintaining an anabolic state in muscles. Not only is it difficult to get enough protein when you severely restrict calories, but decreased intake also leads to a decrease in anabolic hormones associated with maintaining muscle, such as insulinlike growth factor 1 (IGF-1) and testosterone. Those who advocate calorie restriction ‘ la lab rats always seem to appear gaunt, with a noticeable lack of muscle.

Even so, calorie restriction fosters decreased cellular oxidation, particularly in the portion of the cell that produces energy (mitochondria); induction of ‘heat shock proteins’ that protect cells from destruction; and insulin control.

Recent research shows that a key player in the aging process is insulin. Its various functions include promoting uptake of glucose and amino acids, as well as glycogen synthesis, but insulin in excess is a potent aging hormone. The lean body that results from calorie restriction leads to lowered resting insulin levels. A consistent finding in examinations of healthy older people is lower resting insulin levels. That’s especially noteworthy because most people become insulin insensitive after age 40.

As you become insulin insensitive, your body attempts to compensate by secreting more insulin, fostering processes such as glycation, which deposits sugar into protein structures, including muscle and connective tissue. The heart is also adversely affected. The effects include stiffness and lack of mobility, as well as an increased tendency to become injured. If you inherited genes for type 2, or adult-onset, diabetes, the disease now becomes apparent too. Diabetics, especially those with poor glucose control, age about five times faster than normal, again because of glycation.

The good news is that exercise and good nutrition can prevent degeneration. Weight training is especially effective against diabetes because it encourages the activity of cellular glucose transporters that work with insulin in promoting glucose uptake into cells.

While nutrition and supplementation plans must be individualized based on genetics, body composition, medical problems and so on, certain principles apply equally to most people over age 40. What follows is the supplement plan that I use. For some 40 years I’ve served as my own guinea pig, trying every type of bodybuilding and health supplement at one time or another. Some I continue to use; others I’ve discarded as either ineffective or too expensive.

My rationale for choosing these supplements is grounded in scientific research you may find valuable if you’re over 40 or contemplating supplement use. Unless absolutely necessary, I don’t list commercial names because this isn’t an advertisement. I’m all about telling the truth.


A carotenoid nutrient that provides the reddish coloring of salmon and some other foods, astaxanthin is in the same class as beta-carotene found in vegetables and fruits. Studies show that it’s a potent antioxidant, about 100 times more potent than vitamin E, and that it can get through the protective blood-brain barrier, thus providing vital antioxidant activity in the brain. That’s important because the brain is largely composed of fat, which, when oxidized, can bring on degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. I use 10 milligrams, once a day.


Another carotenoid found naturally in foods such as watermelon and cooked tomatoes. Lycopene is similar to astaxanthin in some respects, such as its red color. Research shows that it offers superior antioxidant protection against a type of free radical called singlet oxygen, beating even vitamin E in that respect. Lycopene may help prevent CVD by limiting oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the “bad” kind of blood cholesterol. It may also help prevent prostate cancer, a concern of many men over age 40, by preventing fat oxidation produced by years of testosterone stimulation. I take 20 milligrams daily with fat.

Is organic best?

A current controversy relates to the superiority of organic-based foods. It seems that we are awash in a sea of various chemicals, the full health extent of many aren’t fully known. This is especially pertinent to what we consume. Attaching an “organic” label to any particular food imparts the notion that the food is closer to nature, and may even be healthier. In fact, there are many natural food elements that can impart toxic reactions. But can organic food processing change the nutrient content of foods? One recent study, published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry 2008;56:5788-5794, compared the fruit quality, antioxidant level, and flavonoid content of organic versus conventional blueberries. Blueberries happen to be one of the best berries to consume, but this study showed that growing them using organic techniques led to a significant increase in antioxidant activity compared to conventional techniques.  



The use of dietary antioxidant supplements, such as vitamins C, E and others in relation to exercise is controversial. Such antioxidants are suggested because exercise is known to induce a rise in the production of oxygen metabolism byproducts, such as free radicals. Free radicals are unpaired electrons that seek out and combine with paired electrons,which is damaging to cell integrity, particularly cellular membranes. Antioxidants are thought to short-circuit the damaging effects of free radicals on cells. Exercise itself promotes the release of built-in antioxidants in the body. Moreover, more recent research shows that free radicals may not be as bad as originally surmised. In fact, free radicals may be important for exercise recovery. But this only applies to moderate exercise. When the intensity level of exercise rises, the production of free radicals can overwhelm the body’s capacity to deal with them. Excess free radicals are not only asociated with a higher level of muscle damage following exercise, but also are linked to such diseases as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

While dietary antioxidants may help prevent oxidative-related maladies, their use in exercise has shown mixed results. Some studies show beneficial effects, others don’t. Some of the most potent natural antioxidants aren’t commonly used in food supplement form, but can exert potent protective effects. One such natural antioxidant is called sulforaphane (SF). SF is found naturally in cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and others. Various studies show that it provides potent protection against the onset of several types of cancer, includng breast and prostate cancers. It does this through two mechanisms. The first involves an induction of the primary detoxifying enzyme system in the liver, known as phase-2 enzymes. This system renders  ingested carcinogens harmless,and allows the carcinogens to be excreted from the body before causing cellular damage. The other mechanism of SF involves an indirect activation of the body’s built-in antioxidant systems.

This effect of SF on antioxidant activity led to a study in which rats ran on a treadmill to exhaustion. Some of the rats in the study were provided with a high concentration of SF three days prior to exercise. When not provided with SF, the exercising rats showed high levels of muscle damage, as indicated by increased levels of enzymes associated with high level muscle damage. The rats also showed higher levels of indicators of excess oxidative damage, thus showing that the intense exercise exceeded the capacity to deal with excess free radical production that resulted from the exercise. But when provided with SF, both forms of damage decreased significantly. The rats also showed increased phase-2 enzyme activity, which led to increased overall antioxidant activity, thus explaining the protection offered by SF.One problem with this study is that the subjects were rats, not humans. But SF is known to induce the same beneficial effects in humans that it did for the rats in this study. The other problem is that the rats were provided with levels of SF that would be difficult to obtain from food alone.On the other hand, I ingest a concentrated broccoli extract supplement that contains the equivalent of 6 ounces of broccoli (in relation to SF content) in one pill. I take two pills a day, which means I’m getting the same amount of SF that is found in 12 ounces of broccoli. Eating broccoli or some other cruciferous vegetable, such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage, radishes, cauliflower, or others each day should provide enough SF to offer protective effects.

