Covered in this article series
- What neurotransmitters are
- The different types of neurotransmitters
- How they affect training
- How to determine your
- How to supplement your neurotransmitter
Part 1 – Introduction
Neurotransmitters are tiny chemicals which run along your nerves. These chemicals are essential for literally every process we involve ourselves in – from thinking to walking to lifting weights to sleeping. Furthermore, different neurotransmitters are used for different tasks; GABA is used to relax us or to release insulin, dopamine is used to excite and motivate us, serotonin is used to stimulate fight or flight responses and regulate digestion – just to name a few of the 122 known neurotransmitters! This article series will discuss the different types of neurotransmitters, how each affects your training, how to determine your neurotransmitter profile and how you can supplement them to enhance training.
The different types of neurotransmitters
As mentioned above, there are 122 different types of neurotransmitters. For the majority of these, we know next to nothing. What we do know quite extensively, however, is the role of the 4 major neurotransmitters – dopamine, acetylcholine, serotonin and GABA.
Dopamine is the major excitatory neurotransmitter. This means it is involved in everything that keeps us awake, moving and searching for new tasks to do. Dopamine is essential for our sense of motivation and reward, movement, concentration, mood, anxiety, and, most importantly, utilising muscles for maximal contraction1, 2. As it is involved in many key processes, if you are depleted of dopamine you are subject to a number of physical and mental disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, alzheimers and anxiety. I for one am particularly sensitive to dopamine and notice drastic differences in my mood when I begin to get exhausted after completing a competition, university, work, and studies. Let me tell you, low dopamine levels are not fun!
Acetylcholine is another excitatory neurotransmitter, but is deemed less excitatory than dopamine. The purpose of this neurotransmitter is in the processing of tasks, muscular contraction, gut health, and cognitive function. Substantial research has been conducted on acetylcholine supplementation which shows that increased levels of acetylcholine enhances memory, learning and attentiveness3. Low levels of acetylcholine are associated with poor gastric motility, poor memory and can cause strokes in the elderly4
Serotonin is a funny one. From all the research compiled on this interesting chemical, it seems that it has both excitatory and inhibitory effects on the body – depending on what other neurotransmitters are active, what areas of the brain are active, and what the surrounding environment is saying. If your limbic system is stimulated by a sense of fear (lets say, a lion running towards you), serotonin is released in conjunction with adrenaline. This causes you to become irritable, anxious and give fight or flight symptoms. However, if serotonin is released by the stretch receptor walls in your stomach after a big meal it has a calming, satiety-inducing sedative effect. Likewise, in the event of high intensity exercise serotonin is produced in large amounts in the brain to reduce performance, prevent injury and enable recovery. Also, when recreational drugs such as MDMA are consumed, serotonin levels go through the roof and create several distinct psychological and physical abnormalities – such as hyperactivity, loss of appetite and hypersensitivity.
GABA, our favourite inhibitory neurotransmitter, is a crucial one. GABA regulates our sleeping patterns and nerve inhibition. Without it, you won’t be able to sleep or relax. Interestingly GABA also has an interaction with insulin, whereby if the GABA receptors are stimulated insulin is secreted. Why this occurs, we don’t know, but my hypothesis is that it has something to do with a feed-forward effect involving carbohydrate consumption. GABA is essential for training because it allows us to recover. When you are asleep, your parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) and AMPK pathway are both activated. The PSNS has the crucial property of digesting food and enabling the gut to heal itself. AMPK is essential for cellular recovery and resolution of inflammation. This is why it is so important to have GABA and to rest!
Conclusion – on to Part 2
I know that is a lot to take in, but trust me it is worthwhile knowing! Next Wednesday when I continue this series I am going to take you through how the neurotransmitters affect your training and how you can enhance your training by supplementing neurotransmitters!
- Beninger, Richard J. “The Role Of Dopamine In Locomotor Activity And Learning”. Brain Research Reviews 6.2 (1983): 173-196. Web.
