For anyone interested in gaining muscle, there are plenty of rules to follow – you must do the right exercises, maintain your routines, get enough rest and sleep, and, importantly, eat the right type of diet.
When it comes to diet, there are several factors involved. Several nutrients like magnesium, calcium, and zinc play important roles in muscle development. However, proteins are the major muscle-building nutrients – they provide the building blocks for muscle. Thus, it makes sense that any bodybuilder would increase their protein intake. But how does the body use this protein, and how do you know if you’re getting enough of it? And where does nitrogen come into the equation? If you’re wondering about all of these, don’t worry. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll have all the answers.
Nitrogen is a natural chemical element essential for growth and development in both plants and animals. It is the most abundant element in the earth’s atmosphere (so really, you breathe in more nitrogen than oxygen). Along with carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, it forms the basic unit of all life on earth.
Nitrogen in the body is an important element in DNA and RNA, crucial to life. DNA holds genetic information that codes for individual features, while RNA is important in synthesizing proteins for various tissues. Without nitrogen, there is no DNA or RNA, and there is no life.
Nitrogen in the body comes from the breakdown of amino acids, which are products of protein breakdown. As amino acids are used in building other proteins or performing other functions, their amino groups get cleaved off, providing nitrogen for the body. Thus, the amount of nitrogen in your body typically indicates how much protein you’re getting.
Elemental nitrogen has no benefit to the body. Thus, even if it makes up 78% of the atmosphere and humans breathe it, it does nothing to the body. However, nitrogen is an important component of several organic compounds in the body, ranging from amino acids to urea.
Amino acids containing nitrogen are the building block of all proteins that form important structural components of muscle tissues, hair cells, enzymes and hormones. Urea is a by-product of protein breakdown that carries waste nitrogen away from the body and helps the kidneys reabsorb water and other essential ions from urine.
Nitrogen balance is simply the difference between nitrogen input and nitrogen output. For mathematical geniuses,
Nitrogen balance = In (nitrogen) – Out (nitrogen).
Nitrogen is obtained through dietary protein intake and is lost as waste in urine, feces, sweat, shedding hair and shedding skin. The nitrogen balance measures where the scale tips towards – whether you’re eating more proteins than you’re excreting or excreting more protein than you’re eating.
Most healthy adults have neutral nitrogen balance or are said to be in nitrogen equilibrium. This implies that the nitrogen going in and out is roughly the same, with a net change of about 0.
A neutral nitrogen balance means taking in enough dietary proteins to perform all the functions needed, such as repairing cells and tissues and building muscles. Any excess protein is then excreted from the body. Nitrogen equilibrium entails a state of good health and optimal nutrition as the body receives what it needs and functions well to put out what it doesn’t.
While a neutral balance is a normal state in any human, certain conditions can make this equilibrium tip to either the left or right side.
Negative Nitrogen Balance
If the nitrogen equilibrium tips to the right side, such that a person excretes more nitrogen than they take in, they are said to be in a negative nitrogen balance. Negative nitrogen balance may occur in cases of malnourishment or intense training that causes the conversion of amino acids to glucose. In this state, catabolic (breakdown) processes outmatch anabolic processes, and the body is said to be in protein debt.
With very little protein to build and repair tissues in the body, a negative nitrogen balance forces the body to break down its protein sources like muscles, leading to muscle wasting (extreme loss of weight). Prolonged negative balance may also result in;
- Decrease in levels of plasma proteins like globulin and albumin that maintain plasma colloidal pressure, helping to hold water in the blood vessels.
- Loss of globulin and albumin forces water from the blood vessels into the extravascular space resulting in edema (swelling of the body)
- Loss of immune cells, resulting in an immunocompromised state. The body thus becomes highly susceptible to many toxins and bacteria.
- Development of fatty liver disease and other serious organ diseases
Considering the harmful effects of a negative balance, it is thus pertinent to avoid conditions that shift the equilibrium right.
The nitrogen balance may also be tipped to the left, resulting in a positive nitrogen balance. This occurs when a person takes in much more proteins than they are excreting. Positive nitrogen balance is associated with periods of overnutrition, particularly exponential increases in protein intake. Bodybuilding may also act as a stimulus for positive nitrogen balance. Although, excessive workouts can tip the balance towards the negative.
A positive nitrogen balance is necessary when the body grows during pregnancy, childhood, or bodybuilding. Because the body needs extra protein for growth, it retains more nitrogen than it loses. The retained nitrogen is then channeled towards building and repairing tissues like muscle and building and repairing immune cells and hormones. Positive nitrogen balance may also be associated with disease conditions like hypothyroidism.
For any normal healthy adult, nitrogen equilibrium is necessary to ensure optimal cell repair and tissue growth. However, if you intend to build muscle, you must strive toward nitrogen retention through diet and strength training.
Three factors affect nitrogen balance. They include;
- Protein consumption
- Carbohydrate consumption; and
- Energy expenditure
If carbohydrate intake is low in the face of increasing energy expenditure through exercise, then the nitrogen balance becomes negative and the need for proteins increases. In such a state, your muscle gains will not match the work put in. Thus, you must balance your carbohydrate intake, increase protein intake, and optimize your workout for nitrogen retention for optimal muscle gain.