Malguti, M. et al. Sulforaphane treatment protects skeletal muscle against damage induced by exhaustive exercise in rats.J Appl Physiol 2009;107:1028-36.

What are the food supplements and foods that will really aid bodybuilding progress? Find out in my e-book, Natural Anabolics, available at

©,2013 Jerry Brainum. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited.

Please consider joining this blog by clicking on the blue "join this site" button to the right of this blog. This will ensure that new blogs continue to be published. It costs nothing, and takes only a few seconds. Thank you.

See Jerry's book at

The latest on beta alanine

Studies continue to be published attesting to the value of beta alanine as an effective ergogenic aid for increasing both training and athletic performance. Beta alanine is an amino acid, and when combined with another amino acid, histidine, it forms the core of carnosine. The significance of carnosine is that it’s a potent antioxidant, and also acts as a primary intramuscular buffer. What this means is that carnosine helps lower elevated acid levels that accrue in muscle following intense exertion, including exercise. Increased acid interferes with the activity of enzymes involved in energy production, so lowering acid levels in muscle would increase athletic performance.

While carnosine is available in supplement form, it’s only marginally effective in boosting intramuscular carnosine levels. A ubiquitous enzyme called carnosinase breaks down most of the ingested carnosine into its constituent beta alanine and histidine forms. But research shows that using supplemental beta alanine at dose of 4 to 6 grams a day does boost intramuscular carnosine as much as 64%. Although hard-training athletes tend to have naturally higher muscle carnosine levels as a result of regular training, these levels still increase when they use supplemental beta alanine.

The typical effects of beta alanine (BA) supplementation is evident by the results of a new study. The study involved 18 high level rowers who used BA for 7 weeks at a dose of 5 grams a day. Other rowers ingested a placebo for the same amount of time. Before and after supplementation, muscle carnosine levels were measured, and performance was evaluated in a 2000 meter ergometer test. The baseline test showed a strong correlation between muscle carnosine levels in the rowers and speed at various distances. After the BA supplementation, carnosine content increased by 45.3% in the soleus muscle (slow-twitch) and 28.2% in the gastrocnemius muscle (fast-twitch). Performance testing also showed that the BA group was 4.3 seconds faster than the placebo group. Prior to BA, they were 0.3 seconds slower. Muscle carnosine levels was positively correlated to 2000 meter rowing performance. As such, carnosine was able to increase speed in these elite athletes. Strength wasn’t measured in the study, although prior studies suggest that BA usage may increase muscle endurance, along with the ability to boost training intensity levels due to less muscle fatigue. What it all points to is that unlike many other sports supplements, BA is the real deal.

Baguet A, et al. Important role of carnosine in rowing performance. J Appl Physiol 2010;in press

To learn the scientific truth about various supplements, read my e-book, Natural Anabolics, available at

The Fountain of youth is made of iron

It is said that there are few certainties in life, other than death and taxes. To many, there is a third certainty: you will get weak and smaller as you age. To the casual onlooker, it appears as if the muscles have turned into fat. Muscles,however, can no sooner convert into fat than coal can convert into diamonds. What really happens is that without stimulation or exercise, muscles atrophy or shrink. The loss of muscle tissue, which is active metabolically, lowers the resting metabolic rate. This lower of the resting metabolism, or how many calories you burn at rest, sets the stage for increased body fat levels. The loss of muscle is bad not only for aesthetic reasons, but also because it leads to weakness and frailty that can negatively affect quality of life. Most people in nursing homes are there not because of mental deficits, but because they are too weak for care for themselves. Recent studies confirm that loss of muscle with age is a portent to impending death. After age 40,the average person who doesn’t exercise loses about 5% of muscle mass per decade.This loss of muscle accelerates after age 65 without an exercise intervention.

As to the precise cause of this age-related muscle loss, science has found a variety of culprits. These include a loss of neuromuscular function, or the communication between the muscles and the nervous system. When this is lost, strength declines precipitously. Muscle stem cells known as satellite cells also decline in activity and number. The satellite cells in muscle are required for both muscle repair and growth functions, and without adequate satellite cell activity, muscles will atrophy.Muscle fibers themselves decrease in size and number unless activated by resistance exercise,such as weight-training. Without the impetus of exercise, the need for regular stimulation of various anabolic hormones,including testosterone,growth hormone, IGF-1, insulin, also drops off, and these hormones are needed to help maintain muscle mass. Structures that produce energy in cells called mitochondria die off without exercise, and when they go, the cell soon follows. Other processes linked to muscle loss with age include increased oxidative stress, and increased overall body inflammation, both of which are tempered by regular exercise.

Are these age-related changes inevitable? For years, it was thought that once lost, muscle tissue could not be resuscitated. Then studies mainly from Tufts University proved otherwise. These studies of older adults found that when the older people were put on supervised weight-training programs, their strength and much of their muscle responded. A recent study confirms this in older men, and also came to the surprising conclusion that 22 weeks of supervised weight-training in men over age 60 eliminated the age-related muscle and strength deficits between younger and older men. It was as if the clock was turned back from the standpoint of muscle and strength in the older men in this study. The study featured 17 older men, age range, 60 to 71, who were compared with a group of men whose average age was 24.At the start of the study, the older men showed considerable differences in measures of strength and muscle size when compared to the younger men. Both groups trained 3 days a week, using whole body workouts done on machines for 22 weeks. By the 22-week mark, the significant strength and muscle deficits seen in the older men at the start of the study were now completely eliminated, with no significant differences between the young and older men. As such, this study shows that you can gain significant levels of muscle mass and strength, even at advanced ages.

Candow DG, et al. Short-term heavy resistance training eliminates age-related deficits in muscle mass and strength in healthy older males.J Streng Cond Res 2010: in press.

What anabolic supplements actually work? Find out in my e-book, Natural Anabolics, at

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Supplement Sabotage: Can antioxidants hamper muscle endurance?

One theory of aging, first proposed in 1957, suggests that substances called free radicals, or reactive oxygen species, gradually damage cells, resulting in an acceleration of the aging process. Free radicals are strongly implicated in the onset of many diseases linked to early mortality, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and degenerative brain diseases.

You may remember from Chemistry 101 that electrons come in pairs. Free radicals are unpaired electrons and are constantly seeking to combine with electron pairs. When that biochemical menage à trois does occur, it wreaks havoc on cellular structures—for example, cell membranes—and lead to cell destruction.

