Top athletes don’t often worry about things like cholesterol levels in their C-reactive protein count. Athletes live to transcend yesterday’s limits. It doesn’t matter the sport: There are no casual workouts for those yearning to be more than human.
But high performance requires health at a greater level than the average Joe. Drive the machine to its limits each week and things tend to get stressed, they wear down, they burn out. High performance requires that every link in the chain from the microscopic to the macro is in peak condition, because if it’s not, one bad link can break the whole chain.
When powerlifters, bodybuilders, and Olympic hopefuls come to me burned out, sore, tired, complaining of stiff muscles and joints that won’t loosen up, I don’t give them some innocuous stretching guide and mobility drills, pat them on the back, and wish them on their merry way. I force them to get healthy from the inside out. If the cells of your body are sluggish, battered, and backed up, the body will be, too. Cells that won’t grow form a body that won’t grow.
Components of Cellular Health
Three main facets of cellular health exist that we can control: the quality of the cell membrane, the efficiency of the internal workings, and protection against reactive oxygen species, also called free radicals.
■ Fatty Acids: No More Viscosity Breakdown
Modern society has one of the worst diets ever. Science shows that it’s not the macronutrient breakdown that matters most for health—the classic triumvirate of nutrition: carbs, fat, and protein. The quality of the food matters. We are, literally, what we eat, and the fats we eat get incorporated into the membranes of our cells.
The health of the membrane determines how well things get in and out of the cell. For example, if the cellular membranes allow building blocks and hormones to travel freely into the cell, allow molecular transports to move around, and let junk out with ease, then the inner workings of the cell never feel deprived of the materials they need to grow.
But if our cellular membranes stiffen and thicken, this will clog up the works and slow down metabolism. We eat a lot of crap, even stuff we think is good for us, and it leaves our cells molecularly disabled at their point of contact with the world.
To get membranes back to optimum health, we want a tough coating that resists oxidative damage, but that’s fluid and permeable. Omega-3s have been shown to be a key component in cellular health, which may be because they make the slickest membranes out there. Recent research shows that supplementing with upward of 10 grams of fish oil per day can double the anabolic growth signal of a training session.
Coconut oil—or rather the medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) it contains—can help accelerate the process by causing a shift in the abundance of omega-3s in cellular membranes. Throw in a little stearic acid for structure and protection to create some supercharged cells. Rich sources of stearic acid: cocoa butter and bacon.
■ Ketones: Ex-Lax For Cells
When was the last time you were backed up, constipated, unable to purge all the waste from those six meals per day and yet still felt great? My guess is never. Your cells feel the same. The longer you stay anabolic, especially with carbs, the more crap and detritus builds up within the innards of the cell. Damaged RNA and DNA chunks, mutated mitochondria, and even viral debris fill up the cell, and all this clutter prevents it from working properly.
Cells have their own digestive system, however, called lysosomes, which are tiny little organs (organelles) containing digestive enzymes for cellular waste. When lysosomes do their job, it’s called autophagy, or literally, eating one’s self. The cell literally digests the junk inside, often recycling it for repair or growth of structures.
The problem is, when we’re anabolic, particularly when mTOR, one of the main growth pathways for muscle, is stimulated, autophagy doesn’t function well. Research has shown, however, that attempting to be anabolic all the time can actually hamper muscle growth; autophagy, a purely catabolic process, is needed for growth. Turn autophagy on and cells clean themselves out, running with greater efficiency in the process, which allows them to grow.
We can turn beneficial autophagy on in two different ways. Fasting triggers one type of autophagy called macroautophagy. Don’t jump on the intermittent fasting bandwagon just yet, because it doesn’t take 24, 18, or even 12 hours to trigger it: All you need is a good night’s sleep without introducing any food. Most of us do that already.
Ketones trigger the second type of autophagy, designated as chaperone-mediated autophagy (CMA), and it takes a bit of time to kick in. This one’s easy to control, though. All we need to do is go ketogenic by keeping carbs at 30 grams or less per day or for some part of each day, especially the morning. When we first wake, the body is already ketogenic and by skipping carbs for at least the first half of the day, we prolong ketogenesis and help flush the crap out of our cells making them more anabolic.
As a bonus, recent research has shown that ketogenic diets not only accelerate fat loss, but ketones protect against muscle protein breakdown.
■ Antioxidants: Cellular Bullet-Proofing
You don’t function well filled with bullet holes and neither do your cells. By reacting with the surface, free radicals destroy membrane quality and wreak havoc within. But oxidative stress is hormetic—a little bit during exercise triggers muscular growth; too much catalyzes deterioration.
That’s why cells need their own antioxidant machinery that allows a little bit of oxidative stress but can also protect against it from within. Cells come equipped with powerful antioxidant machinery fueled by an amino acid called glutathione. The best way to skyrocket cellular glutathione levels: whey protein. Creatine also acts as an antioxidant in skeletal muscle tissue.
Cellular Avengers: Assemble
Because of the number of athletes that come to me achy, hurting, especially after intense training cycles where they didn’t focus closely enough on nutrition or after a contest when a lack of nutrients from eating nothing but asparagus and tilapia for weeks has left the body depleted and broken, I put together what I call the Detox Diet 2.0. It’s ultimate recovery for the ultimate athlete, and it incorporates all of the components above to heal the athlete from the inside out and supercharge every cell for maximum growth.
1- Every meal should consist of only the first three items in any combination plus 1⁄4 cup of a fibrous ultra-low carb veggie, such as chopped pepper.
2- Ingest 10 grams of fish oil per day.
3- Cook with butter or coconut oil (preferred).
4- Take 10 to 20 grams of creatine per day.
5- Take upwards of 100 grams of whey isolate post-training and no other nutrients at that time.
6- Once per week, have a Carb Nite (as outlined in The Carb Nite Solution, described at carbnite.com).
7- Avoid plant-derived fats (except coconut oil), even from nuts (macadamia nuts are OK on occasion).
After even just a week of this diet, inflammation decreases, anabolism increases, and athletes feel good again. I normally keep athletes on this diet for two to three weeks, then I transition them to Carb Back-Loading (carbbackloading.com), which not only is designed for rapid muscle gain while losing fat (or at least not gaining any), but also continues to supercharge cells for maximum anabolic health.