Beat the Snot Out of Death

Are Bulking Phases Shortening Your Career?

"Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes." – Walt Whitman

I bet you're hard on yourself. If not mentally, at least physically – and many of you fit both categories. I know all about it: For over 20 years I've eaten big, lifted big, competed big and in many ways, lived big.

I know what it's like to consistently power-down 4500 kcal per day, to squat 495 for reps at midnight with only the harsh sounds of Ministry filling my consciousness, to get struck hard between the eyes with a bokken while keeping the wits to counterattack, and even to get up and pull a 15-hour work day 10 states away from home, yet manage to crash into my own bed that night.

Some of these things happened only last year and I imagine there's plenty more to come. I bet you have extreme stories of your own that you've accumulated in your aggressive pursuit of physical, mental and even spiritual perfection.

I've critically looked at the physical side of this phenomenon before. And since my role around here focuses on nutrition, I'll be looking at it specifically today. There's much nutritional newness to be learned since I last wrote on a related topic. The High Steaks article that I authored some time ago came about through the observation that many things we bodybuilders, martial combatants, and strength athletes do are the opposite of what a longevity person might do.

Since we too are interested in health, this seems almost contradictory. We eat a lot, we attempt to actually speed up our metabolisms and we frequently apply various stresses to our bodies in all kinds of settings. In these ways, we live pretty hard and fast.

Many of my readers and friends know that I will not apologize for such things. Even as my temples grey a bit and I start to feel the effects of ageing in the small corners of my life, I have no plans to fade quietly into the night. Life is too short to be small.

Yet I am no reckless fool. I operate under the policy of "fully informed consent". I think we all need to understand the risks and benefits of each choice. The legitimate longevity literature has been exploding with growth over the past few years. Much of it stems from animal models, yes, but who wants to wait 75 years for a human to grow old and die to get the results? Okay, that's tongue-in-cheek, but you get my point.

So, on the heels of my last article, which both scientifically and unscientifically examined the need to purposely plan mass phases throughout annual macrocycles, I thought I'd run with a "stream of consciousness" article, sharing new evidence.

If you're disturbed by contradictory findings or points of view, click away from this page now and follow gurus rather than scientific papers. Only the former can offer you black-and-white answers. The next 30 minutes worth of ink (er, electrons) isn't meant to totally contradict my earlier "bulking" article(s), but rather to offer some cutting edge data that each of us can consider as we non-recklessly power eat our way into largeness.

Questions to be answered:

1. What's the latest news in longevity research? That is, can I extend lifespan without eating like a bird?

2. Are there supplements or foods that may authentically slow ageing in the face of bulking up?

3. I'm power-eating and taking fish oils. Can these things actually age me prematurely?!

Eating Like a Bird: Calorie Restriction Research Update

First topic. Let's see. How can I start? How about with "don't do it"? That's right, brother, just say no to muscle-denying kcal restriction. Actually, in the light of my tirade on informed consent, it might be more appropriate to suggest that you "just say know".

You see, there are better ways for us to pursue a long rich life. Although it's true that kcal restriction on the order of 30% below typical needs does indeed affect genes and biochemical pathways that extend lifespan in various species, I'd argue that the price is too high for human bodybuilders.

This is true even if we focus upon intermittent fasting, which appears neuro-protective in the brain.(19) With a surplus of about 2800 kcal necessary to build a pound of living muscle tissue, I see little hope for bodybuilders who purposely under-eat all the time or even half of the time. We're not merely dieters. Toward this end, let's examine different approaches to living a long, strong and robust existence.

Supplements and Foods as Calorie Restriction Mimetics

So if we're not going to eat small and be small, are we relegated to a "burn bright and die young" existence? Not necessarily, my fellow warriors. You may have heard of calorie restriction mimetics such as moderate exercise. Using physical activity to offset kcal intake gets plenty of attention.

