The Sauna: Beneficial or Total Bulls**t?

As you enter the locker room, you see a group of dudes entering the sauna. You think to yourself “Every time I come to the gym, I always see people going in there. But does it really do anything?”

That’s a very fair question to ask, and in this article, we’ll be discussing whether or not it has any impact on your muscle-building goals, or if it’s just a complete waste of your time.

Sauna vs. Steam Room

First, we have to realize that there’s two different types of “saunas” really.

Quite simply, the only difference that exists between them is that one is humid and one is not. A sauna consists of much drier air than a steam room, which is essentially 100% humid air. This is all a matter of personal preference, as there hasn’t been much difference shown between them in terms of health benefits, which we’ll get to in a minute.

So choose whichever one is most convenient, whether it be because of preference or simply because that’s all your gym has. It really doesn’t matter all that much.

So What Are the Health Benefits?

Several benefits have been touted for utilizing the sauna on a regular basis. These include:

  • Improved cardiovascular functioning (improved blood flow)
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Positive changes in cholesterol
  • Improved immune functioning
Image result for blood flow

But are any of these actually true?

Surprisingly, yes! In a systematic review conducted in Finland (which is actually where the sauna originated from), regular use of a sauna could potentially delay vascular disorders such as hypertension and heart disease. Also, dementia and lung disease could be delayed or even improved with the aid of regular, consistent bathing.

Unfortunately, however, there are many limitations with studies conducted on sauna use. For example, many of the studies are relatively small and others had several types of study biases’ involved, such as being involved with a company that produces saunas or the researchers’ using invalid study designs.

In another systematic review, it was shown that regular use of a sauna showed similar benefits in cardiovascular functioning as many other studies have shown. Also, interesting findings were seen in athletes as increased bioavailiability of nitric oxide was discovered, which is what helps the blood vessels dilate during exercise, expediting nutrient delivery to the cells. Putting it simply, it helps athletes to recover faster and perform better over the long term.

The authors of this systematic review even go on to say that there are potential benefits to the metabolism and specific hormonal pathways that deal with stress responses and excrete toxins from the body. But more research is needed in this area to confirm this claim.

What About for Muscle Growth and Fat Loss?

According to what I was able to find anyway (or lack thereof), there is no direct relationship between fat loss/muscle hypertrophy and sauna use. I mean it seems pretty obvious that there wouldn’t be a relationship between hypertrophy and sauna use, as that doesn’t really seem to make much sense.

However, as it comes to fat loss, you’d think it’d make a difference, right? Theoretically, it makes sense, and until official research comes out on this direct relationship pertaining specifically to athletes, we won’t know exactly for sure why this is the case. But we can make postulations as to why this is occurring.

Water Weight

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For one, it’s mostly water weight that you’re losing when you sit in the sauna. Water and sodium make up a large majority of the sweat that exits out from your pores, so when you weigh yourself after a sauna and you see that weight drop, that’s what you’re seeing. Now don’t get me wrong, that’s great if you’re looking to lose some extra water that you may be holding, whether it be from excess sodium intake or what have you. But it’s most likely not fat that’s being oxidized and being put to use for energy simply because you’re sitting in high temperatures for 15-20 minutes a day.

Enhanced Performance

Perhaps sitting in the sauna has helped you in your overall performance in the gym. Let’s take the finding of increased nitric oxide (NO) production as an example. You’ve been able to perform more reps due to the increased amount of endurance you now have. And because of that, you’re now able to apply greater amounts of progressive overload, or the consistent increase of a training variable, to your training routine. In this case, it would be the number of repetitions.

Improved Overall Health

Let’s say that using the sauna has lowered your blood pressure and your cholesterol like the literature says it would. You know have a greater sense of well-being, therefore, you’re increasing what’s called your NEAT, or your Non-Exercise Induced Activity Thermogenesis. In other words, you’re increasing the amount of activity you’re doing during the day subconsciously, such as pacing, fidgeting, and walking around more in general. This, in turn, will help you to burn more calories over time.

