Human Growth Hormone and Insulin are friends

16 Mar

Light Bulb

This article is the centerpiece of the seminars we teach daily, and a central theme of Mike T Nelson’s “Metabolic Flexibility for High Intensity Athletes”.  Click here for details. (including a testimonial from our most famous Lab Rat Elisabeth Akinwale)

Hormone balance, and the cycle by which our hormones are regulated, plays a major role in achieving optimal performance and body composition.  I’ll get down to brass tacks and make myself clear:  insulin and growth hormone play antagonist roles against one another.  When one is elevated, the other will be low.  That does not, however, mean that their functions are all that dissimilar; they’re both responsible for growth in different ways and looking at them as synergists is much more productive.  We want to find a way to make the best of insulin’s ability to pull nutrients into cells, but we also want to elicit the muscular, skeletal and neurological growth that (as the name implies) growth hormone is responsible for.  Intraday nutrient cycling (Carb Back-Loading) is the best way to do this.  Understanding why is complicated as all heck, but we’ve tried to make it easy to digest (Get it?  Digest?  Haha?)

Before we continue, I am going to ask that you take a look at our articles on insulin and leptin, as well as the sleep tutorial.  They’ll help you understand some of the terms in this section and get a better idea of what’s really going on behind the scenes.

Growth Hormone and IGF-1

Growth Hormone (GH) is a hormone responsible for cellular growth in the human body.  Throughout the day, GH is synthesized, stored and secreted by the anterior portion of the pituitary gland.  Factors such as low blood sugar, sleep, and exercise stimulate the hypothalamus to produce and release hormones that increase growth hormone synthesis and release in the pituitary gland.    On the other hand, elevated blood levels of cortisol, glucose and even growth hormone itself decrease production and secretion.  While GH is released into your bloodstream at fairly regular intervals (between 3-5 hours) the amount released is heavily dependent upon the factors I mentioned earlier in this paragraph.  It’s safe to say, however, that for most of us, the majority of growth hormone secretion occurs during sleep.  The result of these spikes tells the liver to increase production of IGF-1; this hormone is responsible for many of the same effects as GH.

IGF-1 (Insulin-like Growth Factor 1) is essentially just that; it’s a hormone that has similar properties and effects on the body (it even binds to the same receptors) as insulin, but it’s produced under completely the opposite circumstances.  Whereas insulin (a hormone responsible primarily for nutrient translocation) is secreted by the pancreas in response to (among other things) elevated blood glucose levels, IGF-1 is secreted by the liver during periods of low blood sugar.  In addition, a variation of IGF-1 called mechano-growth factor (MGF) is produced in response to intense exercise, like weight training or sprinting.  MGF acts primarily upon skeletal muscle tissue to bind satellite nuclei into the muscle cells (sarcomere).  This elicits growth of the myofibril, resulting in a stronger, larger, harder muscle.  As we like to say, “A light bulb should have just gone off in your head.”

Making the Best of Things

Now that we’ve covered the basics of what these hormones are and what they do, let’s go over some real-world dietary strategies to maximize the benefits of both GH and insulin.  To begin, you should understand that during sleep, you’ll eventually metabolize all of the food you’ve eaten and your blood glucose levels will drop.  Over the next few hours, you’ll re-align your endocrine system based upon what you did during the day.  By the time you’re getting ready to wake up, growth hormone will have been secreted in its largest pulse, and ghrelin (the hunger control hormone) will be high; your stomach will be telling you to wake up and eat something.  Ghrelin stimulates production of cortisol to raise your blood pressure, make you more sensitive to epinephrine, free up energy throughout the body, and turn on gluconeogenesis to get some sugar to your brain.  Cortisol levels will gradually decrease as you break down glycogen in your liver and muscles and before you know it, you’ll go through the whole cycle again; ghrelin levels will peak and you’ll get a small burst of growth hormone.

By skipping (really just delaying) breakfast and allowing your blood sugar (as well as your hormone balance) regulate on its own, you’ve set up a chain reaction.  Although you’ve already maximized recovery and mobilized a bunch of fat by riding out the cortisol spike (cortisol is, after all, an anti-inflammatory), you’re now in control of your metabolism and you can go in one of two directions:  towards fat loss and muscle gain, or growth of both fat and muscle tissue.  This is the perfect time to have your first meal and make your decision (I think I know which one you’ll pick.)  By keeping the carbs (and thus insulin) low, eating a healthy dose of fat and a modest amount of protein, you will turn on protein synthesis, mobilize fat, promote ketogenesis and maximize growth hormone secretion throughout the morning and afternoon.  You’ll actually be using your body fat as energy to maintain or grow muscle.  Whatever glucose your brain needs to do whatever it’s got to do, it will have available thanks to endogenous production in the liver.  You’ll actually be using your body fat as energy to maintain or grow muscle.  You could, alternatively, disregard the benefits of a low carb breakfast and have a big bowl of oatmeal with some bananas.  It’s up to you!

