Are Fat Burning Supplements Making your Fatter and Unhealthier?
Guest blog by Mike Mahler
Reliable diet and exercise information is more accessible than ever before yet every year, Americans continue getting fatter. According to David Kessler, author of The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable Appetite, food manufactures purposely make food their foods irresistible by combining sugar, salt, fat and a pixie dust of chemicals to create an addictive response in the consumer. Thus the more of their garbage you eat, the more you desire and predictably, excess fat is the consequence. Unfortunately, highly processed foods do nothing positive for the brain and body, merely displacing the nutrition required to thrive. Without a wholesome, nutrition-based, source of energy to get through the day, many people–mistakenly–self-medicate with caffeine and other stimulants. Relying on artificial, external sources of stimulation is a poor choice which can lead to adrenaline resistance (and tandem insulin resistance) which can perpetuate weight gain and otherwise discourage good health. Increasing the ante with supplemental fat-burners and thermogenics only worsens the situation. In the long run, fat-burners can potentially make you fatter by screwing up your physiology. Overusing such supplements can create (or aggravate already existing) adrenaline resistance, which in turn causes fat retention, muscle loss, and inflammation.
Most fat burning supplements on the market are stimulant-based, thus they work by increasing the neurotransmitter/hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine. Norepinephrine and epinephrine are catecholamines, secreted by the adrenals, which trigger the “fight or flight” response (also known as an adrenaline rush) providing an energy and strength boost by way of the central nervous system for 2-15 minutes. When facing a legitimate stressor, i.e. an emergency, we rely on these hormones to overcome and persevere. Epinephrine, also referred to as adrenaline, is what gets you out of the bed in the morning; it further gives you an edge every time you take on a challenge. Adrenaline gives us energy for intense workouts and, in the form of norepinephrine, for the mental demands of problem solving.
The problem, as usual, comes from too much of a good thing. Most people in modern society have chronically jacked up adrenaline levels from day-to-day living, and taking stimulant-based fat burners only increases the load on their already overworked adrenal glands. What if you’re on vacation? With no stress in sight? Still, if you take a fat-burning supplement the recommended two to three times a day, you’ll still be increasing your brain’s perception of stress. While epinephrine works in the body, increasing oxygen and glucose levels while suppressing digestive and immune systems, norepinephrine works similarly, but adds a bonus psychoactive element. Thus every time you take a stimulant based fat burning supplement the message to the brain is a consciousness of stress.
Chronically elevated adrenaline always results in adrenaline resistance, a condition wherein the various adrenaline receptors become desensitized. In an adrenaline-sensitive system, adrenaline causes blood sugar to rise (to be burned for energy) while simultaneously releasing lipids into the blood stream (the fat-burning part) thus adrenaline can aid us in breaking down fat deposits for energy. Unfortunately, in an adrenaline-resistant system, since the receptors are dulled, the message is either delayed or worse, never gets through. Thus, the systemstores–instead of burning–the available energy sources and, worse yet, tends to store the released lipids into already-existing stubborn fat depots, like hips and thighs in women and love handles and upper back fat in men. In addition to increasing depot fat stores, adrenaline resistance–allowed to run its course–ends with severe energy lows and general fatigue Receptors worn out by chronic stimulation eventually shut down, leaving you lagging all day.
Unfortunately, the effects of adrenaline resistance don’t stop at increased fat storage and decreased energy levels. Chronically elevated adrenaline brings inflammation: every secretion of adrenaline triggers a complement of the stress hormone, cortisol, a counter-response to the system’s inflammatory response to adrenaline. Like adrenaline, cortisol–in the appropriate doses–is helpful. The problem, again, is too much of a good thing–when cortisol levels are chronically elevated. In an optimal scenario, cortisol is released to reduce the inevitable inflammation (by way of suppressing the immune response) triggered by adrenaline, and everything is as it should be thus homeostasis ensues. The problem arises when cortisol is chronically released in response to an adrenaline-resistant system–resulting is a continual feedback loop of stress hormones. Worse, unlike adrenaline, cortisol doesn’t release fatty acids for energy, but goes the quick and dirty route of muscle catabolism. So you see, between the fatty acid storage and muscle catabolism, how adrenaline resistance (at least in the realm of optimal body composition) is truly a worst-case scenario.
Building–and retaining–muscle mass is critical to body leanness. If your goals include fat loss, you’ll want to add muscle to improve your ratio of lean body mass to fat–and building muscle is virtually impossible in the face of adrenaline resistance.
We need sufficient testosterone and growth hormone to feel our best and thrive, but the excess cortisol (from the excess adrenaline) pulls the plug on muscle gains on one front by flat-lining production of the anabolic sex hormones. When your central nervous system is in continual survival mode, available energy is no longer delegated to anabolism (i.e. tissue growth and repair) but instead to survival mode (i.e. suppressing inflammation by suppressing the immune system.) Decreased sex hormone production is the kiss of death for muscle gains, fat loss, powerful immunity and a healthy zeal for life. You want to optimize your sex hormone levels and feel great? Here’s the hitch: you must address adrenaline resistance.
When it comes to fat loss, instead of relying on ever-increasing adrenal stimulation (with ever-decreasing returns) focus on what realistically needs to happen to burn the fat off–keep it off. One often overlooked key to fat loss is liver health. The stronger and healthier the liver, the less stubborn fat deposits on the body, since the liver assists in clearing out excess fat-retaining estrogens.
Since toxins are stored in fat cells, the body will stubbornly retain fat in order not to release those stored toxins into the blood stream, since it could overwhelm the system–especially when organs are already stressed. Though you may think it hates you, your body may actually be holding on to that undesired fat to protect your organs.