Final Words…

Now, of course, what I just provided for you was a mix of facts and hypothetical situations. But the literature looks promising in my opinion in its usage not only for the general population but for those of us who engage in regular exercise as well. I personally believe it has helped me from both an aesthetic point of view as well as a performance standpoint.

Unless you have some sort of health condition that would make sauna use unsafe for you, I see no reason why you shouldn’t at least try to implement this into your training program for a week and see how it works out for you. 15-20 minutes for 2-3 times a week is all it takes to see benefits, at least in my experience.

So give it a shot and let me know what you think! If you have any questions about sauna usage, or have suggestions for future topics, don’t be afraid to ask!

Use These 4 Methods to Help You Survive Intermittent Fasting!

In a previous article I’ve written, I talked about intermittent fasting and how it’s not the magical weight loss solution that many tout it to be. While this may be the case, I didn’t eliminate its usefulness entirely.

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A Quick Refresher

First, let’s recap what exactly intermittent fasting is…

Although there are several variations of the diet that exist, the most popular and one that we’ll focus on here is called the 16/8 fasting protocol. It’s pretty self-explanatory, where you fast for 16 hours during the day and you have an 8-hour “feeding window” where you fit all of your regularly scheduled meals.

It’s become quite popular due to its touted health benefits, such as improvements in cholesterol and fasting blood glucose. However, there’s still a lot of research that has to be conducted in this realm, as many of the results come from animal models, and we are now just starting to see similar results replicated in humans. So for now, we can take the results with a grain of salt.

And it’s become increasingly popular in the fitness industry because of its claims to help you burn more fat faster than a traditional diet. This is where the problem lies.

This simply isn’t true, as stated by notable exercise scientist Brad Schoenfeld and colleagues, viewing the concept of fat-burning over a span of only 24 hours is extremely shortsighted. If one is burning more fat during one period, the body will compensate by burning more carbs during the other, and vice versa. See where I’m getting at here?

My Own Experience

I’ve actually been experimenting with it myself during my contest prep, and let me tell you, it’s helped a lot.

And let me reiterate this one more time for you guys, it is not because it is a magical diet that will “annihilate fat” or some other nonsense like that. Instead, let me explain to you how it’s helped me in a more practical sense.

It Fits My Lifestyle

As proven by science, the key factor to success in any diet is adherence. This is what makes or breaks a person’s success to achieving their fat-loss goals.

And intermittent fasting just happened to be the strategy for me that helped me to adhere to a calorie-restricted diet better than any other. Personally, I like to eat bigger meals. Especially when the calories begin to drop, I’m not really an avid fan of eating rabbit-sized meals every 2-3 hours (plus, the concept of meal frequency “speeding up your metabolism” has been debunked for quite a while now).

It Helps Me Keep My Relationship with Food Intact

We all love food, don’t we? Especially for those of us who are into competing and are experienced with very-restrictive dieting, it can really damage the once healthy relationship that we had with food.

For me, fasting helped me keep my mind off of food. Instead of constantly thinking about eating all day, as I’m used to eating more frequently throughout the day, it helped me to apply my thoughts towards other priorities that I had.

I would often hold off eating until around 2 p.m or so, sometimes even later. Because of this, I was able to concentrate on my morning tasks, such as doing cardio, running errands, and working on my online business. It helped me to be more efficient, as I wasn’t stuck on the thought of eating or even prepping food for that morning or early afternoon.

It Lets Me Eat Bigger Meals

Okay, maybe not that big…

Again, it lets me eat much larger meals during times of restrictive dieting. To many, this can feel a lot more satisfying afterwards compared to the empty feeling one may have after eating such a small portion of food.

The Problem(s) with Intermittent Fasting

While I may be making this sound like rainbows and unicorns right now, the fact of the matter is intermittent fasting can be tough at times, especially at the beginning.

Hunger

Often, people can’t get used to the feeling of hunger in the mornings, especially if there avid fans of a bigger breakfast. Many people can get past this feeling after getting accustomed to the diet, but for some, they just can’t stick to it. That’s completely fine, that just means this specific diet is not for them.

Luckily for me, I’ve never really been a fan of eating breakfast, so this works perfectly for me.

Social Acceptance

Sometimes this style of eating can cause complications with one’s schedule, particularly around social events.

