Neurotransmitters & Bodybuilding - Food Intake Timing for Peak Muscle Gains

Neurotransmitters and Bodybuilding

Make the Best of Every Meal for Your Success in the Gym

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Like other athletes, bodybuilders have special needs. When they begin working out, they must be alert, awake and highly motivated in order to train harder than they did the last time. After a workout they need a relaxed, recuperative state, followed by a deep, restful night's sleep. In addition, bodybuilders need to give their muscles maximum protein to ensure continuing growth, but these aren't the only things that govern hypertrophy.

Certainly psychology plays a major role. If you can maintain a positive frame of mind and enter the gym hungry," as they say, on a consistent basis, your workouts will be productive. If, on the other hand, you've ruled out psychological interference and despite your best efforts you still seem to be on a plateau, you need to take the next step toward having your special needs met.

Are drugs the answer? Stimulants such as caffeine and amphetamines, or speed, will make you more alert and awake during a workout, and alcohol and sedatives will make you more relaxed and sleepy in the late evening. Steroids, of course, will promote a greater uptake of nitrogen by the muscle, causing it to enlarge. The downside that most of those drugs are physically and/or psychologically addictive and produce undesirable side effects, all of which are contrary to a healthy lifestyle.

Why not meet your needs with neurotransmitters instead? Neurotransmitters are chemical signals within the body that fire across the nerve network and cause a psycho-chemical effect. They are influenced by diet, so the trick is to eat the right type of meal for the effect you desire.

Would you take a sleeping pill before your workout? Of course not. Yet many bodybuilders eat a meal that has a similar effect before they train. Surely you've heard of carbing up prior to a workout. Ask most bodybuilders, and that's the advice you'll get. Whether they suggest a pure carbohydrate (mis-named "protein") drink or a heap of starchy food. Eating carbs is a great idea right before bed because it will help you relax and sleep better, but it's not a very good idea right before your workout.

Carbohydrates by themselves, in the form of potatoes, rice, pasta, bread, cereal, crackers and starchy vegetables, as well as the aforementioned drinks, cause an immediate rise in blood sugar levels. This, in turn, causes the pancreas to release insulin, and the rise in insulin levels lowers the levels of all the amino acids in the bloodstream except for tryptophan. The tryptophan is then able to cross from the blood into the brain with little competition from other amino acids. Elevated tryptophan levels in the brain result in the synthesis of serotonin, which causes a relaxed, sleepy state.

Would you drink coffee or take a stimulant right before bed? Again, most people eat an evening meal that has a similar effect. An ample serving of chicken, fish or red meat is part of most dinners. Later in the evening, in an effort to keep protein intake high, most bodybuilders consume a high-protein drink or snack. Such meals flood the blood-stream with amino acids, which by sheer numbers are able to outdo tryptophan in the race for sites in the brain. Tyrosine is the primary amino acid involved, and elevated tyrosine levels in the brain lead to synthesis of dopamine and norephinephrine, which cause mental arousal. This is a great idea prior to a workout but not right before bed.

The point is that you can maximize your gains in the gym by manipulating your diet to make the neurotransmitters work for you rather than against you.

The Neurotransmitter Friendly Diet

Start by deciding what time of day you want to be alert and awake and when you want to be relaxed and sleepy. Then arrange your diet so that you eat a high-protein, moderate-carb, low-fat meal when you want to be alert and a high-carb, low-protein, low-fat meal when you want to be relaxed. Unless you work a night job, you'll want to be alert in the morning and afternoon and relaxed in the evening.

The following sample meal plan times your protein and carb ingestion for maximum growth. In addition to the morning and evening guidelines discussed above, the timing trick that leads to your putting on that extra bit of mass comes immediately following your workout and during your recuperative evenings.

Note that breakfast and lunch are both high in protein and low in fat, with moderate carb counts. What's more, the diet stresses hydration before, during and after your workout, calling for either cold water or a cold sports drink. In most cases- and especially during workouts- stick to drinks that don't exceed 10 to 15 grams of carbohydrate per eight ounces, such as Gatorade. Carbohydrate- replacement drinks, which typically contain 300 to 400 calories and up to 100 grams of carb, are a bad idea during intense workouts. Use them after your workout to replace lost glycogen, induce a recuperative state and elevate insulin levels to get ready for the high- protein meal or drink you'll consume within 30 to 60 minutes of the carbohydrate meal, while muscle nitrogen uptake is at its peak.

Dinner should consist primarily of carbohydrates to induce a winding-down effect during the evening, and any snack should also be primarily carbohydrate to ensure a good nights sleep.

Sample Meal Plan


1 high-protein drink or

3-4 egg whites (or egg substitute) cooked without oil. Eggs may be poach, soft boiled or fried with nonstick olive- or canola-oil spray on a nonstick surface.

1 cup nonfat cottage cheese or

2 ounces low- or nonfat cheese

98 percent fat-free ham or

2 ounces Canadian bacon

1 piece fresh fruit

1 cup low- or nonfat milk or

1 cup nonfat yogurt

Coffee or tea (optional)

Artificial sweetener (optional)


4 ounces lean chicken, turkey,

tuna, ham or low- or nonfat cheese or

11/2 cup nonfat cottage cheese

1 cup cooked pasta or

2 slices 100 percent whole-grain bread, pita bread or

12 wheat crackers

1/2 cup nonfat cottage cheese or

1 cup nonfat yogurt

(artificially sweetened only)

1 cup fresh fruit

Salad with olive or canola oil and vinegar or a fat-free dressing (optional)

1 cup low - or nonfat milk

Workout snack

Cold sports drink consumed before, during and after training

Postworkout meal 1:

Carbohydrate (within 30 minutes after training)

One of the following:

Carb-replacement drink containing at least 50 to 100 grams carb

2 cups cooked pasta, rice or potatoes

2 bananas

3 slices bread

19 wheat crackers

Postworkout meal 2:

Protein* (30-60 minutes after postworkout meal 1)

One of the following:

protein powder drink amino acid tablets 1 cup nonfat cottage cheese

6 ounces tuna

4-6 ounces chicken


2 ounces lean meat

2-4 cups cooked rice, pasta, potato, corn, peas or legumes

1 cup green or yellow vegetable


2 wheat rolls or

2 slices wheat bread

Juice, hot or iced tea 1-2 teaspoons extra light canola-oil margarine


1-2 cups cereal

low- or nonfat milk for cereal

2-4 slices whole-grain toast

1-2 teaspoons extra light canola-oil margarine

Jelly, fruit juice and/or fresh fruit

*If you work out in the midmorning, just eat the high-protein lunch outlined above.

**lf you work out after dinner, this meal should be higher in protein, similar to lunch.

***A must if you work out after dinner

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