Some scientists claim that cells are bombarded by some 10,000 free radicals per minute. Fortunately, we’re not defenseless against cellular terrorism. The body has a built-in system of antioxidant enzymes—including superoxide dismutase, catalase and glutathione peroxidase—that can neutralize the attacks. The sheer magnitude and relentlessness of free radicals are nevertheless capable of overwhelming the body’s defenses. Additionally, many of the body’s defenses diminish with age, which may play a role in diseases that are more prevalent among older people, such as cancer and heart disease.

Dietary antioxidants, mainly from fruits and vegetables, back up the body’s antioxidant defenses. You’re probably familiar with many of them: vitamins C, E, B-complex and A, plus various minerals, as well as plant compounds called bioflavonoids and polyphenols. The latter are especially plentiful in green tea, red wine and dark chocolate.

Oddly enough, free radicals offer a few significant health benefits. For one thing, they’re produced by immune cells as a means of destroying invading toxic organisms, such as bacteria. They’re required for the production of thyroid hormones. One dietary antioxidant mineral, selenium, is essential for activating the enzymes that help generate thyroid hormones. Because of its antioxidant properties, however, too much selenium doubles back and inhibits thyroid hormone.

A lesser-known benefit of exercise is that it offers antioxidant protection, and some researchers say that the major health benefit of exercise is that it upgrades antioxidants, a process known as hormesis. The term refers to how exposure to small doses of a toxic substance results in compensatory beneficial effects. [Editor’s note: For more information  on hormesis, see page 300 of the July '08 issue of IRON MAN.]

The increased oxygen intake that exercise generates also creates oxidative stress, which  in turn generates free radicals. When that happens, several negative conditions can result. One is excessive muscle damage, which can delay training recovery. That’s the reason athletes are often advised to get a generous amount of dietary antioxidants—and most don’t rely on food but supplement with vitamins C and E and minerals.

The research is contradictory on whether the dietary antioxidant boost is necessary. Studies show that merely continuing to exercise automatically bolsters the body’s antioxidant system via hormesis. What’s more, while some studies have found that elite athletes generate higher-than-normal free radicals when training, others have found the opposite.

A recent controversial study, which used both animal and human subjects, suggests that adding vitamin C to your supplement regimen may actually hamper endurance gains from training. Fourteen sedentary men underwent eight weeks of endurance training, during which five of the subjects took one gram (1,000 milligrams) of vitamin C daily. Meanwhile, 24 rats went through three- and six-week training routines; half the rats were given a dose of vitamin C species-equivalent to the human dose. The men who didn’t take vitamin C showed a 22 percent increase in their body’s ability to take up and use oxygen during training, while those who supplemented with C showed only a 10.8 percent increase. Similar results occurred in the rats.

Exercise tests revealed that when forced to run to exhaustion after six weeks of training, the rats not given vitamin C ran almost twice as far as they had before training, amounting to a 186.7 percent increase in endurance capacity. Those that got vitamin C, however, increased their distance by only 25 percent, or a 26.5 percent increase in endurance. The rats not given vitamin C showed higher counts of mitochondria, the portions of cells where energy is produced as ATP and where fat is oxidized. The amount of mitochondria determines endurance, and aerobics increases endurance by generating the production of additional mitochondria.

What gives with those results? It turns out that the production of free radicals from exercise stimulates the production of new mitochondria. Taking vitamin C short-circuits the process. Taking vitamin C prior to exercise also prevented the exercise-induced stimulation of built-in antioxidant enzymes, such as superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase.

Several previous studies have reported unfavorable effects on endurance development due to dietary antioxidants, such as vitamin E and coenzyme Q10. One study published seven years ago found that taking a combination of vitamin E and alpha lipoic acid reduced muscle contractile activity, which would translate into reduced exercise strength.

Another recent study, however, had very different findings. Thirty-six students supplemented their diets with 400 milligrams a day of vitamin E, 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C or a combination of both nutrients for three weeks. Another group got a placebo. The subjects underwent various tests that measure aerobic and anaerobic exercise performance. Those who got the antioxidant nutrients performed significantly better on the aerobic tests than the placebo group. The anaerobic tests showed no differences in ether group. The study concluded, “These test results suggest that daily supplementation with vitamin E (400 units), vitamin C (1,000 milligrams) or vitamin E plus vitamin C for a period of three weeks may significantly improve aerobic power.”


Gomez-Cabrera, M.C., et al. (2008). Oral administration of vitamin C decreases muscle mitochondrial biogenesis and hampers training-induced adaptations in endurance performance.Am J Clin Nutr. 87:142-149.

Coombes, J.S., et al. (2001). Effects of vitamin E and alpha lipoic acid on skeletal muscle contractile properties. J Appl Physiol. 90:1424-30.

Jourkesh, M., et al. (2007). The effects of vitamins E and C supplementation on bioenergetics index. Res Sports Med. 15:249-56.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Do birth control pills block muscle gains in women?

According to a study just presented at the annual Experimental Biology 2009 conference in New Orleans, women who use oral contraceptives, better known as birth control pills, may experienced hampered muscle gains when they lift weights. The study consisted of 73 healthy women, ages 18 to 31, who were assigned to either a birth control pill group (BCP), or a non-birth control group (NBCG). All the women participated in a 10-week weight-training program, training 3 days a week under the supervision of physiologists. They did both standard upper and lower body exercises, all for 3 sets of 6-10 reps, using weights equal to 75% of their maximum one-rep lift. Body composition in the women was measured by hydrostatic weighing. In addition, blood samples were obtained prior to, and after the training to measure various hormones, including DHEA, DHEA-S,  and IGF-1.

The results showed that those not taking BCP gained 60% more lean mass compared to those taking the pills. On the other hand, strength gains and arm and leg circumferences were similar between the groups. The levels of the anabolic hormones, DHEA and IGF-1, were significantly lower in the women on the pill, while levels of the catabolic hormone, cortisol were higher in the pill users. The OCP also showed decreased levels of DHEA at the end of the study. In contrast, no change occurred in DHEA levels in the non-pill users.