For example, it may be viewed as impolite when you go out to lunch with your boss and you just order a water or black coffee. This may make you feel awkward or uncomfortable.

The same goes for breakfast. Maybe on Sundays you and your friends all like to go out to brunch (I don’t judge). This usually doesn’t fit within most people’s fasting windows, but it can if you coordinate it correctly.

And that brings me to this point…

You Don’t Have to Follow it to the Tee

People get really stressed out when they can’t follow this diet exactly as they planned it. Maybe they started eating with 30 minutes left in the fast. Maybe they put a little milk in their coffee in the morning by mistake. But trust me, IT’S OKAY!

Those who are only concerned with the metabolic benefits shown in the scientific studies should be the ones focusing more precisely on the nooks and crannies of the diet, as opposed to those who are simply trying to lose fat.

I technically “break my fast” all the time during my fasting windows. I also break my fast at different times during the day, depending on what my schedule looks like.

I tell you this because I want you to understand that as long as you’re following the general fundamentals of the diet, you’ll still receive its benefits.

4 Hacks to Help You Implement This Diet

If after all I’ve explained thus far and you’re still not interested, I understand. You can stop reading this now.

But for those who are willing to try this out for themselves and see if it’s right for them, then read on! As I tell you 5 of the “tricks” that I use to make adhering to this diet a bit easier.

1. Diet Soda

This works for any other carbonated beverage as well, as long as it’s zero calories. And no, artificial sweeteners don’t raise insulin levels, like you may have been lead to believe.

I find that drinking these throughout the day, particularly during my fasts, gives my body the feeling of fullness for a little while. Usually, I do this when it’s close for my fasting window to end, around lunchtime.

Just always make sure to look at the nutrition label before choosing your beverage. Some drinks, such as Diet Mountain Dew, contain a bit more calories than most, about 10 calories per 20 oz. While this may seem negligible, this can add up if you’re guzzling the stuff and not keeping track of it.

2. Pickles

Yep, you heard me right. Pickles…

But Zach, don’t these technically have calories. Why yes, fellow reader, they do. But think about this for a second. It’s a cucumber, which is a green vegetable. Green vegetables are naturally low in calories, so it’s very difficult to overeat on them.

Can you see a common theme here with these tips? It’s that a high amount of food volume is what is going to affect your feeling of fullness, or satiety, not the number of calories in the food. That’s what your stomach is, a volume counter, not a calorie counter.

But Zach, isn’t all that sodium found in pickles bad for you brahh? Not in the way that you may think…

It’s really only bad if you are what they call in the scientific literature “salt-sensitive”. These are people who are especially sensitive to the effects of sodium on their blood pressure, often people who are hypertensive already. Those who are salt-sensitive are estimated to account for about 25% of the population.

If you’re not one of those people, then you don’t have anything to worry about. And plus, as with many things in life, use moderation. Anything in excess usually isn’t good for you, including water.

3. Walden Farms

I am freakin’ in love with this stuff. If you haven’t heard of them, go give them a try. Basically, they make various salad dressings, condiments, syrups, and other goodies, all with ZERO CALORIES! I’ve been putting the Italian dressing on my chicken and vegetables and it’s been absolutely killing my cravings.

Now, I’m gonna be real with you here. It’s not exactly zero calories, as FDA labeling guidelines allow for anything less than 5 calories per serving to be labeled as zero. However, these calories are quite insignificant, given how great they actually taste. These certainly make dieting a hell of a lot easier.

But How Would I Use This During My Fast?

Some of their products, like the chocolate dip and cinnamon raisin peanut butter, allow you to eat it straight from the jar! Often times, it’s the taste of the product that will allow you to kill the craving you have during that moment, which you may have mistaken for hunger.

4. Coffee

Ahh yes, that good ole’ cup o’ Joe.

A lot of people use it as their morning staple, but did you know it can actually help you out in your fat-loss goals as well?

