Nitrogen Balance: The Key to Continuous Gains
For most bodybuilders, determining the exact degree to which their body is functioning in an anabolic fashion is, at best, an arbitrary process. Far from being a perfect science, we usually monitor the extent to which we’re growing by what is reflected on the scale, in the mirror, and by how many additional pounds we’re able to hoist at the gym. Indeed, how we feel, perform and look, in conjunction with the nutritional composition of our diet and how much rest we are getting, are frequently used to gauge whether we are in an anabolic, or catabolic, state.
Nitrogen: The Anabolic Indicator
The muscle damage we are recovering from and the daily pollutants and life stressors we encounter all conspire to undermine our efforts: all restrict growth and tissue repair. So how might we accurately determine the potential detrimental impact all of the above are having on our muscle building progress? How might their combined influence interfere with the good work we are doing in the gym? One method is to determine our nitrogen balance; the measure of nitrogen in our system minus our nitrogen output.
A chemical element found in a range of compounds and which occurs naturally in all organisms (but primarily in proteins and the nucleic acids, RNA and DNA), nitrogen is essential for all life. A lack of it, or a negative nitrogen value, is often associated with burns, muscle wasting diseases, serious injuries and periods of fasting. A positive value, however, is evident during periods of growth and tissue repair.
A positive nitrogen balance is what all those looking to put on lean body mass must aim to achieve.
This article will reveal how we may boost our nitrogen levels, and how we may also measure them to more precisely determine how anabolic we really are.
How to Boost Nitrogen Retention
Each of us will currently be experiencing one of three nitrogen retention states: positive, negative, or equilibrium. To gain muscle and to avoid training-related regression, a positive nitrogen balance is essential. The combination of the protein we consume and our physiological state play a major role in the muscle repair process and a negative nitrogen balance may be the culprit of marginal gains. Even an equilibrium state, though neither positive nor negative, is a precarious position to be in – a slight shift in the wrong direction can result in muscle loss. So we must never become complacent in how well balanced our nitrogen levels are – measuring them directly, as discussed below, can help us to determine whether we are progressing, or faltering.
Get Your Aminos!
It is very important to obtain the correct balance of nine essential and 11 non-essential amino acids. By regularly saturating our muscle tissues with all of these aminos (the building blocks of protein) we supply the raw materials needed to promote ongoing muscle protein synthesis. A diet heavy in complete proteins from whole foods (chicken, red meat, eggs, milk and fish being major sources) and the consumption of at least one gram of protein per pound of lean body weight per day will help keep your nitrogen balance in check.
Supplement Your Diet
To maintain a positive nitrogen balance, supplementation in the form of whey, casein, and most importantly, amino acids, is an indispensable prerequisite that any experienced trainee will attest to. Whole foods alone may not provide enough quality amino acids for muscle rebuilding and the commencement of further growth; at the very least an insurance policy against negative nitrogen levels, supplementation may ensure there are no nutritional gaps to destabilize our muscle building efforts.
Eliminate Stress and Over-training
A completely rested and recharged body and mind allow us to keep nitrogen levels high to build more muscle tissue. Sound sleep and the avoidance of negative mental and physical stress (unnecessary conflict, a pessimistic attitude, over-training) are by far the best ways to achieve complete recovery from the day to day accumulation of stress that may promote unhealthy eating, low intensity workouts and a failure to achieve our weight loss goals, all of which may keep our nitrogen levels in the red.
Stress specifically encourages unwanted body fat, particularly around the mid-section, through its intermediary role in releasing the stress hormone, cortisol.
Released from the adrenal glands when we become stressed – extreme tiredness is often a precipitating factor – cortisol, a fight or flight hormone which prepares us for survival in the presence of an impending threat, is often responsible for the storage of unwanted body fat. Because fat found around the waist contains the greatest number of cortisol receptors, whenever we become stressed we risk attracting fat to this region. As well as contributing to excessive body fat accumulation (which, on its own, may interfere with muscle protein synthesis), a heightened cortisol output may also destroy our gains by leaching protein from muscle tissue to generate energy for survival.
Once released, cortisol may remain in the blood for many hours, unlike adrenaline, another ‘stress’ hormone, which is produced and released from the adrenal cortex and which is more rapidly metabolized. Limit stress in your life – including over-training – and you may not only be rewarded with a healthier mindset, but your fat loss results and nitrogen balance will see a positive shift as well.
How to Measure Your Nitrogen Balance
Bodily nitrogen levels are monitored via the careful measurement of all nitrogen containing foods consumed minus the level of nitrogen excreted, the end value being the current level of nitrogen retained in the body. To ensure our nitrogen balance is in a positive, not negative or equilibrium, state, we would best begin by following the guidelines outlined in this article. However, to more precisely measure your nitrogen levels, a more exact method may be used: the measuring of urinary urea nitrogen levels (90% of nitrogen, filtered through the kidneys, is lost through urine). With this procedure in mind, use the following guidelines to measure your present nitrogen status.
- Arrange with your physician to conduct a nitrogen test. Collect all urine over a 24 hour period.
- Determine the amount of nitrogen lost over a 24 hour period, via the above test, and add 4 for non-urinary nitrogen losses (nitrogen though sweat and feces, for example).
- Determine nitrogen intake by dividing your daily protein in grams by 6.25.
- Your nitrogen balance is the value of step 3 minus step 2.
If your nitrogen balance is 0, this means you are consuming just enough protein to maintain your present level of muscular development; if your balance is in the negative, increase your protein intake until it surpasses the equilibrium range of 0.
Nitrogen lost in urine over 24 hours = 22
Daily protein intake = 120 (grams)
Nitrogen balance = (120/6.25) – (22 + 4)
Total = -6.8 nitrogen balance
To get to equilibrium start by consuming an additional 42.5 g (6.8 x 6.25) of protein.
- California State University. Diabetes Tutorial. [Online] http://www.csun.edu/ retrieved on 19.2.14
- Lemon, P. do athletes need more dietary protein and amino acids. International Journal of sports Nutrition, S39-61, 1995.
- Robson. Nitrogen Balance: the Key to Muscle Growth. Bodybuilding.com. [Online] http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/drobson75.htm retrieved on 19.2.14
- Ritz, B. (1991). Balance: What Growth is About. Muscle & Fitness. December, 1991.