This is one mimetic that we already do in a sense, although when we "bulk up" we intentionally try to over-compensate for said calorie drain. Nonetheless, at least some researchers are suggesting that a reduction in fat mass is the real ticket to enhanced longevity, not calorie restriction per se.(4)

Why? Because adipose tissue content and its location on the body are responsible for altering inflammatory cytokines, peptides, compliment factors, substrates like circulating fatty acids, and definitely glucose metabolism.(4)

Did you know that screaming glycolysis, the pathway we rely upon for glucose usage in cells, has become implicated in shortened lifespans? Yep. This is a growing realization in 2005-2006.(11,12,14)

So, is excess carbohydrate consumption responsible for premature ageing? Probably at least some. And there are mechanisms underlying large carb intakes beyond just glycosylation (gumming up) of bodily tissues. The very hormone that's our most direct and anabolic key to muscle size, insulin, does more than simply allow cells to take up blood sugar.

It unfortunately ramps-up glycolysis in a big way, in addition to other effects. What's more, insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) has also been implicated in premature ageing.(6) Is there no end to the bad news?

The evil carb-metabolizing pathway? Many glycolytic intermediates can glycate (gum-up) bodily proteins. (Hipkiss, NY Acad Sci 2006)

But I'll suggest an alternative. Instead of fretting over anabolic hormones that can be our friends--when stimulated reasonably--let's talk about supplemental compounds that act as calorie restriction mimetics.

In this way we might even get away with some big time eating while simultaneously extending our lifespan. Calorie restriction mimetic substances have been shown to enhance various pathways that affect age-related disease and dysfunction.

Even old bodybuilding drugs like metformin are getting a closer look.(17) [Metformin enhances insulin action and could improve pathways related to glycolysis.] Rather than make you dig through an acre of text--and age an unnecessary extra 10 minutes--I'll cut to the chase. See Table 1.

Table 1. Supplements and Foods that May Aid Healthy (Longevity-promoting?) Mass Phases

Supplement or Food Source Proposed Anti-ageing Mechanism Proposed "Bulking" Mechanism
Resveratrol Peanuts, grapes, berries, Biotest's Rez-V Affects cellular stress signaling pathways, anti-inflammatory, interferes with viral replication  
Proanthocyanidins (blue)berries, supplements Anti-oxidant, neuro-regenerative Neuro-regenerative while heavy lifting
EGCG (a polyphenol) Green tea, supplements Anti-oxidant, neuro-protectant, improved glucose metabolism Neuro-regenerative, mild stimulant while heavy lifting, may suppress fat gain
Glycerol Dietary fats (some), supplements Chaperone (enhances folding of cell proteins) Hydration during hard training
Carnosine (beta-alanine) Meat, supplements Anti-oxidant, anti-glycation agent Muscle acidity buffer, ergogen
CLA (t10,c12) Beef, dairy, supplements Potentially reduced fat mass Decreased lipogenesis while overfeeding
DHA (fish oil) Cold water fish, supplements Anti-inflammatory Muscle as opposed to adipocyte LPL elevation

Browse references for each compound.

Getting Naked

Let's take a closer look at the final nutrient in Table 1. ("Bare" with me; this is cool.) It may surprise you that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is found in much higher concentrations in the cell membranes of short lived animals. That's right, short-lived.

Mice for example, who live only about two-three years, have nine times the DHA of the unusually long-lived naked mole rat.(15) These latter "naked" creatures live to a nutty 28 years or so – unheard of for such a small critter!

Such a difference in DHA content among various species' tissues has led some researchers to hypothesize that it's the susceptibility to oxidative damage that's responsible for the widely varying lifespans in nature.(16) You see, very long chain, highly unsaturated fatty acids do "spoil" rather quickly – even in vivo. Upon learning this you may say "Holy shnikies! I'm taking six grams of that stuff a day!" And although those of you popping that may capsules may indeed be overdoing it on multiple levels, I'd suggest that you shouldn't fear DHA (duh).

