Most of us would like to be leaner and stronger. The hormones that have the biggest effect on body composition are growth hormone (GH) and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). After the age of 25, most people will experience some negative effects from declining levels of both these hormones, including:
- weaker bones
- poorer sleep quality
- increased body fat, especially in the abdominal area
- older looking skin
- less physical strength and slower recovery time
Anything we can do to keep GH and IGF-1 levels up will help us look and feel younger. So what can we do?
There are a number of simple behaviors that can radically alter our GH and IGF-1 levels. All of them are simple. At the same time, none of them are easy. All four will all cause slight amounts of discomfort for most people. Personally, I don’t always do all of them. But knowing what works, and doing those things at least part of the time, has helped me stay lean (29″ waist) and reasonably strong (I can do about 10 pullups), despite the fact that I only workout about twenty minutes a week, and most of my favorite activities are sedentary (making music, writing, reading, drinking wine and talking with friends, playing video games, etc.).
So here’s the list:
1) Eat Low Glycemic Meals
While low-carb diets aren’t ideal for everyone (especially endurance athletes), getting more fuel from fat can increase satiety and decrease overeating. Robb Wolf‘s approach is the paleolithic diet, a strict way of eating that excludes all grains, legumes, dairy, alcohol, processed foods, and most sugars. Mark Sisson‘s “primal” diet is more flexible, and allows high-quality dairy products (if tolerated) and moderate amounts of wine, dark chocolate, and coffee. Tim Ferriss’s “slow carb” diet allows beans and a once-a-week anything goes “cheat day.” Other diet/weight-loss experts, like Anthony Colpo, are vehemently opposed to the low-carb approach, citing lower performance results for endurance athletes. Dan Pardi‘s approach is the most balanced and least dogmatic, taking personal preferences and “food values” into consideration.
What all these diet experts agree on is that a diet high in refined carbohydrates and simple sugars will wreak havoc with your hormonal system, preventing growth hormone release (due to constantly high circulating levels of both cortisol and insulin). In practice this means:
- greatly reduce or eliminate white bread, pasta, white rice, and other refined grains
- greatly reduce or eliminate simple sugar in all forms (corn syrup, white sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, etc.)
- consume other high glycemic foods that may have some health benefits (dried fruit, fresh orange juice, low-fat milk, beer) only in small quantities (if at all)
Dietary fiber, fat, protein, and eating slowly will all help prevent both overeating, and excessive blood sugar spikes. However, even experts in the paleo/low-carb community acknowledge that a continuous VLC (very low carb) approach may not be the most effective method for consistent strength gains and fat-burning. Occasional post-workout “carb refeeds” may help us reach the ideal hormonal profile (including GH, IGF-1, leptin, etc.) for fat loss and muscle growth. For those who don’t do well with gluten (myself included), foods like yams and brown rice are high carbohydrate, high fiber, high nutrient, and low in anti-nutrients like phytic acid.
2) Turn Off The Lights
Connections between the sleep/circadian rhythm hormone melatonin and growth-hormone release are just beginning to be understood. What is clear is that disrupted sleep patterns and sleep deprivation rapidly degrade health, and are associated with lower circulating levels of growth hormone.
I realize this blog post is one of about a thousand on the internet that tell the reader how to “naturally increase growth hormone.” Almost all of them include “get a good night’s sleep” on the list. But how, exactly, are we supposed to do that, especially if we have less-than-ideal levels of circulating growth hormone (which improves sleep quality)?
For me, a 30-day experiment in living without artificial light gave me some remarkable insights into the relationship between sleep and health. For my entire life I thought was a “natural night owl.” After the experiment, I realized that I was just someone who is sensitive to the effects of artificial light. If the lights are on, I don’t feel sleepy (even if my body and brain are exhausted, and I desperately need sleep). The same is true for most people; artificial light reduces the secretion of melatonin.
Losing body fat was an unexpected side effect of the sleep experiment — one I attribute to increased GH release (though is could also be related to reduced sugar cravings — sleep deprivation is closely linked to reduced insulin sensitivity).
I don’t want to give up artificial light entirely — it’s too convenient. But I now have better control over my own sleep patterns. If I want to get to sleep early, and sleep well, the lights (and the computer, and the TV) need to get turned off early.
3) Do Short, Fun, Intense Bouts of Exercise
If you want to be lean, strong, and mentally sharp, physical exercise isn’t optional. What is optional is the kind of exercise you do. You should do something you enjoy. If you hate running, don’t run. Same for lifting weights. You’ll never be able to keep it up if it feels like a grind.
Research in exercise physiology supports the idea that intensity is more important than duration, at least in terms of trigger positive hormonal reactions like growth hormone release, and positive adaptations (like getting stronger and gaining endurance). In practice this could mean doing short sprints instead of a long slow jog, or doing fewer repetitions with heavier weights (and lifting more slowly to increase difficulty).
4) Stop Eating for 16-24 Hours At Least Once A Week
Fasting induces growth hormone release; GH helps burn body fat to mobilize calories to prevent starvation.
Some bodybuilders fear missing meals. They worry that their bodies will instantly start consuming hard-earned muscle tissue for fuel. As Martin Berkhan explains on his leangains.com site, the beneficial (GH-release) effects of fasting kick in much sooner than protein catabolism.
Berkhan also enjoys dismantling other useless dietary myths by citing numerous carefully reviewed scientific studies. For example, there is no evidence that eating small, frequent meals has any benefits over eating large, infrequent ones, and there is even some evidence to the contrary, but people persist in this mode of eating as though it had some kind of virtue.
You might experience some discomfort the first few times you go without food for half a day or more, especially if you eat wheat and dairy products on a regular basis. These foods contain exorphins (peptides that mimic the effects of opioids on human physiology); withdrawal can be experienced as muscle aches, flu-like symptoms, and a sense of unease.
Taking relatively short bouts of “time off” from eating is generally called intermittent fasting. There are many different approaches, but the general idea is to not eat for 16 or more hours at least a few times a week, or even to restrict your eating window to 8 hours or less every day (this is Berkhan’s approach). Some people choose to fast 24 hours, one day a week.
Personally I have experimented with fasting until 2pm one day a week. I haven’t noticed any dramatic physical effects from my “dipping a toe in” approach, but the documented physiological effects intrigue me. I have noticed positive psychological effects; on fasting days I feel mentally clear and buoyant. I also have more time to get things done.
Edit: Just found this interesting article about food restriction and D2 dopamine receptors, in rats. Food restriction (such as intermittent fasting) may increase our ability to respond to rewards (and thus increase motivation).
Why bother attempting to modulate your physiology? As impressive as he is, most of us don’t want to look like Nathan Jones (above). While I enjoy not having a spare tire, I think the main benefits of a more youthful hormonal profile are feeling more energetic and stronger. For the aspects of aging that are optional, I prefer to opt-out.