Much of it has to do with caffeine and its effects on appetite suppression, but researchers are now beginning to discover how another non-caffeine ingredient in coffee blunts hunger levels as well. This means that even decaf coffee can have similar effects compared to regular caffeinated coffee in terms of regulating your hunger. More research needs to be conducted for sure, as they’re still trying to figure out what that ingredient is exactly, but it looks quite promising.

Conclusion

So give it a shot and see if this diet is right for you. If it’s not, no big deal. But you won’t know for sure until you try.

Let me know how it works out for you in the comments section below!

Cortisol and Its Effects on Your Performance

Imagine this; your girlfriend/boyfriend just broke up with you and now you’re absolutely devastated. Or you just got into a huge fight with your roommate about how he’s not paying the rent on time and now you’re absolutely pissed.

boyfriend-and-girlfriend-fighting-2

 

What do both of these scenarios have in common? They both are eliciting a strong emotional response (one of sadness and one of anger). Ones that are far different from your standard emotional state.

How Does This Impact My Progress In The Gym Though?

Well, when stressful situations arise in our lives, a hormone which many of you are familiar with called cortisol is released. Many of you most likely know this as the “stress hormone.” But what really makes this hormone so bad?

Inherently, cortisol isn’t either really “good” or “bad”. 1200px-Cortisol2.svgIt is simply released to carry out the body’s catabolic processes. But what does this mean?

Catabolic simply means “to break down”. From a muscle-building perspective, your probably thinking this is the worst possible thing that could happen to you. But hear me out. Your body is constantly breaking (more like tearing) down muscle during training and then recovers during times of proper nutrition and sleep (aka recovery), causing growth (called hypertrophy for us physiology nerds).

Also, cortisol performs a number of other beneficial functions, such as breaking down proteins into amino acids to be used for initiating muscle protein synthesis (the key driver of muscle growth via the amino acid leucine) and breaking down proteins to be converted to glucose (sugar for energy) via a process called gluconeogenesis, when sufficient amounts of carbohydrates are not available to be used for energy.

 

catabolic-hormones

But What Makes It The “Stress Hormone?”

What gives cortisol a bad name is when it begins to affect the positive adaptations (results) you normally see when your progressing through your exercise regimen. What this hormone has the ability to do is significantly reduce protein synthesis rates, thus halt tissue growth (that hypertrophy we discussed earlier) when produced in excess.

When somebody has excess amounts of this hormone in their body, it can result in:

  • Reduced ability to build lean mass (muscle)
  • Reduced anabolic (“the building up of”) hormone output, such as testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1)
  • Have a negative affect on glucose uptake and utilization throughout the body, therefore, energy is being expended less efficiently in order to fuel your activities, resulting in a more rapid onset of fatigue (that’s no good guys, that’s for sure)

However, this is not to say that cortisol is absolute devil and we should aim to have no cortisol in our bodies at all. Far from it. We need cortisol to perform the bodies necessary basic functionalities that have to do with breakdown which eventually lead to repair and progression. That is when we come back stronger and better. We should aim to keep it at normal levels through easily applied lifestyle changes that can become habits.

What is “Normal”?

That’s a good question. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center [1], serum cortisol levels (blood levels) should be around 10-20mcg (micrograms) per dL (deciliter), which would look like this: 10-20 mcg/dL, given that you take this exam upon waking in a fasted state, around 6-8 a.m preferably. Morning is when your cortisol levels are the highest due to the stress of your body waking you up to start the day, so if you take this test in the afternoon hours, expect a level closer to 3-10 mcg/dL.

10-Things-Doctor-Wont-Tell-About-Blood-Tests-722x406

However, for those who can’t afford or don’t want to receive a blood test (the preferred method), then a urinalysis (pee test) or salivary (spit test) will also give you an estimate of where your levels are at.

But if you still don’t want to do those tests, that’s fine, money can be tight. There are ways that you can estimate it upon yourself through various symptoms of high cortisol. These include:

  • Fatty deposits around the midsection and upper back and face
  • Slower healing of cuts and bruises
  • Decreased libido
  • Severe fatigue
  • Depression/Anxiety
  • Constant headaches
  • Erectile Dysfunction (men)
  • Irregular or missing menstrual periods (women)

What I just described here are symptoms of a disorder called Cushing Syndrome [2]. This disorder occurs when we are exposed to chronically high cortisol levels over a period months and years. High cortisol is essentially harmless in the short term (couple of days) and insignificant in terms of your health and progress. But if it occurs for a longer period of time and you begin to observe these symptoms or test results that you receive are throwing you a red flag, please seek out a medical professional.