- Berridge, Kent C, and Terry E Robinson. “What Is The Role Of Dopamine In Reward: Hedonic Impact, Reward Learning, Or Incentive Salience?”. Brain Research Reviews 28.3 (1998): 309-369. Web.
- Hasselmo, Michael E. “The Role Of Acetylcholine In Learning And Memory”. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 16.6 (2006): 710-715. Web.
- EmpowHER,. “Decrease In Neurotransmitter Acetylcholine Can Lead To …”. N.p., 2016. Web. 8 Jan. 2016.
Part 2 – how neurotransmitters affect training
Welcome back to part 2 of neurotransmitters and training guys! In part 1 we talked about the different types of neurotransmitters, and this week we are going to talk about how these affect training. Now I’ll be honest, there isn’t a whole lot of scientific evidence to back these ideas up. What there is, however, is a shit load of anecdotal evidence. Trust me, this stuff works.
It’s well known that training at high intensity depletes dopamine and increases serotonin in the brain. This is due to a disruption of the ratio of BCAAs to tryptophan. BCAAs and tryptophan share a common transporter between the brain and the rest of the body. Because BCAAs (which are a precursor to dopamine) are consumed by the muscles while exercising, more tryptophan enters the brain and is converted to serotonin. When this happens you start to fatigue and have decreased performance.
Interestingly, if you choose the right sort of training program for your neurotransmitter profile you will experience less fatigue, greater motivation to train, and accelerated results. From my experience there are 4 main types of different neurotransmitter profiles;
- The dopamine dominant
- The acetylcholine dominant
- The mixed dominant
- The GABA/serotonin dominant
Each of these 4 different types of people have different characteristics.
Dopamine dominant people are those who are highly motivated, very confident/arrogant, highly energetic, have outgoing personalities, and are subject to mood swings. This type is my favourite because a) I am one and b) I can write up massive programs for these people and they get BIG results.
Charles Poliquin hypothesises that these types of people are mostly fast-twitch muscle fibre dominant. From my experience, I have found this to be partially true. This means that that dopamine dominants will respond best to heavy weight, low reps, and lots of sets. Furthermore these people can train for hours on end and not tire, assuming that they stick to low reps. If, however, a dopamine dominant were to attempt a volume program they would show symptoms of fatigue very quickly. My hypothesis for this is that other excitatory neurotransmitters are required for prolonged high intensity exercise while dopamine is mostly used for more intermittent exercise.
From my experience I have also found dopamine dominants to respond best to high intensity cardio and minimal low intensity cardio. This is why I keep my LISS cardio to a minimum and will try and do intervals for as long as possible into comp!
Acetylcholine dominant people are highly attentive, have high cognitive function, good memory and can grow muscle well. These are another fun group to work with, as they seem to respond well to massive volume and high reps. I frequently get those who are acetylcholine dominant to do sets of 50 reps or more as they can easily handle this training volume, and thus get awesome results from it.
Acetylcholine dominants seem to be more responsive to LISS cardio rather than HIIT. So pretty much, they are the opposite to dopamine dominants.
Mixed dominants are just that – a mix. These people can respond well to high intensity exercise and high volume exercise while also doing well with both LISS and HIIT. However, due to their dual nature too much of any one type of training will cause these people to fatigue, get injured, lose muscle mass and gain body fat.
If you’re a GABA or serotonin dominant person, you’re probably not an athlete. If you have high levels of these neurotransmitters you’re most likely going to be someone who isn’t highly motivated to achieve, you tire easily in exercise, and have a poor number of fast twitch muscle fibres. Unfortunately for these guys, there isn’t much you can do to help them grow as their hormonal profiles and muscle cell nuclei just aren’t wired to allow growth!
So far we have covered the types of neurotransmitters, their functions, the types of neurotransmitter dominance and the characteristics of these people. In the final part I am going to tell you guys how to determine what type you are and how to supplement to improve your training!