The researchers who conducted this study were at a loss to explain the results, other than suggesting that BCP can impede muscle gains in women. On the other hand, while the pill users gained 60% less lean mass compared to their non-pill peers, both groups gained similar levels of strength and size in the legs and arms. This, of course, is a quite contradictory finding, and makes you wonder if much of the lean mass gains experienced by the non-pill users consisted of water. Curiously, testosterone wasn’t measured in the study, which would have somewhat clarified the results. Instead, only DHEA levels were measured. DHEA, however, is an adrenal androgen that tends to convert into testosterone in women far more readily that it does in men. But recent studies also show that DHEA doesn’t appear to promote muscle gains in exercising women. Since the women trained under supervision, we have to assume that they trained with an equal level of intensity, which would have influenced muscle gains. The elevated cortisol levels in the pill users likely played a major role in why they gained less lean mass, since the non-pill users didn’t show such elevations. The women were told to ingest at least 0.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. Normally, a high protein intake would offset much of the muscle catabolic effects linked to higher cortisol levels, but this level of protein may not have been enough to overcome the catabolic effects probably induced by the OC.

This new information does not apply to women using anabolic steroid drugs, which would make any effects of OC on muscle growth negligible. As the study authors suggest, there may be other, as yet unidentified mechanisms as work here, too. In the meantime, I doubt that many women would be willing to toss those birth control pills as a means of promoting muscle gains. Becoming pregnant when you don’t want to is a far more serious proposition than sacrificing some muscle gains in rational women.

Learn the truth about anabolic supplements in my e-book, Natural Anabolics, available at .

Is Hydroxycut really dangerously toxic?

The FDA announced today the recall of a dietary supplement touted for fat loss called Hydroxycut. This is a heavily advertised and popular supplement among bodybuilders and others. I received two e-mails shortly after the FDA announcement about the Hydroxycut recall. Here was my response:

In the most recent study, a case study is presented about a 28-year-old man who showed symptoms indicative of severe liver toxicity. He had ingested Hydroxycut according to product directions, ingesting 2 tablets, 2-3 times daily for 3 months prior to the onset of his symptoms. He also ingested Tylenol and aspirin to treat his “sore muscles.” The man also admitted to drinking an average of 2-3 beers a week, which was described by the study authors as “heavy drinking.”  The man showed a high copper level in his urine, which could be indicative of a genetic disease called Wilson’s disease that is characterized by high copper levels. But this was ruled out by the finding of normal serum copper and ceruloplasmin (the protein carrier of copper in the blood) levels. So why did Hydroxycut cause his liver problem? The UCLA physicians who submitted this case study suggest that it may be related to some of the ingredients in the product. This was the third case of liver toxicity linked to Hydroxycut reported in the medical literature. As with this case, the other “victims” also ingested the recommended dose. Three of the ingredients of Hydroxycut, namely Garcinia cambogia, Gymnema sylvestre, and green tea, have all been associated with severe liver toxicity. In one case reported last year, a man used two fat-loss products containing these ingredients (one was Hydroxycut) for only a week, then died of fulminent liver failure. Complicating the case was the fact that he was also ingesting a type of drug called a leukotriene antagonist (used to treat asthma, I take one myself). The theory is that the combination of the drug and the supplement ingredients resulted in rapid liver failure. Green tea extract has been shown to cause liver problems, but it’s difficult to explain why, since the active polypheonols in green tea aren’t absorbed too well, and you would have to ingest far more than is contained in any type of fat-loss supplement. There is the possibility, however, of an idiosyncratic reaction limited to only certain people. The fact that the man was also ingesting Tylenol may have played a role, since the primary ingredient of Tylenol (acetaminophen) is extremely toxic to the liver. Just ingesting 12 tablets at once could alone cause liver failure, and consuming it with alcohol makes it toxic even at lower doses. Since this man admitted a fondness for beer, I suspect that his case of liver failure wasn’t related to the Hydroxycut, but rather to the likelihood that he ingested a large dose of Tylenol with alcohol, which would definitely cause his symptoms. I view this report as alarming, since it reminds me of the previous Ephedrine scare, which was just a conspiracy involving the FDA in collusion with pharmaceutical companies to remove an effective weight-loss product,i.e., ephedrine, that was proven superior in several published studies to existing drugs prescribed to treat obesity. I  don’t think the existing medical literature (which I am quite familiar with) justifies pointing an accusatory finger at Hydroxycut or any other existing fat-loss supplement

Studies examining how green tea may be toxic to liver function found the the effect emanates from a parodoxical action of green tea that also exists for other nutrient antioxidants. This involves the fact that large amounts of green tea can act like a pro-oxidant, instead of imparting its usual antioxidant activity. In the liver, the oxidation activity of green tea depletes the primary antioxidant/detoxifyer in the liver, namely glutathione. This suggests that if a person who uses supplements that contain green tea also ingests other nutrients known to increase the liver production of glutathione, such as N-acetylcysteine and milk thistle, the side effects linked to green tea could be blocked.

Learn the truth about anabolic supplements in my e-book, Natural Anabolics, available at .

Some interesting new studies from an endocrinology meeting by Jerry Brainum

As this is being written, the 91st annual meeting of the Endocrine society is underway in Washington, D.C. For those of you not familiar with the term “endocrine,” this refers to hormones, and physicians who specialize in the study of hormones are endocrinologists. Among the many studies presented at this meeting of hormone doctors, a few show particular significance for those engaged in bodybuilding and physical activity. For example, one study compared eating the usual 55% carbohydrate diet to a lower intake of carbs, 43% to be exact. The lower carb diet contained more fat (39% versus 27%)  than the conventional higher carb diet. The protein intake was identical on both diets, comprising 18% of total calories. While the study authors suggest that his level of protein intake helps to increase feeling of satiety, in truth, most low-carb diets contain over twice that level of protein. Consuming higher protein intakes while on low-carb diets helps to preserve lean tissue, as well as decrease appetite. The results after four weeks showed that eating a lower carb diet led to lower insulin and lower blood glucose levels after a meal. More importantly, those eating the lower carb intake reported far greater feelings of fullness, which would translate into greater dieting compliance.

Another study at the meeting presented evidence that a form of the protein, ghrelin, may offer potent anticatabolic effects in muscle. Ghrelin is a potent appetite stimulant, especially for dietary fat intake, but it also promotes growth hormone release. Italian researchers found that a form of ghrelin called des-acyl ghrelin, when provided to mice potently protected the rodents against induced muscle atrophy. How it does this isn’t yet known, but  the effect doesn’t work through stimulating other anabolic hormones, such as IGF-1 or testosterone.