Cushing's_syndrome

 

How Do I Control my Cortisol Levels?

Okay, now that we know all about the basics of cortisol, let’s figure out how to control it in order to keep it within healthy ranges.

Methods to reduce cortisol are drastically similar to those of overall stress management.

Sleep

Everyone knows how important sleep is. Given that everyone is different and requires varying amounts of sleep, 7-9 hours is a good starting point. Over time, things like sleep deprivation and insomnia can wreak havoc on your body and can increase cortisol in the long run. Doing things like using that cool blue light filter on your phone an hour before time (or powering it off completely), putting away all work-related tasks 30-60 minutes before bed, and limiting caffeine intake 6 hours before bedtime can help improve your sleep quality.

The Power of Positive Thinking

Anxiety; many of us gave gone through it (including myself) or know somebody who has. It’s an absolutely terrible feeling and I don’t wish this feeling upon anybody (I will write a specific article for this topic in the future). Whatever the cause may be or whether or not you are taking prescription medication to manage it, learning to take control of your thoughts (as corny as it sounds) is a step in the right direction to manage anxiety and destructive thinking.

 

Anxiety disorder

Learning to be aware of your negative thoughts when they arise and simply turning them into a positive has helped me tremendously. Acknowledge the raise in heart rate, breathing, and other signs of tension when they arise. That’s it. Don’t attach an emotion to them. Just realize that they are there, it’s happening, and that it will soon go away. Develop an action plan and envision the solution. Visualization is a powerful tool, trust me.

Diet

Do I really need to go over this? Those of you reading this most likely know how to eat properly. Eat your protein, get in your micronutrietns with those fruits and veggies, implement those healthy fats, and for God sake, drink a lot of water. Make sure that pee is a bright yellow guys 😉

Supplementation

There isn’t too much to go over in this category, as most supplements marketed for this purpose haven’t been adequately proven in the scientific literature. But there a couple supplements that I have found to help me and have great support behind them in the data.

  • Ashwaganda
    • An herb that was popularized in Ayurvedic medicine
    • Is most notable for reducing anxiety via the reduction of cortisol levels. Lowers cortisol more significantly compared to any other herb out there.
    • In one study, 300 mg (a little less than a standard dose of 400-500 mg) was shown to decrease serum (blood) cortisol levels by 27.9% over 60 days, a very significant drop for a non-drug treatment [3]

Ashwagandha-CMYK

  • L-Theanine
    • A non-essential amino acid (meaning the body makes some of it in the body without obtaining it from diet or supplementation)
    • Appears to promote relaxation without sedation (sleepiness)
    • One study found that an increase in alpha brain wave function (electroencephalogram, which is a significant marker of mental relaxation and concentration in the frontal and occipital lobes of the brain)  in healthy adults was significant in those with high baseline anxiety after ingesting 200 mg L-theanine (higher end of the standard dose) in 30 minutes [4].

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I’m not sponsored in any way by NOW Sports, but I am a firm believer in the quality and efficacy of their products

Final Thoughts

Cortisol has many other catabolic functions throughout the body that expand beyond the scope of muscle building and fat loss. This just scratches the surface of it in order to inform you of the basics so that you can make the right decisions for your health.

If you have any questions about any aspect of this topic, please don’t hesitate to reach out via the comments or my email!

 

References

1. Cortisol (Blood). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=167&contentid=cortisol_serum

2. Nieman, L. K. (2015). Cushings syndrome: Update on signs, symptoms and biochemical screening. European Journal of Endocrinology, 173(4). doi:10.1530/eje-15-0464

3. Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of Ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 34(3), 255. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.106022

4. Song, C., Jung, J., Oh, J., & Kim, K. (2003). Effects of Theanine on the Release of Brain Alpha Wave in Adult Males. Korean Journal of Nutrition, 36(9), 918-923.