Not only does fish oil feeding actually improve antioxidant enzyme activity and reduce reactive species in rodent research (18), but it has other effects. Aside from the pro-oxidation theory of ageing, there are other things to consider... things that are improved by DHA.

Inflammation is so strongly implicated in ageing that the term "inflamm-aging" has been coined.(24) And we all know how anti-inflammatory DHA can be. The benefits range beyond just prostaglandins and cytokines. So you see, whether or not fish oils are a bane or a boon regarding pro-oxidative effects, this anti-inflammatory effect should be doubly interesting to heavy weight slinging, tendonitis-enduring, osteoarthritic, chow hound strength athletes that may also want to age more slowly and maybe even prolong their careers.

Carefully chosen fatty acid intake has also been linked to improved glucose tolerance – a state that's rather contrary to our longevity concerns regarding elevated insulin and glycolysis. New data suggest a greater flux of ingested carb (blood glucose) toward glycogen (7), which bodes well for less immediate glycolysis or lipogenesis.

Finally, fish oils have been shown in the past to increase muscle lipoprotein lipase (LPL), an enzyme that's responsible for cellular uptake of circulating fat. Adipose tissue LPL apparently is not granted such an increase.(3, 10)

That should sound pretty inviting to anyone considering a bulking phase that involves perhaps 100g of fat per day. [Lipoprotein lipase is an enzyme that hydrolyzes and extracts fat from passing "fat packages" (chylomicrons) after fatty meals.] So you see, being naked isn't necessarily better when you withhold the oil. In fact, some people prefer the combination!

Making Sense of It All

So we've admitted that the skinny, twig-nibbling, calorie restricting longevity pundits actually have one-upped us in a sense. But our insistence on living both big and long may yet have a chance. We may indeed not have to travel the road of purposely slow metabolisms, atrophy, depressed thyroid function and cold intolerance.

Despite seemingly contradictive evidence on various issues (check out the raging nerd debate on DHA and naked mole rats in the reference list), I think the power eating that accompanies a mass building phase can indeed lead to a better overall scenario when we consider a combination of quantity and quality of life.

Just ask Walt Whitman, he can tell you that you can indeed reconcile the data. (Oh wait, you can't ask ol' Walt. He's dead. Hmm, I wonder if REZ-V could've extended his life?)

Anyway, the nutrients listed in the table demand a serious look as potential countermeasures to the fast metabolism, oxidative stress, glycolytic flux, higher body heat, joint and muscle stress that comes with a heavy mass phase of the year.

Heck, some of these compounds could also apply to "cutting phases" insofar as metabolic stress and stimulants are concerned.

I challenge you to go dig up the juicy 2006 studies offered in the reference list and come to your own conclusions. And in the meanwhile, consider pinning down a meek longevity-obsessed individual at your local health food store and devouring him for his meager protein and carnosine content.

Special Note: Although beyond the scope of this article, you may also want to check out Meditation for Muscle, because quieting your mind has at least some data behind it suggesting a reduction in certain biomarkers of aging. This could be one more win for the otherwise hard training bodybuilder!

References and Further Reading:

  1. Anton S et al. Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) mimics insulin action on the transcription factor FOXO1a and elicits cellular responses in the presence and absence of insulin. Cell Signal. 2007 Feb;19(2):378-383.
  2. Andziak B et al. High oxidative damage levels in the longest-living rodent, the naked mole-rat. Aging Cell. 2006 Dec;5(6):463-71.
  3. Baltzell J et al. Lipoprotein lipase in rats fed fish oil: apparent relationship to plasma insulin levels. Lipids. 1991 Apr;26(4):289-94.
  4. Barzilai N et al. Revisiting the role of fat mass in the life extension reduced by calorie restriction. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 1999 Mar;54(3):B89-96.
  5. Chan Y et al. Favorable effects of tea on reducing the cognitive deficits and brain morphological changes in senescence-accelerated mice. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2006 Aug;52(4):266-73
  6. Cohen E et al. Opposing activities protect against age-onset proteotoxicity. Science. 2006 Sep; 313(5793):1604-10.
  7. Davidson M. Mechanisms for the hypotriglyceridemic effect of marine omega-3 fatty acids. Am J Cardiol. 2006 Aug 21;98(4A):27i-33i.
  8. de la Lastra C et al. Resveratrol as an anti-inflammatory and anti-aging agent: mechanisms and clinical implications. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2005 May;49(5):405-30.
  9. Deocaris C et al. Geroprotection by glycerol: insights into its mechanisms and clinical potentials. Ann NY Acad Sci. 2006 May;1067:488-92.
  10. Herzberg G et al. The effect of dietary fish oil on muscle and adipose tissue lipoprotein lipase. Lipids. 1989 Apr;24(4):351-3.
  11. Hipkiss A. Dietary restriction, glycolysis, hormesis and ageing. Biogerontology. 2007 Apr;8(2):221-4.
  12. Hipkiss A. Does chronic glycolysis accelerate aging? Could this explain how dietary restriction works? Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2006 May;1067:361-8.
  13. Hipkiss A. Would carnosine or a carnivorous diet help suppress aging and associated pathologies? Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2006 May;1067:369-74.
  14. Hipkiss A. On the mechanisms of ageing suppression by dietary restriction-is persistent glycolysis the problem? Mech Ageing Dev. 2006 Jan;127(1):8-15.
  15. Hulbert A et al. Oxidation-resistant membrane phospholipids can explain longevity differences among the longest-living rodents and similarly sized mice. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2006 Oct;61(10):1009-18.
  16. Hulbert A. The links between membrane composition, metabolic rate and lilfespan. Comp Biochem Physiol A Mol Integr Physiol. 2008 Jun;150(2):196-203.
  17. Ingram D et al. Calorie restriction mimetics: an emerging research field. Aging Cell. 2006 Apr;5(2):97-108.
  18. Kim Y et al. Suppression of oxidative stress in aging NZB/NZW mice: effect of fish oil feeding on hepatic antioxidant status and guanidino compounds. Free Radic Res. 2005 Oct;39(10):1101-10.
  19. Mattson M. Energy intake, meal frequency, and health: a neurobiological perspective. Annu Rev Nutr. 2005;25:237-60.
  20. Pariza M et al. The biologically active isomers of conjugated linoleic acid. Prog Lipid Res. 2001 Jul;40(4):283-98.
  21. Park Y et al. Quantitation of carnosine in humans plasma after dietary consumption of beef. J Agric Food Chem. 2005 Jun 15;53(12):4736-9.
  22. Rainsford K. Influenza ("Bird Flu"), inflammation and anti-inflammatory/ analgesic drugs. Inflammopharmacology. 2006;14(1-2):2-9.
  23. Rafrawy O et al. Docosahexaenoic acid in phosphatidylcholine mediates cytotoxicity more effectively than other omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Cancer Lett. 1998 Oct 23;132(1-2):23-9.
  24. Salvioli S et al. Inflamm-aging, cytokines and aging: state of the art, new hypotheses on the role of mitochondria and new perspectives from systems biology. Curr Pharm Des. 2006;12(24):3161-71.
  25. Wilson M et al. Blueberry polyphenols increase lifespan and thermotolerance in Caenorhabditis elegans. Aging Cell. 2006 Feb;5(1):59-68.
  26. Wolfram S et al. Epigallocatechin gallate supplementation alleviates diabetes in rodents. J Nutr. 2006 Oct;136(10):2512-8.
  27. Zhong L et al. An extract of black, green, and mulberry teas causes malabsorption of carbohydrate but not of triacylglycerol in healthy volunteers. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Sep;84(3):551-5.