Myostatin is a protein that works to inhibit muscle growth. Animals lacking genes for myostatin show huge muscles and a lack of bodyfat, an ideal scenario for bodybuilding purposes. A study presented at the meeting had mice genetically altered to produce a high rate of atherosclerosis breed with other mice also altered to lack the myostatin gene. After 10 generations, they wound up with mice that had both characteristics. Control mice in the study had the genetic predisposition to atherosclerosis, but lacked the myostatin deletion gene. All the mice consumed a high fat diet for 12 weeks. Compared with the control mice, the specially-bred mice showed much less bodyfat, 30% lower fasting blood glucose levels, and 80% lower fasting insulin levels. They also showed 50% lower levels of low density lipoprotein cholesterol, the type most linked to cardiovascular disease, along with 30-60% lower levels of total cholesterol and  blood triglycerides. This is a healthy cardiovascular profile that would prevent the onset of cardiovascular disease. One of the study authors commented that he doubts that the supplemental myostatin blockers sold to bodybuilders would have any effect at all.

Learn the truth about anabolic supplements in my e-book, Natural Anabolics, available at

©,2013 Jerry Brainum. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited.

Please consider joining this blog by clicking on the blue "join this site" button to the right of this blog. This will ensure that new blogs continue to be published. It costs nothing, and takes only a few seconds. Thank you.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

When Your Brain Has Left the Building

We Americans seem to have an abundance of things to worry about.There is the threat of another attack from crazed, fanatical terrorists looming in our collective psyches, as is the current downward trend in the economy.But there is another threat even more imminent that is facing many of those in the baby boomer generation.That threat is Alzheimer’s disease (AD). The incidence of AD is expected to rise in the coming years as baby boomers get older and approach age 65, when the incidence of AD commonly begins. Some studies suggest that one out of 85 people will have AD in 2050. Clearly, this is an alarming statistic that calls for some action to be taken now. This serious threat has not escaped the notice of researchers around the world, who are working overtime to come up with solutions to the impending threat of epidemic AD. Just two days ago, a consensus report was issued by a blue ribbon gathering of scientists who convened at the National Institute of Health for two days. The report examined all methods suggested to prevent the onset of AD, but before I discuss what they found, it’s probably a good idea to discuss what AD is.

AD was first described by German physician, Alois Alzhemier in 1906, based on his post-mortem examination of a female patient who had been showing various mental symptoms, including memory loss, language problems, and unpredictable behavior. His autopsy examination of her brain revealed abnormal protein clumps, later called beta amyloid plaques, along with tangles of another brain protein, later called tau. These two abnormalities became the basis of AD.The incidence of AD has risen over the years, to the extent that it now constitutes 60 to 80 percent of all dementia cases. It’s estimated that 5.3 million Americans suffer from AD,  and it’s  the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S, and the fifth leading cause of death in people over age 65. The greatest risk  factor for AD is age, with the majority of cases showing up after age 65, although there is a version that strikes younger people, which is far more rare.

The blue ribbon science panel looked at randomized, controlled trials of various factors thought to be related to AD prevention. They noted that having the apolipoprotein A4 gene increases your likelihood of acquiring AD, although it doesn’t mean that the disease is inevitable. Not mentioned in the report is the fact that undergoing head trauma, as occurs in various sports, such as boxing and mixed marital arts, is especially dangerous for those with the APOA4 genes in relation to the development of AD. Other health factors related to AD onset include long-term high blood pressure, diabetes (or more specifically, high resting insulin levels) , and having elevated blood cholesterol readings in middle age.While various nutrients have been suggested as protective against AD onset, according to the report, ingesting many of these suggested protective nutrients, including fish oil, and B-complex vitamins including folic acid, shows limited evidence of efficacy because some studies show beneficial effects, while others do not. There is also limited evidence for a diet that is low in saturated fat and rich in vegetable intake. They do suggest that preliminary evidence points to exercise as being protective in the preservation of cognitive (thinking) ability.

So what they are saying in essence is that there in no definitive evidence that any of the suggested methods to prevent AD will help prevent the disease. But nearly all the studies they base this assertion on lasted no longer than two years, and AD is a process that likely takes many years before it becomes evident. Thus, studying preventive techniques for only two years or less will not yield any definitive results. But there is abundant evidence that AD has a large inflammatory component, and  may even be the underlying basis of the disease. As such, techniques that lower brain inflammation should offer preventive effects against AD onset. One way to do this is to avoid obesity, especially beginning at about age 40. Exercise lowers inflammation, as does consuming diets rich in such protective factors as antioxidants. One study found that eating a Mediterranean-style diet that is low in saturated fat, but rich in antioxidants, leads to a 40% decreased risk of AD. Preliminary evidence shows that DHA, one of the omega-3 fatty acids, prevents the accumulation of beta amyloid protein in the brain that is the hallmark of AD. Curcumin from turmeric has been shown to not only prevent beta amyloid accumulation in the brain, but also seems to help remove it through activating certain immune system components. Even drinking 5-6 cups of coffee daily significantly lowers AD risk because of the antioxidant effect of compounds found in coffee. The same holds true for green tea, and one study showed that the antioxidants in green tea can reduce AD risk by 78%. One of the most important things you can do to prevent AD is to maintain cardiovascular health, since this is related to the activity of the APO-A4 genes found to be a risk factor for AD development. Exercise and maintaining healthy blood pressure levels will also prevent the other type of primary dementia, vascular dementia, which looks a lot like AD. Nicotinamide, a B-complex vitamin, can significantly lower levels of the Tau protein that forms the basis of the nerve tangles of AD, as can an increase in heat shock protein 70, which is increased by exercise. Exercise also increases levels of brain-derived neurotropic factor, which can repair damaged neurons in the brain.

So although the consensus report issued by the NIH panel offers a rather bleak perspective on AD prevention, the thing to remember is that these conclusions are based on the “scientific method.” In short, this means that nothing is accepted in science until results have been replicated numerous times by different scientists or researchers. This could take decades before it’s completely accepted as scientific gospel. In the meantime, I suggest it would be prudent not to wait for definitive scientific consensus, but rather adapt some of the preliminary preventive techniques mentioned above,since at least they will improve total health, and you can’t go wrong with that.

What foods and supplements will really help you increase muscular size and strength? Find out in my e-book, Natural Anabolics at

Occlusion training boosts muscle gains in older men

Occlusion training involves restricting blood flow to working muscles by way of a cuff or tourniquet. Originally developed in Japan, this style of training has been shown to increase anabolic factors related to muscle growth. Even more interestingly, training in this manner allows you to lift much lighter weights, yet gain similar benefits compared to high intensity, heavy training. As such, this type of training may be particularly suitable to promote muscle gains in older people. Many older people, through years of inactivity, have developed joint problems that prevents them from lifting the amount of weight needed to foster significant gains in muscular size and strength. The question is, can occlusion training help such people?