When the evening rolls around and it’s getting dark, blood leptin levels will be at their lowest, and you should be ready to relax.  While it may be time for you to rest, it’s time to grab hold of your metabolism and get that sucker moving again, and the best way to do it is to start eating carbohydrates to generate a surge of insulin.  It’s important that you’re eating enough glucose along with your protein and fat; fructose will not do, as it skips the stages of glycolysis that actually elicit an insulin response in the pancreas.  Sweet potatoes, bananas, and rice are your best friend.  By sticking with these classics, you’ll turn on a downstream effect that will result in your fat cells signaling that they’re full; leptin secretion will peak, your pituitary gland will release serotonin (which will convert into melatonin, the “sleep” hormone) and you’ll pass out happy and satiated.  Since you kept your food choices low carb throughout the day, you’ll be insulin sensitive and ready to soak up the glucose.  By eating high glycemic and delivered the insulin spike in one fell swoop, your blood sugar levels will fall quickly during sleep.  Before too long, the growth hormone bursts will begin, but they’ll be augmented by the insulin spike and subsequent drop of blood sugar levels below baseline.

What about Exercise?  The Best of Both Worlds

If exercise increases GH but eating carbs spikes insulin levels, how can we justify eating a ton of carbohydrates after training?  Don’t we want to take advantage of the growth hormone pulse?  Of course we do, but since growth hormone levels spike and then quickly diminish, by the time you get home and you’re ready to have your post work-out meal, they will have returned to baseline.  You have to remember that post-workout, your muscles don’t necessarily depend upon insulin to translocate nutrients; glucose transporters will have moved to the surface of the cell and you’ll get the sugar/water in without elevating insulin levels.  If performance and growth are at the top of your list of desirable training outcomes, you should try to have a protein/carb shake immediately after (or even during) your workout.  This shouldn’t be anything crazy: 25-50g of carbs from maltodextrin/dextrose, 5g of creatine and 10g of protein will work better than chugging a gallon Gatorade while you squat, so don’t go off the deep end.

When examining the complex relationships between hormones and how they affect our physiology, it may seem like you can’t win.  Jacking up either GH or insulin may result in a quick surge of growth, but as soon as they peak, they’re back to normal…Or lower.  As frustrating as that may seem, dipping below baseline will usually result in a super-compensatory reaction; a large insulin spike in the evening will equate to larger GH spikes throughout the day, after training, and during sleep.  In contrast, you’ll see greater insulin sensitivity and utilization of glucose in the evening if you let you GH handle the anabolism in the morning and throughout the night.  What seems like counterproductive behavior at first may be the ticket to where you want to go.  It is possible to get the best of both worlds if you deploy intelligent strategies to your daily nutrition, sleep and exercise.


26 Responses to “Human Growth Hormone and Insulin are friends”

  1. John Dotson March 16, 2013 at 12:55 pm #

    “By skipping (really just delaying) breakfast and allowing your blood sugar (as well as your hormone balance) regulate on its own, you’ve set up a chain reaction.”

    How long after waking should you wait before you eat your first meal? Monday through Friday I strength train as soon as I wake up, so it is at least an hour before I eat. My first meal is generally a recovery shake of simple carbs, protein, and BCAA’s immediately after my workout.

    • Paul Nobles March 17, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

      This is largely person dependent but 3-4 hours is fine. I routinely do 6-7 though.

      • Mike McCarthy March 27, 2013 at 12:40 pm #

        Paul, You routinely wait 6-7 hours before your first meal?

      • Paul Nobles March 27, 2013 at 12:43 pm #

        Since I am not working out today I probably won’t eat until about 12:30, I woke up at 3:30. Usually I wake up around 5am and don’t eat until noon. This is what works for me and it’s convenient. Maybe your window might need to be shorter, women often have to start with a shorter window but my wife has been fasting for almost as long as I have, she also waits until noon (though she is sleeping now).

  2. inrelentlesspursuit March 16, 2013 at 1:47 pm #

    Hi Paul what is your take on women using creatine with regard to performance and potential bloating? Thanks!