Different training routines have different effects on protein breakdown. Thus, different categories of trainers, have different protein requirements. For example, strength trainers desire muscle growth and, as such, must increase their protein intake to meet this goal. On the other end, resistance trainers see increased protein catabolism and thus a shift towards negative protein balance. Thus, their protein requirement increases beyond that of strength trainers. The increased protein intake does not add to muscle mass for endurance trainers. Instead, it works to stimulate the synthesis of new enzymes and mitochondrion necessary for adaptive training.
A daily protein intake of about 2 grams per kg body weight is recommended for bodybuilders. This amount of protein enhances nitrogen retention and promotes muscle growth. However, achieving a positive nitrogen balance goes beyond just upping your protein intake. The types of proteins you eat, the sources of proteins you eat and how you spread your protein diet over the day also matter. Ideally, you should distribute protein intake evenly between meals and snacks. You should also optimize protein intake immediately after workouts since skeletal muscle activity during exercise causes the metabolism of muscle proteins.
As a strength training or endurance athlete, achieving a positive nitrogen balance is essential for muscle gain and optimal health. There are some strategies to follow to achieve a positive nitrogen balance.
- Eat sufficient complete proteins: You should maintain a caloric surplus of proteins. These proteins should be complete proteins that adequately provide all the essential and non-essential amino acids. These include; egg whites, lean red meat, chicken breasts and low-fat dairy. It is advisable to eat about six protein-containing meals per day. All meals should provide a cumulative 2 grams of protein per kg body weight, equaling 140 grams per day for a 70kg athlete.
- Time protein intake: Besides getting adequate proteins, how you time it concerning your workout matters. You should consume a liquid meal containing carbohydrates and proteins one hour before workouts. This stimulates insulin release that causes amino acids and glucose to be deposited into muscles. Thus, muscle protein reakdoe=wn during training is spared. You should also consume liquid protein/carbohydrate meals immediately after training to saturate the muscles with proteins. Then before bed, consume proteins like whey and casein.
- Rest: Protein synthesis cannot occur if the muscles are always active. Continuous activity causes the body to burn amino acids from muscles as fuel in place of depleting glucose stores. Thus, to increase nitrogen retention, you should achieve sufficient rest.
- Train Anabolically: Training in an anabolic fashion involves starting workouts after getting maximum rest, keeping workouts short and intense, and getting enough rest between sessions. This type of training stimulates enough muscle fibers while minimizing muscle breakdown, thus, enhancing nitrogen retention.
While it is true that amino acids aid muscle growth, amino acids known as BCAAs or branched-chain amino acids are considered extra important in this respect. The three BCAAs are leucine, isoleucine and valine. These amino acids stimulate enzymes that are key to muscle building and have other benefits, such as fighting fatigue.
BCAAs are all essential amino acids. Thus, you obtain them from food sources and need to take adequate amounts of proteins. Luckily, sources of these BCAAs contain other essential amino acids that are key to your muscle growth and perform other essential functions internally.
Essential amino acids are readily obtained from many plant and animal-based foods. Common sources of these nutrients are;
- Histidine – beef, lamb, pork, chicken, cheese, yogurt, milk, eggs, tofu, soybeans, beans, lentils, pumpkin seeds
- Isoleucine – beef, lamb, pork, poultry, seafood, eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, oats, dried spirulina, seaweed, sunflower
- Leucine – cheese, shrimp, gelatin, collagen, spirulina, corn, wheat germ, quinoa, brown rice
- Lysine – tuna, shrimp, cheese, eggs, gelatin, collagen, pumpkin seeds, pistachios, lentils, beans, oats, wheat germ.
- Methionine – salmon, shrimp, eggs, cheese, Brazil nuts, soybeans, beans, and lentils.
- Phenylalanine – pork, poultry, cheese, tuna, cashews, quinoa, wild rice, brown rice, oats, wheat germ, spirulina
- Threonine – tuna, shrimp, cheese, gelatin, collagen, cashews, almonds, beans, lentils, spirulina, wheat germ
- Tryptophan – poultry, beef, lamb, pork, tuna, soybeans, tofu, beans, lentils, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds.
- Valine – beef, lamb, pork, poultry, tuna, soybeans, mushrooms, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds
This list is not exhaustive, and many other foods contain these essential amino acids. However, you should look to mostly incorporate complete proteins in your diet. There are food sources that contain all these essential amino acids. Complete proteins include; beef, milk, eggs, pork, salmon, tuna and chicken.
If you need an extra push to boost your protein intake and achieve a positive nitrogen balance, you can benefit from protein supplements. These supplements typically come in the form of powders which you mix with water or juice and drink before and after workouts. Some of the best protein supplements to promote muscle gain include;
- Whey protein
- Casein protein
- Egg protein powder
- Pea protein powder
- Hemp protein
- Mixed plant protein
Ensure to speak with your doctor or fitness coach before starting on these protein supplements. Your dietary preference, food allergies, health conditions and fitness goals determine which are best for you.
Achieving a positive nitrogen balance is crucial to effective muscle gains. Adequate calorie intake from protein and carbs while optimizing workouts to be anabolic are all important in helping you achieve said positive nitrogen balance.
Athletes should endeavor to consume sufficient complete proteins daily, up to 2grams/kg/day. You should also time protein intake perfectly with exercise routines. For further help, you can look towards protein supplements that promote muscle nitrogen retention.