A recent study involved studying changes in the thigh muscles of seven older men, average age, 70, when they engaged in light weight leg extensions with and without inflatable cuffs on their thighs. The cuffs were used to restrict blood flow to the thigh muscles while the subjects did leg extensions. The results showed that when training with the cuffs on, the older men responded to the exercise in a manner similar to that of young men doing high intensity exercise. The occlusion exercise increased muscle protein synthesis pathways associated with gains in muscle size and strength. Why the occlusion exercise did this isn’t certain, but it could be that training in this manner permitted the older men to activate type-2 muscle fibers more amenable to growth. Normally, these fibers can be activated only by lifting heavier weights. Previous studies of occlusion exercise with younger subjects showed that it increases several anabolic factors in muscle, including IGF-1. IGF-1, when produced locally in muscle, activates muscle satellite cells required for muscle repair and growth. In older people, it’s more difficult to activate these satellite cells, usually because of a age-related loss of neuromuscular function. If occlusion exercise can bypass this age limitation, it could be a useful protective exercise against the development of sarcopenia, or loss of muscle with age. Sarcopenia is the primary cause of weakness and disability with age, so this could be quite significant. Older people would need to be closely supervised when doing occlusion training, since blocking blood flow too long can present some serious problems, such as the development of a blood clot.

Fry, CS, et al. Blood flow restriction exercise stimulates mTOR1 signaling and muscle protein synthesis in older men.J Appl Physiol 2010;108;1199-1209.

What anabolic nutrients really promote gains in muscular size and strength? Find out in my e-book, Natural Anabolics at


Not to be confused with L-carnitine, which I also use. Carnosine is a dipeptide, or linkage of two amino acids, histidine and alanine. In muscle it acts as a primary intramuscular buffer, reducing the acid that leads to muscle fatigue. Carnosine also blunts glycation, so culpable in the aging process. I take 1,000 milligrams daily on an empty stomach, usually in the morning.

Can arginine lower exercise fatigue?

Despite being classified as a “nonessential” amino acid because it can be synthesized in the body, L-arginine is extremely popular with bodybuilders. In the past, arginine was touted as being the most potent amino acid for promoting growth hormone (GH)  release. This was based on studies showing that intravenous infusions of 30 grams of arginine did stimulate GH release. But you cannot provide that high a dose in an oral supplement form because nausea sets in when the dose of arginine reaches about 12 grams. Since then several studies have discounted the GH effect of oral arginine, while others have confirmed that it does work. The popularity of arginine had a resurgence with the introduction of nitric oxide (NO) stimulating supplements, most of which are based on arginine. NO is a important chemical in the body that plays a major role in blood vessel dilation, blood pressure regulation, hormone release, and numerous other processes in the body. While NO supplements are very popular, similarly to the arginine/GH effect, several articles have been published discounting this NO-boosting effect of arginine. These articles point out that the NO effect of arginine has occured mainly through infusions of 18 grams or more. Yet NO supplements rarely contain more than 4 grams of arginine per dose. Based on this, the critics of supplemental arginine suggest that any beneficial effect derived from oral arginine supplements can likely be attributed to the placebo effect.

But there is no denying the important role that arginine plays in the body. For example, arginine is involved in the synthesis of creatine in the body, and this alone can boost training efficiency. Several studies have confirmed that arginine does increase training efficiency, but again, these studies featured a intravenous administration of arginine at doses ranging from  3 to 30 grams. Some studies, however, used oral doses of up to 6 grams of arginine, and showed increased upper body strength, along with reistance to fatigue during training. In the most recent study, 50 untrained college men were divided into three groups: 1) placebo;2) 1.5 grams of arginine and 300 milligrams of grape seed extract; 3) 3 grams of arginine and 300 milligrams of grape seed extract (GSE). The study lasted a month, and subjects were tested at the start and end of the study with a electromyographic procedure that measure the highest output of muscle power before fatigue sets in.

Grape seed extract offers potent antioxidant effects, and also promotes the release of NO. As such it’s highly compatible with arginine. The results of the study showed that the group ingesting 1.5 grams of arginine showed a 22.4% increase in exercise-based fatigue resistance, while those ingesting the 3 gram dose of arginine showed a 18.8% increase in fatigue resistance. Those in the placebo group showed no changes.  As such, the smaller dose worked better, an effect not discussed by the study authors. They did offer an explanation for the beneficial effects of the arginine/GSE combo. The supplement was able to reduce metabolic exercise fatigue products, such as ammonia and lactate, and also likely boosted NO production. The increased NO boosted blood flow and oxygen delivery to working muscles, which would translate into decreased fatigue. One implication of this study is that the effects of ingesting oral arginine supplements are not all in the heads of those using these supplements. There may be a real effect marked by increased training efficiency.

Camic CL, et al. Effects of arginine-based supplements on the physical working capacity at the fatigue threshold. J Stengh Cond Res 2010: in press.

What supplements work and which ones are a waste of money? Find out in my book, Natural Anabolics, at

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Dangerous protein drinks? by Jerry Brainum

For bodybuilders looking to add muscle and strength, cortisol is a dirty word. Cortisol, a stress-induced adrenal hormone, is classified as a ‘catabolic steroid’. Catabolic refers to the breakdown or degradation of something — in this case muscle. It may also play a role in increasing body fat and through other mechanisms is linked to excess water retention.

So it’s not surprising that bodybuilders are wary of cortisol, which has led to many misconceptions about it. For example, the lower the cortisol, the higher your levels of anabolic hormones, such as growth hormone, insulin and testosterone. True enough, those three hormones have an inverse relationship with cortisol. When cortisol is elevated, they’re often on the low side. The full truth, however, is a little more complex.

One mechanism by which anabolic steroids spur muscle growth is their ability to counteract cortisol in muscle. The steroids compete with cortisol for attachment to glucocorticoid receptor sites and tend to keep the cortisol from attaching to its receptors. When that happens, the cortisol remains inactive, which tips the balance toward anabolism rather than catabolism. The net effect is that steroid users recover far more rapidly between training sessions and get increased muscle protein synthesis, which translates into gains in muscle mass and strength.

