Phil Learney is a performance coach specialising in strength, conditioning and nutrition. He is based in London.
If you’re reading this article then you are interested in building more lean muscle mass and reducing the amount of body fat you carry. Training and diet are obviously crucial to your chances of success, but your first consideration should be ensuring your levels of key hormones – specifically androgens and estrogen – are at an optimal level.
Androgens are the group of sex hormones often categorised exclusively as ‘male’ hormones because of their impact on male morphologic development. However, androgens are both crucial for male and female sexual and reproductive function, alongside secondary sexual characteristics, such as body and facial hair, and bone and muscular development.
To give an idea of the impact of these hormones on human physiology and these characteristics, you need to understand that men produce primarily androgens and women estrogens, but both sexes have a ratio of each. Both androgen and estrogen activity is influenced by individual endocrine differences, ethnicity, phenotype and individual health trajectories, in addition to many other factors.
The major androgen in men is testosterone, and in women testosterone plus the adrenal androgens. Men produce on average around 6-8mg of testosterone daily, while women produce around 0.5mg, of which 50% is produced directly in the ovaries and adrenal glands. The other 50% comes from the conversion of the adrenal androgens to testosterone. Adrenal androgens include DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), DHEA-S (dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate) and androstenedione, all of which are weak steroid hormones or precursors.
For athletic and physique development we need to consider the ratios of both androgens and estrogens. Optimising the ratio through the limited control we have over phenotype (environmental interactions, stressors, nutrition etc) and an individuals’ health trajectory (the rate of change albeit positive or negative against the scale of age) is our ultimate goal.
Striking a balance
The body strives for homeostasis, or balance. It constantly responds to keep hormones, muscle mass, fat mass and a host of other considerations all within a narrow and acceptable range to keep you functioning in the most optimal way.
This, over long periods of chronic habitual change, can alter the aforementioned health trajectory. Put simply, these ranges alter, and more often than not it results in a sub-optimal androgen-to-estrogen ratio and a decline in overall health, let alone greater difficulty in adding lean muscle mass and burning excess body fat.
Someone with lower levels of free testosterone will also experience a higher ratio of estrogen. Inversely, someone with an increased level of estrogen will also see a lowering of testosterone. The research is very clear on the potential effects of testosterone (hypotestosteronism) and/or high estrogen (hyperestrogenism). They include: increase in depression[1,2]; increased risk of diabetes[3,4]; higher risk of prostate cancer [5,6]; increased muscle loss[7-10]; higher risk of heart and cardiovascular disease[11,12]; increase in fat deposition; and lowered libido.
The T factor
Let’s look at the principal androgen – testosterone – and its production, which begins in the hypothalamus region of the brain. The hypothalamus releases a hormone called GnRH (gonadotropin-releasing hormone), which travels directly to the anterior pituitary where it stimulates the release of LH (luteinising hormone). LH attaches to the Leydig cells in the testes to instruct enzymes to convert cholesterol into testosterone.
In men the apparent signs of an androgen imbalance is an increase in fatty tissue around the chest (gynecomastia) and the waist and/or hips, as well as an increase in extracellular fluid. In women the virilising and masculinising effects are apparent in the same scenario.
The more ‘free’ testosterone in circulation, the greater the muscle-building and fat-burning potential, because there is more of the hormone available to put to beneficial uses.
A deficiency in free testosterone can be caused by an increase in production of sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), a glycoprotein that binds with circulating testosterone. The more SHBG, the less free biologically-active testosterone available to enter a cell and activate its receptor for positive benefits.
SHBG levels are reduced by androgens and increased by estrogenic states.
In addition, long-term calorie restriction diets have been shown to lower total and free testosterone levels, and increase SHBG levels, independent of body fat distribution.
Simply elevating calorie intake above and below basal requirements ensures a dynamic balance with keeping testosterone and androgens at a healthy level whilst enabling us to keep body-fat levels under control. This also has a concurrent impact on the thyroid hormones, which play a role in the synthesis of SHBG.
Another consideration is zinc deficiency, which inhibits the enzyme aromatase that is responsible for converting testosterone into estrogen. The adrenal hormone androstenedione will be converted into testosterone unless aromatase is present in which case it will be converted to estrogen alongside testosterone.
Androgens have 19 carbons whereas estrogen have only 18. Aromatase cleaves off the 19th carbon to form estrogen, so the more aromatase you have in your body, the higher the rate of this conversion. Reduce it by ensuring blood levels of zinc are adequate.
Preventing estrogen dominance
An increase in estrogenic stimulation can lead to excessive levels of circulating estrogen. Here are some of the most common factors and how you can prevent it. The more excessive body fat you have the higher the increase in estrogen[16, 17], and because fat cells produce this hormone this can quickly form a vicious cycle. Lowering body-fat levels is a key step in reducing estrogen levels.
Insufficient progesterone can also be a factor. Progesterone is a steroid hormone involved in the menstrual cycle and pregnancy, as well as being used to make cortisol. High levels of stress will drag down total progesterone levels, thus the dynamic balance the body requires between estrogen and progesterone is lost. This affects both men and women. An elevated estrogen balance will potentially increase extracellular fluid creating a softer and puffy look to the skin.
Excessive alcohol consumption depresses the central nervous system and lowers levels of zinc which, as well as lowering aromatase levels, is also a fundamental requirement for efficient testosterone production.
An optimal androgen-to-estrogen ratio can be achieved through better physical and mental stress management. Decreasing stress on the adrenal glands will lower cortisol levels and improve the balance between estrogen and progesterone. Also, avoiding a chronic use of stimulants and excessive intake of alcohol will also be highly beneficial, as will avoiding long-term calorie-restrictive diets.
Ultimately, striking a better balance between the stresses and the pleasures of life will result in a better hormonal balance that will increase your chances of building a stronger, healthier and leaner body.
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