Over the years I’ve seen countless would-be bodybuilding men and women who set aside plenty of time to train hard and go to the gym with all the intention in the world to work hard. Yet when they get their hands on the bar, they simply lack the motivation to chop the proverbial wood they need to build the fire. They look sluggish, lazy, and even a little distracted. They don’t really pump. They don’t sweat. They don’t breath heavily. I’ve seen men and women alike spend oodles of cash on every dietary supplement they can think of, carefully map out and plan their meals, carry chicken breasts everywhere in those plastic containers so they never miss a meal, and even haul around gallons of distilled holy water everywhere they go even when it’s not contest time. Yet their muscles look flat. Their faces look sad and a little depressed.
I’ve seen these same minions set aside dusk until late morning to sleep and even square away additional nap time in hopes it will help make their muscles grow. Yet these same herd animals following the hooves of those in front of them can’t get to sleep half the time, and when they finally do, they wake up and suffer from more insomnia. They end up awake half the night. Dawn hits and they are exactly what they strived so hard not to be: exhausted. It seems there is something else at play—and there is...
Perhaps Deborah Blum said it best in her Psychology Today article “The Plunge of Pleasure” when she referred to serotonin as the “Zen-master among neurotransmitters” and dopamine as “Pollyanna, responsible for the highs of infatuation, new love, joy, self-confidence, and motivation.”(1)
Blum’s key point to understand is that we need both influences. Mirroring the significance of the parasympathetic and sympathetic neurotransmitter systems in the body, this neuro-hormonal modulatory interplay between serotonergic and dopaminergic systems orchestrates our psychological outlook, daily conduct, and physiologic function.(2)
Interestingly, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is not found mainly in the brain. In fact up to 90% of serotonin is produced and found in the gastrointestinal tract. So when serotonin levels are too low, not only do we see central side effects like depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and headaches (migraines), but we also see peripheral manifestations like gastrointestinal problems, fat gain, and malabsorption.(3)
Unlike serotonin, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is primarily found in the brain and regulates behavior, attention, and learning. Low dopamine levels can have a profound effect on motivation and mood. Dopamine helps with an overall sense of well-being and mental performance. Beyond classic Parkinson’s disease, medical conditions associated with low dopamine levels include depression and social phobia.(3)
Pertinent to the bodybuilder looking to put on lean muscle, dopamine also indirectly stimulates the production and release of growth hormone (GH). Proper GH hormone levels are obviously critical to bodybuilding progress. Dopamine achieves this by inhibiting another hormone called “somatostatin.” Somatostatin is an inhibitor of pituitary GH secretion because it blocks growth-hormone releasing hormone (GHRH) from the hypothalamus. In much the same way as a product like MYO-T12 inhibits myostatin (the major serum muscle growth inhibitor), dopamine inhibits somatostatin (a major GH inhibitor).(4)
But it’s not just about having huge amounts of both these hormones. They exist in balance. In some ways they oppose each other, and in other ways they complement. It’s sort of the yin and yang of the body. It’s interplay, a harmony. Dysfunctional interactions can occur between the serotonergic and dopaminergic systems in the areas of the brain that govern impulsive control and aggression. For example, too little serotonin with too much dopamine may predispose individuals to uncontrolled impulsive aggression.(5)
They key for the bodybuilder is to generally understand these neuro-hormonal systems and why you must provide the natural backdrop to foster a healthy balance between serotonin and dopamine so that they may operate in complementary fashion.
In real-world terms, let’s look at some dietary considerations for the bodybuilder. It is old news that the key to a chiseled physique is to radically reduce and meter carbohydrate intake. But cut too much and you’ll disturb the neuro-hormonal balance. The so called “ketogenic diet” is still all the rage. This diet emerged a century ago as a treatment for childhood epilepsy.(6)
In more modern times, medical text- books devoted to ketogenic dieting—the work of my old friend Bob Atkins, M.D., and the more recent popularization and perpetuation by modern bodybuilding— have kept this approach very much in vogue.(7) The problem with the ketogenic approach is mostly compliance, since not many can stay on it for long periods of time. For those who can, neuro-hormonal problems may arise when the body is provided no carbohydrate whatsoever. Specifically, serotonin levels may flatline.
That’s not to say that everyone should go carb crazy. In fact, it’s still the opposite. Carbohydrates are the dietary bane of our existence. The key is to understand that it does not take much in the way of carbohydrates to satisfy this balance. In fact, it takes very small, almost negligible amounts to right the ship. It’s enough to simply have what I call incidental carbohydrates. These are most certainly not carbohydrate-based foods like sugary sweets, fruits, bread, rice, or the starchy foods like potatoes or corn. Rather, I’m speaking of vegetables. These are fiber-based roughage foods that contain a small and reasonable amount of incidental carbohydrates, plus they provide the body with a plethora of other nutrients like minerals. Some foods higher in carbohydrates, like natural oats or quinoa, when consumed in moderation and strictly in the morning or early part of the day, can also more than adequately support serotonergic system while providing other health benefits.
The discussion of the ketogenic diet provides an interesting introduction to the concept of the diet affecting dopamine levels. As I described, over the long term, this approach takes its toll on serotonin levels. But when, in the ketogenic diet, one adds in the high amounts of saturated fat, dopamine takes a beating as well. Atkins used to push the idea that you could pretty much have as many bacon double cheeseburgers as you wanted, as long as you didn’t have the buns. Herein lies the problem. Research presented at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior suggested that excess fat intake is associated with depressed levels of dopamine in lab animals.(8) The take-home message here is to avoid consuming excess amounts of unhealthy fats. Instead focus on higher amounts of the essential fatty acids. Also problematic for dopamine levels are foods high in processed sugar and overly refined foods.
On a more proactive front, there are specific foods that you can incorporate into the diet to support and even bolster healthy dopamine levels. The essential amino acid tyrosine can be converted in the brain to dopamine, so foods rich in tyrosine can be helpful. I tend to favor foods that have a high healthy-fat content and a low-carbohydrate profile, such as raw almonds and avocados, as well as pumpkin and sesame seeds.(9) Some carbohydrate-based foods—fruits, such as bananas, and some types of beans— offer substantial amounts of tyrosine, but they contain quite a bit of non-incidental carbohydrate calories, which I tend to avoid.
Of course, both the serotonergic and dopaminergic systems can be more aggressively manipulated with prescriptive medications as well as dietary supplements. Next month, I will cover both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical substances that can specifically promote these systems.
References: 1) D. Blum, Psychology Today, Sept. 1997. 2) L. Keltikangas-Järvinen et al., Scand L Psychol., 50(6):574–82, 2009. 3) M. Knouff, eHow.com. 4) M.L. Vance et al., J Clin Endocrinol Metab., 64(6): 1136–41, 1987. 5) S. Dongju et al., Aggress Violent Beh.,13(5), 383–95, 2008. 6) C.J. Barborka, JAMA, 91(2):73–78, 1928. 7) J.W. Wheless, http://www.naturaleater.com /Science-articles/History-ketogenic-diet.pdf. 8) J.J. Cone et al., Science Daily, July 13, 2010. 9) Integrative Psychiatry, integrativepsychiatry.net/dopamine.html.