How do Hormones Work?
If you thought reducing stress, taking supplements and sleeping more was the only way to restore hormones, you are greatly mistaken. Your gut health greatly influences your hormone balance and I will explain why. But, first, let’s start with what controls the hormones, the endocrine system.
Your body ultimately does what the endocrine system tells it to do. Your endocrine system encompasses the many glands that secrete hormones into your blood. Hormones are substances in your body that are transported through tissue fluids (e.g. blood, lymph, etc.) to induce/stimulate cells/tissues/organs into action (or inhibit them).
For example, testosterone – the primary androgen (male sex steroid) – has many functions in humans, such as regulating libido, hair growth, muscle mass and bone density. Increasing testosterone levels can have a variety of benefits, including:1
- Increasing strength, power, and stamina
- Enhancing skeletal muscle growth and fat loss
- Boosting energy, motivation, and libido
Testosterone is one of the most potent endogenous inhibitors of amino acid oxidation and significantly elevates skeletal muscle protein synthesis (i.e. it’s anabolic).2 As such, testosterone is called an anabolic androgenic steroid (AAS). Bodybuilders and athletes, both male and female, will often use exogenous testosterone (e.g. injectable or transdermal sources) for performance enhancing purposes.
Since testosterone production in males decreases as part of the aging process, it’s becoming quite common for older men to see medical care for low testosterone treatment – known as testosterone replacement therapy (TRT).
Other hormones, like growth hormone and thyroid hormone, also regulate a myriad of processes in humans (and serve performance-enhancing purposes).
Gut Health for Optimal Hormonal Health
Naturally, you might be curious what you should focus on to optimize the function of your endocrine system. After all, hormones are major factors for determining how much muscle you build, how much fat you lose, how much strength you gain, and many other athletic factors.
Recent research suggests that your gut microbiota play a key role in modulating your endocrine system. It’s odd how many bodybuilders and athletes alike put so little thought into their diet and what purpose the food they eat actually serves.
I understand that eating chicken and rice six times a day might be good for meeting your protein and carbohydrate needs, but those foods don’t provide much beyond that. It’s more prudent to think about what foods/nutrients actually do in your body rather than what they are. The foods you eat can do much more than just provide your body with calories and macronutrients.
This is where the gut microbiome comes into play…
“What is the gut microbiome?”
The gut microbiome encompasses all the microbes present in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The average person has nearly three pounds of microbes in their gastrointestinal (GI) tract that help properly digest and utilize nutrients from food.
By far, the largest contributors to your gut microbiome are the bacteria found in your GI tract, which are postulated to be more than 100 trillion cells. To give you a reference of how many cells that is, it’s about 10 times more cells than there are human cells in your body. Many people assume that bacteria are inherently unhealthy, but they are actually essential for our survival as they regulate nearly every bodily system.
It’s imperative to encourage the growth and replication of healthy gut bacteria, as research shows that they can positively affect hormonal signaling, immunity, and even your genetics.3 For example, one study showed that the stress response of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) – which regulates secretion of hormones like cortisol – can be effectively attenuated by Lactobacillus farciminis.4
By the same token, “bad” bacteria in your gut can increase oxidative stress, inflammation, and damage organs.
Intuitively, your diet must incorporate foods that nourish healthy gut bacteria while starving “bad” bacteria. In general, unhealthy gut bacteria feed off sugars. Healthy gut bacteria tend to flourish off prebiotic fibers (more on this in the next section).
Gut Nutrition for Bodybuilding & Athletes: Which Foods are the Best?
Most athletes and bodybuilders assume that a “healthy” diet is merely a means to an end. Hence, as long as they eat enough protein, carbohydrates, fat and calories, they are content. I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but that is a shitty way of approaching performance-enhancing nutrition.
As such, a cerebral performance nutrition plan should focus on foods/nutrients that optimally nourish your gut microbiome. While there is still much to learn about exactly how gut microbes work to enhance human health, it appears that they benefit us by metabolizing certain dietary fibers into short-chain fatty acids (which can go onto to induce/block certain cell receptors).5 Each food below is chosen for what it does in your body and how it can benefit your performance via enriching your gut microbiome.
|Sweet Potatoes||Sweet potatoes are mainly comprised of micronutrients, complex starches, and dietary fiber, making them an ideal prebiotic carb source for pretty much any time of day.|
|Beans (soaked and boiled)||Beans, specifically black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, and red beans get almost half of their overall carbohydrate content from dietary fiber. Moreover, beans are packed with micronutrients and simple to add to pretty much any dish (or served on the side).|
|Psyllium Husk||Psyllium husk is a dietary fiber from the seeds of the plantago ovata plant. It gives foods a thicker feeling, improves digestion, and provides sustenance to feed certain strains of healthy gut bacteria.|
|Inulin||Inulin is a prebiotic fiber found in many plants (especially the root of chicory). It contains a high proportion a fructo-oligosaccharides which have been show to improve blood lipid profiles, micronutrient absorption and feed healthy gut bacteria.6|
|Leafy and Cruciferous Greens||It goes without saying that leafy and cruciferous veggies (particularly spinach and broccoli) are loaded with nutrients, especially water-soluble vitamins and dietary fiber. It behooves most anyone to include a serving or two of these with each meal.|
Overall, depending on your body size and carbohydrate intake, you should aim to consume between 30-50 grams of dietary fiber per day, which should be quite simple if you incorporate the suggested foods above (some individuals might benefit from upwards of 70-80 grams daily). This will help nourish the healthy bacteria in your gut and support proper hormonal function (among many other benefits).
Ongoing research in the next couple of decades will work out more of the mechanisms behind the gut microbiome and its role in regulating our endocrine system. This is why it’s essential to keep your eyes locked on My Health Detective to keep up-to-date on current findings.
- Storer, T. W., Woodhouse, L., Magliano, L., Singh, A. B., Dzekov, C., Dzekov, J., & Bhasin, S. (2008). Changes in muscle mass, muscle strength, and power but not physical function are related to testosterone dose in healthy older men. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 56 (11), 1991-1999.
- Bhasin, S., Woodhouse, L., & Storer, T. W. (2001). Proof of the effect of testosterone on skeletal muscle. Journal of endocrinology, 170(1), 27-38.
- Evans, J. M., Morris, L. S., & Marchesi, J. R. (2013). The gut microbiome: the role of a virtual organ in the endocrinology of the host. Journal of Endocrinology, 218(3), R37-R47.
- Ait-Belgnaoui A, Durand H, Cartier C, Chaumaz G, Eutamene H, Ferrier L, Houdeau E, Fioramonti J, Bueno L & Theodorou V 2012 Prevention of gut leakiness by a probiotic treatment leads to attenuated HPA response to an acute psychological stress in rats. Psychoneuroendocrinology 37 1885–1895.
- Thorburn A, Muir J & Proietto J 1993 Carbohydrate fermentation decreases hepatic glucose output in healthy subjects. Metabolism 42 780–785.
- Manning, T. S., & Gibson, G. R. (2004). Prebiotics. Best Practice & Research Clinical Gastroenterology, 18(2), 287-298.
Copyright: illustrator / 123RF Stock Photo
Rich Jacobs is a Board Certified Integrative and Functional Nutrition Practitioner who specializes in resolving gut, insomnia, low libido, fatigue and fat issues. He uses a holistic approach and functional lab work to identify root causes such as hormone imbalances or gut pathogens that could be impacting your health.