    • Paul Nobles March 17, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

      I am strongly in favor of it. For women I recommend Con Cret because it does seem to load better. I have a link under “supplements I recommend”.

  3. Jerry Hicks March 16, 2013 at 2:31 pm #

    I love the articles, wish you would make a few food recommendations for those of us just learning the game.

  4. Kellie March 17, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

    Do you have any other suggestions for the right carbs at bedtime, to have a variety? How about oatmeal?

    • Paul Nobles March 17, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

      Julia Ladewski uses that on occasion with great result, honestly the Quaker packets are probably the best if you can handle grains.

  5. Ash March 17, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

    Hi Paul. I started IF and carb-back loading about two weekes ago. This week imy skin has suddenly become covered in acne. I am 25 and have never suffered from acne problems. I’m wondering if this is a common phase in the cycling/IF process or if its unique to me. I eat paleo for the most part but have been using the nighttime re-feed window to eat rice based foods. I also started using pumpkin seed protein powder recently along with Nopal (cactus?) Poweder in my first meal shakes.
    I have also been of birth control for 3 months now, so Its hard to tell which of my life changes is effecting my skin.
    I’m stuck as to what it might be. I don’t visit a traditional “doctor”, and plan on seeing my natral path when funds surface.
    If you have any ideas I’d be more than happy to try some solutions because my skin has never been this bad.

    Thanks so much.

    • Paul Nobles March 17, 2013 at 3:05 pm #

      It’s certainly something. I see this most often when people use dairy and processed foods in their back loads. Occasionally using these things is fine but something you have introduced your body doesn’t like. As long as you aren’t severely reducing calories CBL and IF probably isn’t the problem. Simply add and subtract various things trying to find out what is causing the problem. Does that help?

      • Ash March 17, 2013 at 3:15 pm #

        I am having a hard time getting my calories in for the day, so maybe that is why?..Im fairly good with not eating dairy (as I’m lactose intolerant) and my weakness is baked goods over boxed/bagged processed foods. If my calories are too low would this have an effect on my skin?

      • Paul Nobles March 17, 2013 at 4:13 pm #

        It certainly could, you might want to look at fats as a way to up your overall calories or carb/protein shakes PWO.

  6. KRJ March 17, 2013 at 6:56 pm #

    What would be a good sourse of maltodextrin/dextrose?

    • Paul Nobles March 17, 2013 at 9:15 pm #

      Waxy Maize, I use Opti-Maize from Optimum Nutrition. For dextrose I just have it around to flavor some stuff. Both you can buy using the Amazon link under (support our site tab).

  7. Tom Capo March 26, 2013 at 7:15 pm #

    Excellent rundown. This is exactly the programming I use. I am able to keep body fat sub ten percent doing zero cardio, build muscle and maintain successful maintenance of performance indicators regarding contractile strength, muscle endurance and power. We have also seen tremendous results using these protocols with our general fitness clients who are simply looking for weight loss and appropriate body composition. Very succinct, accurate and useful article. well done.

  8. sscostin March 27, 2013 at 8:26 am #

    Hello i have to ask this: how many meals you have during the day? since u delay breakfast for 6 hours…
    Also what do u eat for lunch?? i understand … fat in the morning… carbs in the evening ..

    • Paul Nobles March 27, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

      I generally eat two meals but I consider dessert part of my evening meal. I sometimes have a snack in the middle of the day. I eat steak and ground beef a lot for lunch.

      • sscostin March 27, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

        Ok. but what about supplements? like protein or fish oils … when and how much do u take ?

      • Paul Nobles March 29, 2013 at 11:42 am #

        Protein is simple, are you getting it from whole foods and if not supplement. This is why having some idea of your protein intake is important. In terms of fish oil I use Nordic Naturals, about 5g a day, I use the kind with Vitamin D.

      • sscostin March 30, 2013 at 7:16 pm #

        Breakfast for me is very important i get up early and go to bed late so I cannot skip it.
        Is there any reason why I shouldn’t eat boiled eggs with lactate products some fish and some nuts.
        Thanks for your help

      • Paul Nobles March 30, 2013 at 9:13 pm #

        I eat breakfast every day it’s the timing we are debating. We aren’t suggesting to skip it only to delay it a bit to avoid storage of fat. Usually if you NEED breakfast that might point to under eating on the previous day.

  9. Steven C March 28, 2013 at 2:38 am #

    How should I adjust if I am working out first thing in the morning?

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