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Hormone Optimization 101
The endocrine system – not calories – determines body composition. Learn to hack it to get big AND lean.
It’s an established fact that low-carb diets work.
What I mean by “work” is that people find that are more likely to lose weight and keep it off long-term by focusing on restricting their carbs instead of overall calories.
Calorie restriction diets are based on the flawed concept of “calories in < calories out = weight loss.” They rarely get the results that the formula promises. Why? They’re hard to keep (hunger feels terrible), and the body has a way of adjusting to the perceived scarcity of food. It downregulates metabolism to conserve energy, and many people experience an inability to control their body temperature, plus a general sluggishness that leads to less energy being burned at rest.
It’s more accurate to say that ↓ calories in = ↓ calories out. The same is true of increasing calories. Absent any other change in the hormonal milieu, an increase in calories will result in more calories being burned, more energy, etc. Thus, attempting to change your body composition simply by eating more or less is usually self-defeating. The body has a “set point” for the weight that it wants to keep, which is governed primarily by our lifestyle and environment, and in particular, our hormones.
However, if you can change your hormonal milieu such that the body preferentially burns fat versus storing it, you can actually increase the number of calories you are eating and still lose weight.
I introduced this concept with a set of complex supply and demand graphs in my wildly underrated book Hormetics. The basic idea is that your set point is an equilibrium, and to change it you need to alter conditions other than the amount of willpower you use in restricting calories or brutalizing yourself into burning more calories through boring, painful exercise.[
Perhaps the graphs were simply too far ahead of their time (hah!), although I recently discovered that the model had a fatal flaw upon re-reading Rob Faigin’s excellent book Natural Hormone Enhancement .
In my supply-and-demand model for “Calories In = Calories Out” I graphed calories supplied or consumed (in) and demanded or expended (out) on the x-axis against total body adiposity – aka body fat - on the y-axis. The intersection of these lines gives you the set point equilibrium for body fat and energy balance.
However, it’s not really body fat but body composition – i.e., the ratio of lean mass to fat – that we care about. Therefore, we would need a three-dimensional model that includes a third axis for the growth and decline of our muscles and vital connective tissue.
In laying out a protocol for optimizing our hormonal environment, Faigin’s book introduces this “anabolic/catabolic” axis, along with the “lipogenic/lipolytic” axis my model had focused on.
Anabolic hormones help to grow and maintain muscles and other tissues, while catabolic hormones do the opposite – they break down muscles, often to supply the body with energy and resources when food is scarce.
Lipogenic hormones lead to the creation (genesis) of new fat cells (lipids), while lipolytic hormones tend to make the body burn fat – either from existing stores or from incoming dietary fat.
Note: Whenever you see anabolic, you can substitute “muscle-building” in your head. For catabolic, think “muscle-destroying.” For lipogenic, think fat-building. And for lipolytic, think fat-destroying.
We can simplify Faigin’s framework with a 2x2 grid, where we want to be moving closer to the upper right quadrant:
Getting a lean, mean physique would seem to be as simple as just maximizing anabolic and lipolytic hormones. This is true in the case of hormones like Growth Hormone, IGF-1, and Testosterone, which are both anabolic and lipolytic. 
But other hormones that influence our body composition have opposing effects on one axis vis-a-vis the other.
For example, insulin is an anabolic “growth hormone” but it’s also lipogenic. Insulin’s role is to shuttle nutrients into the cells – both muscles and fat cells alike – when blood sugar is high. On the plus side, insulin inhibits protein breakdown, but too much insulin and you will gain weight across the board (not to mention the symptoms of insulin resistance like diabetes). That might be okay for a big, fat strongman, but not for someone after the Grecian Ideal.
Likewise, insulin’s counterbalancing hormone glucagon has the opposite role: when blood sugar is low, such as after a period of fasting, glucagon transports glucose and amino acids out of the cells – destroying muscle and burning fat in the process. If Glucagon becomes dominant, you will end up like the sickly and sallow punk rocker who smokes a cigarette with black coffee for breakfast.
Further complicating matters, hormones are all interconnected with each other. Cortisol, the stress hormone often associated with the fight or flight instinct, suppresses Testosterone. Some forms of intense exercise might have an anabolic effect via IGF-1 or Growth Hormone, but a catabolic effect via cortisol if they are done too frequently.
Hence, Faigin’s emphasis on optimization over maximization. The goal is to leverage the anabolic and lipolytic effects while controlling the necessary but destructive effects of catabolism.