Part 3 – Using neurotransmitters to enhance training and progress
Here it is! The final part of the neurotransmitters and training series. So far we have covered what neurotransmitters are, what they do, how they affect training and the 4 main types of neurotransmitter profiles in people. In this final article I am going to write about how to determine your neurotransmitter type for training and how you can supplement your neurotransmitters to improve your training.
How to determine your neurotransmitter profile.
Each neurotransmitter profile has a distinct set of personality characteristics. By analysing these characteristics we can determine what our neurotransmitter profiles are and thus what style of training we will do best from. To do this, there are many methods including urine tests, cerebrospinal fluid tests and blood tests! The accuracy and validity of these, however, are highly debated. Because of this I recommend you guys take the ‘Braverman assessment’.
The Braverman assessment was designed by Dr. Eric Braverman, an American physician, to identify causes of cognitive, emotional and physical strengths and deficiencies. While not primarily intended for use in the gym, I’ve certainly found it to be effective in identifying which program to give to an athlete.
The assessment asks over 100 questions which relate to each of the 4 main neurotransmitters. To each question you answer either yes or no immediately – write the first answer which comes to your head. When you answer each question you will be pointed towards a particular neurotransmitter dominance. At the end of the assessment you will count up the number of yes and no answers, with each total relating to a different neurotransmitter dominance.
To try out the Braverman assessment head to this website;
How to supplement your neurotransmitters to improve training.
Nootropics are substances used to enhance neurotransmitter amounts. By supplementing your neurotransmitters you can improve your motivation, attention, cognitive function and ability to exert yourself while training. If we go back to article 2, you will remember that I said the reason you tire while training is because of a reduction in dopamine and increase in serotonin. We, in fact, can reduce the changes in neurotransmitters which will allow you to train harder for longer! On top of this, by using nootropics we can massively increase training performance by manipulating many of the neurotransmitters!
Aniracetam, pinaracetam and oxiracetam are all fantastic dopamine boosters. These nootropics are ideal for those who are feeling symptoms of overtraining such as fatigure, tiredness and lack of motivation. To improve these symptoms take 500mg of either of these supplements with a fat source 3 times per day. Furthermore, if you are undertaking a high intensity period of training such as my 10×2 workout, you can use these three nootropics to improve your performance.
Alpha GPC is a glutamate enhancer. While I didn’t address glutamate as one of the main excitatory neurotransmitters, it is extremely important for optimal performance. As alpha GPC stimulates glutamate production, you will notice a substantial improvement in cognitive function and performance in the gym. I recommend a dose of 200mg alpha GPC 2 hours pre workout, preferably in conjunction with 500mg of aniracetam.
If you are struggling to recover or feeling ‘tired but wired’ you are most likely deficient in GABA. As mentioned in article 1, GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter. If you are deficient in this neurotransmitter you will be unable to relax and switch off. This will lead to extreme tiredness (even if you feel like you are sleeping lots) and poor performance. GABA deficiency is common in those who do high volume low percentage of 1RM style workouts, such as GVT or my 8×8 method. To restore GABA levels try taking 100mg of phenibut (phenylaminobutric acid) at about 6pm in the evening and another 100mg before bed. In addition, take a stack of magnesium L-threonate, bisglycinate and chelate blends. Up to 2g of elemental magnesium from these has been shown to drastically improve neurotransmitter function and relieve symptoms of overtraining.
Not sleeping well? You are most likely deficient in serotonin. When you’re deficient in serotonin you will become irritable, have irregular sleep/wake cycles and are more prone to anxiety. These characteristics are prevalent in those who have the ‘tired but wired’ symptoms – much similar a GABA deficiency. To prevent these symptoms, what you need is inositol. Inositol is a precursor to serotonin and many other neurotransmitters. By supplementing with inositol you will be able to perform better in the gym, recover faster and have better quality sleep. To achieve the desired effect I recommend taking 5g of inositol on the first night then 500mg every night thereafter. If you feel sleepy the next day, reduce your dosage.
Neurotransmitters are essential for your training. While many have rendered them insignificant in the past, I hope that you guys can now utilise this knowledge to increase your emphasis on optimising your excitatory and inhibitory levels.