I have been in the fitness industry for a while and as a coach and PT, I am always asked the same question worded slightly differently… “Yusuf, how do I get bigger, stronger & leaner?” “What foods do you eat?” and “How should I train?”.
These are good questions but let’s face it, everyone is hoping for a quick answer or secret squirrel tip. However, unfortunately it’s not that simple and it takes sacrifice. Quite often the conversation with clients and players ends up about what’s between the ears. Previously, we’ve discussed motivation and the psychology of training but there is also the physiology of the brain and how this affects performance, mood and happiness.
The brain is, by far, the most complex structure in the world and there is still a lot to learn but from what we know so far, if your brain chemistry is out of kilter then so are you (emotionally and physically). It can affect your personality traits, your energy and even your body composition (not cool!).
All this brain chemistry stuff is wildly complex but there are four chemicals (called neurotransmitters) which are really important for normal function, these are; dopamine, serotonin, GABA and acetylcholine. Each of which affects us in different ways;
Dopamine allows us to stay focused, energised and motivated. Too little can see us having low energy poor focus and find it very difficult to stick to a schedule. Individuals with too little will often use food and drinks as stimulants.
Having too much is also a problem as this can cause you to become overly focused to the point of compulsion.
Having unbalanced dopamine usually causes cravings and emotional swings with an increasing need for things like sugar, coffee and chocolate.
This is often called the ‘happy hormone’. This chemical impacts on how we feel about ourselves in the world and people with high serotonin wake up look into the mirror and like what they see.
Low serotonin is on the flip side, shown to contribute to low self-esteem, insomnia and depression, this often manifests itself through cravings of starchy and salty foods i.e. chips, pizza etc. These people often feel unsatisfied if starch is not part of the meal, and struggle more than others if they attempt a low carbohydrate diet.
This hormone in our central nervous system gives us the ability to shut down and relax.
Those with low GABA suffer have been shown to suffer from anxiety and may frequently seek out starchy foods. However, they are really content eating anything as long as there is a lot to fill them up. These are what often get referred to as ‘emotional eaters’.
Acetylcholine is mainly involved in the processing speed of the brain and manifests itself in the ability to recall events, numbers and names, quickly solve problems and resist brain fatigue.
Those with low acetylcholine function will frequently forget numbers, be unable to recall a name despite knowing a face, and may often forget where they left their keys or wallet. Individuals will often crave fat since fat is a rich source of choline, one of the building blocks of acetylcholine.
A craving for fried foods, hamburgers and pizza, as well as a love of creamy desserts like cheesecake and ice cream, may be a sign of low acetylcholine.
These chemicals go and up down in our system everyday but the important take away is BALANCE! Balance your diet, balance your hormones and try to reduce the peaks and troughs throughout the day and this should go a long way to reducing the imbalances in our NTs we all encounter from time to time.
What ways are there to balance these, improve your general wellbeing and even boost performance..?
Well, remember how we started and I said people want a shortcut to looking good and being fit? We should know by now that there are no shortcuts and there certainly isn’t any shortcuts to improving your brain physiology either. Like anything, it requires effort and consistency.
Three key things to stay on top of for balancing hormones and your brain chemistry are;
Sleep – When it comes to sleep, less isn’t more. More is more. Get yourself in dark room and put the phone away for 8 hours. If you don’t have kids or work a night shift job there is no excuse or no bigger bang for your buck in terms of improving your life. Sleep is where the body resets and has a chance to re-balance the biochemistry you’ve been messing with all day drinking coffee and eating sugar! Also, check out the awesome book called “Why we sleep” by Matthew Walker. This is an area I am still working on myself.
Manage stress – Easier said than done, I know. But have a way of consistently deloading your stress, whether it’s swimming, yoga, meditation or a good arm blast in the gym. This will help reduce stress and balance hormone levels. It will also help you sleep better and re-inforce the other areas of your life.
A balanced, nutrient dense diet – Come on, do we really have to talk about this….? Put the energy drink down and grab an apple!
The choices you make in your nutrition and lifestyle will drive your body to respond one way or the other, so if you want to stay in a hormonal state more conducive to greater strength and muscle mass gain then you need to strike a balance.
Learn to manage your brain chemistry early on and you will also enjoy a healthier, happier and longer life overall. What’s not to love about that??