Cortisol’s release is set off by various types of stress, including exercise, but that’s where another popular misconception about cortisol and bodybuilding comes into play. While overtraining is a form of stress that usually results in a drop in anabolic hormones and a rise in cortisol, a situation that favours muscle loss, bodybuilders often don’t understand that the exercise-induced cortisol is related to exercise intensity and to how long the workout lasts.

You hear bodybuilders warning about not doing aerobics because it “increases cortisol and causes muscle loss”. In reality, you get more cortisol release with an intense weight workout than you do with aerobics. In fact, the release of cortisol during low-intensity aerobics  — based on heart rate — is negligible. Cortisol doesn’t even begin to rise with aerobic training until you pass the one-hour mark. The one exception would involve the amount of glycogen you have in your muscles and liver. If you’re following an ultralow-carb diet — less than 50 grams of carb a day — your glycogen may be on the low side. When that happens, you’ll get a more rapid release of cortisol during exercise.

One reason for that — and it’s something also usually overlooked — is that a primary function of cortisol is to provide fuel, which it does by triggering the breakdown of proteins into amino acids. The aminos are then converted in the liver to glucose. Cortisol also blocks insulin, resulting in increased blood glucose. With longer-duration exercise, cortisol even sparks the breakdown of fat for use as energy.

All that suggests that if you maintain optimal fuel stores during exercise, cortisol release will be minimised. Because the most rapidly available fuel source is carbohydrate, taking in carbs while you train is an effective way to blunt cortisol release. Studies show that getting some carbs during training works particularly well for those over 40. That’s good news, since older people release more cortisol during exercise than younger people. A drink containing no more than 8 per cent carb, sipped gradually throughout the workout, is best. Getting some carbs and protein immediately after training will also help fend off cortisol’s catabolic effects.

Cortisol: The facts

Like testosterone and estrogen, which are also steroid hormones, cortisol is produced from a base of cholesterol. It’s made in a section of the adrenal glands called the zona fasciculata of the adrenal cortex. When the body perceives stress, whether physical or mental, it’s detected in the hypothalamus (located in the brain), which has a direct connection to the nervous system.

The hypothalamus responds by secreting a hormone called corticotropin-releasing factor, which then travels to the anterior portion of the pituitary gland, where it triggers the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone in the blood. The ACTH travels to the adrenal cortex, where it sets in motion the production of cortisol.

Scientists are still squabbling about how this all happens, but we do know that only about 4 per cent of circulating cortisol is unbound, or active in body tissues.

Cortisol counts vary throughout the day, being highest early in the morning and lowest around midnight. Some studies show that training early in the morning compounds the natural exercise-induced release of cortisol.

Among the many effects of cortisol:

• As noted above, cortisol counters the activity of insulin in lowering blood glucose. Conversely, higher insulin blocks cortisol’s catabolic activity in muscle.

• Cortisol stimulates gastric acid secretion. While that would tend to make stomach ulcers worse, the main cause of ulcers isn’t stress or cortisol but a type of acid-resistant bacteria called H. pylori.

• Cortisol causes sodium retention while speeding the loss of potassium, which translates to high blood pressure, commonly associated with stress. One of the reasons that people who use high doses of anabolic steroids often retain water is that some steroids inhibit an enzyme that suppresses cortisol.

• Cortisol depresses the immune response. An excess of it dampens immune response so much that it becomes much easier to catch a bug when your cortisol is elevated — one reason overtraining is associated with more frequent illness. You can counteract exercise-induced immune suppression by taking larger amounts of the amino acid glutamine.

• Some brain researchers believe that the memory defects older people often have could be due to long-term stress, which elevates cortisol in the brain. There, cortisol selectively and gradually destroys neurons in the hippocampus, the seat of memory retention. So a big presence of cortisol considerably ages the brain, resulting in problems with memory and learning.

• Cortisol opposes the activity of anabolic hormones, including testosterone, growth hormone, insulinlike growth factor 1 — a.k.a. IGF-1 — and insulin, although, conversely, the same hormones oppose cortisol’s catabolic activity. One measure of overtraining is the ratio of testosterone to cortisol — if it tips in favour of cortisol, you’ve slipped into overtraining. Interestingly, however, one study found that cortisol actually encourages greater activity of free — that is, active — testosterone following exercise by stimulating its release from its protein binder in the blood.1 Another recent study showed that intense training increases cortisol by stimulating the enzyme that converts inactive cortisone into active cortisol.2 Yet another found that, contrary to popular belief, low-intensity exercise not only doesn’t increase cortisol but actually lowers it.3

Does having high Cortisol make you fat?

People who have Cushing’s syndrome produce excess cortisol. One symptom is excess fat in the trunk and abdomen. Others include insulin resistance, high blood pressure, increased blood fats and a greater rate of cardiovascular disease. That’s the same constellation of symptoms that comprise the metabolic syndrome.

An emerging medical hypothesis is that people who have excess body fat tend to have an overactivity of the enzyme that converts inactive cortisone into active cortisol in fat cells. Indeed, fat cells contain an abundance of the glucocorticoid receptors that interact with cortisol. Research has demonstrated that mice that had excess activity of the cortisol-activating enzyme in fat also had more body fat, along with all the symptoms of the metabolic syndrome. Conversely, mice specially bred to lack the enzyme showed protection against the metabolic syndrome, including resistance to obesity. So scientists have inferred that having higher-than-normal cortisol is the root cause of the metabolic syndrome.4 Some figure that taking drugs that inhibit the enzyme helps prevent obesity.5

The problem with the cortisol-makes-you-fat idea is that we don’t know which comes first, the obesity or the increased activity of the cortisol-activating enzyme in fat cells. Also, does stress play a role in the scenario? Many people are prone to overeat during high-stress conditions, and that may amplify the negative effects.

What we do know is that blocking the cortisol-activating enzyme in fat cells reduces the formation of new fat cells, improves insulin sensitivity, increases fat burning in the liver and fat cells and tends to redistribute fat away from the dangerous central portion of the body to more benign peripheral regions. A recent study found that the loquat, a fruit indigenous to China, contains elements that effectively block the activity of the cortisol-activating enzyme in fat cells.6

While some of the theories about cortisol are controversial, no one disputes its catabolic effects on muscle. Diseases that are characterized by high cortisol always result in muscle wasting. Cortisol is known to selectively cause atrophy, or shrinkage, of the fast-twitch, or type 2, muscle fibres, which are most amenable to muscular growth with training. In contrast, cortisol doesn’t appear to affect the slow-twitch, or type 1, muscle fibres, the so-called endurance fibres. Why that’s so isn’t known. Cortisol increases the rate of muscle breakdown while decreasing muscle-protein-synthesis reactions, and its catabolic effects are more potent in older people. Animal-based studies show that cortisol triggers increased protein breakdown in adult rats, but in aged animals it depresses protein synthesis.