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Introducing the Macronutrient Cycle
Properly harnessed, hacking your hormones becomes a force multiplier on willpower that makes counting calories irrelevant. Low-carb diets, for example, work primarily because of their suppressing effect on insulin, as well as leptin to some extent, which signals fullness to the brain. Many people claim to have no problem retaining muscle on a high-fat diet too, even though the lower levels of insulin also mean fewer anabolic effects. For Faigin, this isn’t enough. He wants us to have our cake and eat it too – literally.
While recognizing the benefits of a low-carb diet for putting the endocrine system into “fat-burning mode,” he also wants to get the anabolic benefits that come from carbohydrates. By limiting carb intake to a brief, periodic window known as the “up-cycle,” we allow insulin to “top off” our glycogen levels – shuttling sugars into muscle storage – without spilling over into lipogenesis (fat storage).
The risk of this strategy is two-fold. First, if we upcycle too often, insulin levels will remain too high to keep us in the fat-burning mode that dominates when we eat a low-carb diet. Second, carbs have an addictive effect through the hormonal influence of insulin. When blood sugar spikes following a carb-heavy meal, insulin spikes as well to shuttle that sugar where it’s needed (first, to the liver and muscles glycogen, and then to fat cells for storage). Afterward, blood sugar dips back down – there is a “crash” – and the familiar result is a carb-craving sweet tooth.
This may be reason enough for some people to stick with a consistent low-carb approach. For the optimizer, however, there is a good reason to try upcycling with a carb-heavy meal every 3-4 days. This allows enough time for the body to return to the default fat-burning mode known as the downcycle.
If you’re going to attempt this, there are a few quantitative considerations to heed to get the most benefit.
First is limiting carbs to 30-60 grams per day during the high-fat, low-carb downcycle. This isn’t a lot, and it’s easy for carbs to creep above that level from a variety of sources, from fruit to starchy vegetables, and even nuts. If you exceed this threshold, you might not make the leap to fat-burning mode, and insulin will signal to your body to store all those extra calories you’re consuming since you stopped counting them. Getting out of sugar-burning mode is paramount. It’s even wise to begin with a full week to 10 days of strict ketogenic eating (less than 20 grams of carbs per day) before beginning the upcycle.
Faigin recommends a balance of nutritious fats and proteins, with no limit to the amount of fat, and a protein target of 15-50 grams per meal, with a 4-meal daily minimum. The reason for spreading out protein consumption throughout the day is that our tissues can only absorb so much at a time. Personally, I don’t take this as seriously as the genuine bodybuilders, who set reminders to eat and even get up in the night to consume additional grams of protein. This seems like an equally unhealthy neurosis as calorie counting, and there are known benefits such as autophagy to having a healthy period of catabolism where no protein is consumed (see Periodic Protein Restriction). Likewise, I’m not actually counting my daily carbs to make sure they add up to less than 50 grams.
For fats, Faigin prefers mono-unsaturated fats like olive oil, along with omega-3 rich polyunsaturated fats. I prefer saturated fat, and am wary of excessive polyunsaturated fats – especially from seed oils. Butter, heavy cream, and coconut oil are my go-tos, with honorable mentions for Avocado oil, olive oil, sour cream, and cheese.
For the upcycle meal, you should dial back the protein and fats considerably, with no restrictions on the quantity of carbs consumed. Faigin recommends fewer than 20g each for fat and protein. This is because fat, in combination with carbs, will get shuttled via the “conveyor belt” of insulin into the cells (lipogenesis), and protein serves little purpose during the upcycle. The primary goal is to replenish muscle glycogen to control the catabolism of muscle during the subsequent downcycle, and enhance physical performance during workouts.
Lastly, in timing the upcycle meal, Faigin wisely suggests positioning the upcycle as the last meal of the day. You might consume a normal high-fat, low-carb breakfast to close out the downcycle, and then eat your high-carb meal in the evening, just a few hours before bed. This allows you to sleep during the usual craving period, and restart the downcycle some 12 hours later, after insulin levels have had time to normalize.
Ultimately, we have to remember that this framework is only that — a framework. It is not an ironclad rule, nor does it reflect every complex interaction of our endocrine system. There are other ways to think about hormone optimization, such as the Ray Peat (RIP) worldview, for example. Peat promotes sugar consumption as part of a strategy to speed up metabolism. Other frameworks for enhancing hormones are more favorable toward the catabolic effects of fasting. I swear by none of these, but try to learn from all of them.
 Written in 2000, this book was way ahead of its time.
 As the title of the book implies, Natural Hormone Enhancement is about maximizing internal or endogenous production of these beneficial hormones – not injecting exogenous hormone support