Knowing this, it makes sense to eat a diet both clean and free of toxins. Consuming ample organic fruits and vegetables provides the liver antioxidants to counter the effects of toxins released from the fat cells. While the nutrition benefit per se of organic food over non-organic food is negligible at best, organic food has less surface toxins from sprays which ideally translates into a lower toxic load on the system, therefore less burden on the liver and finally, decreased stubborn body fat.
Nutritional supplements can play a role in liver health and thus, fat loss. Essential fatty acids are one supplement proven to effective in fat loss, organ health, reducing inflammation and intracellular friction. The good news is that supplements for liver health and stress management also function de facto fat-loss aids. For the liver, the amino acid N-acetyl cysteine is a great option. N-acetyl cysteine is a precursor to glutathione, which is critical for optimal immune function, protein synthesis and repair. Another multi-faceted supplement for increasing glutathione is R-lipoic acid, which further increases insulin sensitivity in the muscles, thus supporting fat loss and muscle gains.
For stress management, load up on herbs that offer adrenal support and assist with real energy production. Some of my favorites include Maca, Rhodiola, Shilajit and Ashwagandha. All four ingredients are in my real energy and adrenal support supplement RED. Rhodiola is an adaptogen which is a substance that strengthens the response to physical, mental, and emotional stresses. Rhodiola gets the job done and increases energy, adrenal support, and workout performance big time! Shilajit has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years and is a powerful plant loaded with fulvic and humic acids which both energize cells. Shilajit is also highly regarded for its rejuvenation properties as well. It pushes oxygen and nutrients into the cells and supports antioxidant activity. Finally, Sensoril® Ashwagandha helps promote emotional well-being, increased resistance to fatigue and tension while boosting energy levels, and enhanced mental clarity and concentration.* Sensoril® also helps promote healthy cardiovascular function, resistance to stress-induced overeating for healthy weight management, and more restful sleep.* In addition, Sensoril® helps support blood sugar levels which are already within the normal range.
Don’t forget the minerals: magnesium and zinc support hormone production–especially testosterone. With every adrenaline release comes a corresponding need for magnesium and other minerals and electrolytes. Magnesium controls muscular contraction, including striated, smooth and cardiac muscle. A good book to read about magnesium and its benefits isThe Magnesium Miracle by Carolyn Dean, MD ND. My favorite form of magnesium is transdermal magnesium oil, which has the added value of increasing DHEA levels–minus the negative effects for men–attendant with oral DHEA supplementation. Optimal DHEA levels keep cortisol in check, therefore keeping testosterone from becoming depleted. Magnesium, with its muscle relaxating properties, is best taken as a sleep aid at bedtime.
Finally, take a page from The Younger (Thinner) You Diet: How Understanding Your Brain Chemistry Can Help You Lose Weight, Reverse Aging and Fight Disease (Eric Braverman, MD) and add three spices to every meal. Spices, such as turmeric, basil, oregano, cumin and rosemary are all anti-inflammatory and good for liver health. Cinnamon is helpful for regulating blood sugar and tastes great in protein shakes and homemade protein bars.
Proper sleep, and other restorative practices, are important–frequently neglected–aspects of fat loss and physical wellness. Without adequate quality sleep (7-9 hours for most) human growth hormone levels will be insufficient. Growth hormone has an anabolic function and is a potent player in body leanness. GH Levels naturally decline after age 25 so you don’t want to further short change yourself by missing sleep. Restoration activities, such as tai chi, yoga, chi-kung and meditation, increase body/breath awareness, thereby improving stress management.
Despite all the above, don’t ensnare yourself in supplement recommendations and miss the big picture! Supplements are merely that:supplements to an optimal diet, exercise and healthful daily routine. Optimize your diet and reduce your stress by creating a healthful routine for yourself. For best results in physical and mental well-being (including fat loss) instead of distracting yourself with pricey supplements, determine the source of the stress in your life and remove or reduce it as best you can.
You can never go wrong taking charge of your life and circumstances. The more self-reliant you feel in your endeavors, the healthier you will be. A few weeks ago, I watched a wildlife show about baboons which illustrated this fact. A primatologist drew blood samples from a wild troop of baboons and analyzed the hormone levels and other bio-markers. The alpha male profiles showed not only optimal sex hormones and but the lowest levels of stress hormones. Further, the alphas had ideal blood pressure. Baboons lower within the social hierarchy, on the other hand, had high levels of cortisol and corresponding degenerative health symptoms, including high blood pressure. The difference? Alpha males (at least while they remain alpha) spend their days as they please, while the other baboons are left to cope with all the inter-tribe displaced aggressions. The lesson? The more sovereignty you feel over your life, the more ease with which you can go about what needs to be accomplished in your lifetime. Feeling at the mercy of others, and other externals beyond your control, wreaks havoc with your hormones and peace of mind.
Looking to optimize your health and win the war against body fat? Address your propensity for adrenaline resistance. In short, if you are one of the stimulant addicted, overcome it. Unlike caffeine and other fat-burners, eating a clean diet supplies real energy to the body and keeps the liver clear of toxins. The healthier your liver, the more efficiently you will shed fat and improve hormonal profiles. If indicated, try the suggested supplements for liver health and hormonal support, but remember: diet, exercise and supplements aren’t enough in themselves. If you have a stressful attitude toward your life, you can count yourself among the adrenaline resistant. Don’t go there! Why not take responsibility for your life and, instead of managing symptoms of stress, rout them and liberate yourself.
Note: an outstanding book addressing fat loss and adrenaline resistance is Mastering Leptin: Your Guide to Permanent Weight Loss and optimum Health (Bryon J.Richards/ Mary Guignol Richards). For an easy-read version of the material, read The Leptin Diet: How Fit is Your Fat (Take Charge) also by Byron Richards.