Cortisol unleashes its catabolic properties in muscle in various ways. First, it inhibits the transport of amino acids into muscle, interfering with protein synthesis — the opposite of what insulin does. Cortisol also inhibits the activity of anabolic hormones involved in muscle protein synthesis, including insulin, IGF-1, testosterone and growth hormone, and it blocks the effects of amino acids in that process, particularly the potent branched-chain aminos. Research also shows that cortisol causes muscle atrophy by slowing the production of myogenin, a substance involved in muscle repair and growth.

In addition, cortisol triggers the activity of major muscle cellular breakdown systems — systems that particularly affect contractile proteins linked to added muscle growth and strength. It does that by increasing the expression of certain genes. It blocks muscle protein synthesis directly by inhibiting a muscle-protein-synthesis pathway called mTOR, and it blocks muscle amino acid uptake by depressing a substance called ATF-4 — although insulin can block that effect.

Finally, cortisol encourages the release of myostatin, a protein that blocks muscle growth. That’s thought to be one of its primary catabolic mechanisms in muscle.

Preventing cortisol-induced muscle loss

Some molecular compounds are known to affect what cortisol does in muscle. Here’s a sample, for both good and ill:

Anabolic hormones, including growth hormone, insulin-like growth hormone 1, testosterone and anabolic steroids. Using large doses of anabolic steroids, however, may bring on a cortisol rebound when steroid use ceases. That can lead to a rapid loss of muscle.

Branched-chain amino acids. As noted above, the BCAAs are the most potent amino acids when it comes to stimulating muscle protein synthesis, and leucine is the most powerful of them all at it. In fact, when cortisol tips the balance in favour of muscle breakdown, it’s mainly the BCAAs that are affected. While you might expect that supplementing with extra BCAAs would counter the catabolic effects of cortisol, cortisol in fact overrides the BCAAs and can hinder muscle protein synthesis.

Glutamine. Several studies have shown that the amino acid glutamine opposes cortisol’s catabolic activity. Hospital patients in extreme catabolic states — for example, those who have severe burns — have experienced increased muscle protein synthesis when given high doses of glutamine. Recent studies show that glutamine helps prevent the cortisol-induced release of myostatin in muscle.

Taurine. Test-tube studies show that the amino acid taurine prevents muscle cell atrophy caused by high cortisol. It remains to be seen, however, whether taurine can replicate that effect in an intact human body.

Creatine. Creatine exerts anti-catabolic effects by increasing local production of IGF-1 in muscle and also encourages muscle protein synthesis. Recent studies also show that it helps block myostatin in muscle.

Clenbuterol. Clenbuterol is a drug used to prevent asthma, but animal-based studies show that in large doses it appears to stimulate muscle growth. In muscle, -clenbuterol increases IGF-1 production and lowers myostatin, but those effects are induced only by high doses. In humans, the doses required to produce a true anticatabolic effect will also adversely affect cardiovascular function.

Magnesium. The mineral lowers serum cortisol after aerobic, but not resistance, exercise.

Omega-3 fatty acids. Found in fatty fish, they lower elevated cortisol levels caused by mental stress.

Music. Listening to what’s perceived as pleasant music can lower cortisol, while listening to music perceived as jarring produces the opposite effect.

Phosphatidylserine. PS was shown to lower cortisol by 39 per cent after training when subjects took 600 milligrams daily. It’s thought to work by blunting the release of ACTH from the pituitary gland.

Vitamin C. The antioxidant slightly lowers cortisol, as does drinking black tea.

• Caffeine. The stimulant raises cortisol counts, as does sleep deprivation.

Birth control pills. Some types increase cortisol in women who lift weights.

Driving long distances in heavy traffic increases cortisol; laughing lowers it.

Phlebodium decumanum. This fern extract was shown in a study of young men to block the increase in cortisol produced during exercise. Taking it with PS would be a great combination.

Closing in on cortisol

Finally, keep in mind that besides maintaining vital energy production, cortisol has potent anti-inflammatory effects. Cortisol-based drugs are prescribed primarily for their rapid anti-inflammatory attributes, which makes them useful for treating such diseases as asthma. Inflammation is a by-product of intense exercise, and without cortisol the pain associated with intense-exercise inflammation would be unbearable.

The major goal with cortisol is to keep it under control and in balance with the anabolic hormones so that your body favours anabolic over catabolic effects in muscle. Not having any cortisol release is not only detrimental but potentially life threatening if you’re exposed to something that causes shock. Without cortisol you’d quickly die.

1 Brownlee, K.K., et al. (2005). Relationship between circulating cortisol and testosterone: influence of physical exercise. J Sports Sci Med. 4:76-83.

2 Dovlo, A., et al. (2010). Intense physical exercise increases systemic 11 beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 1 activity in healthy adult subjects. Eur J Appl Physiol. 108(4):681-7.

3 Hill, E.E., et al. (2008). Exercise and circulating cortisol levels: the intensity threshold effect. J Endocrinol Investig. 7:587-91.

4 Walker, B.R. (2006). Cortisol — cause and cure for the metabolic syndrome? Diabet Med. 23:1281-1288.

5 Morton, N.M. (2010). Obesity and corticosteroids: 11B-hydroxysteroid type-1 as a cause and therapuetic target in metabolic disease. Mole Cell Endocrinol. 316(2):154-164. .

6 Rollinger, J.M., et al. (2010). 11 b-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase 1 inhibiting constituents from Eriobotrya japonica revealed by bioactivity-guided isolation and computational approaches. Bioorg Medcin Chemistry. 18(4):1507-1515.

7 Gonzalezjurado, J.A., et al. (2008). Effects of the consumption of Phlebodium decumanum on plasma cortisol and testosterone levels in subjects participating in an exercise program. Rev Med Chil. 4:497-503.


Want more evidence-based information on exercise science, nutrition and food supplements, fat-loss,ergogenic aids, and anti-aging research? Check out Applied Metabolics Newsletter at



©,2013 Jerry Brainum. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited.

Please consider joining this blog by clicking on the blue "join this site" button to the right of this blog. This will ensure that new blogs continue to be published. It costs nothing, and takes only a few seconds. Thank you.

See Jerry's book at