Often long distance athletes deplete themselves more than any other athletes. I’ve been in this situation more than once during my twenty IronMan races. After some events I just didn’t feel like doing much – didn’t want to train or even get household chores done. Once I got moving I’d do them – but it was difficult to just get motivated to do so. The hormonal stress of such events is coupled with NT imbalances as well as inflammation which occurs from exercising so long, and including usually a poor diet, (too many carbs during a race). But in addition to all of that, the endurance athlete has to often deal with ammonia toxicity which can suck the energy out of your body and your brain. *Read Part II of this series here.
Ammonia (NH3) is most often a result of your body breaking down protein into amino acids thus releasing nitrogen (N) which eventually combines with hydrogen (H). The liver then converts this ammonia to urea through a biochemical process called the urea cycle and then sends it off to your kidneys to pee it out as well as sweat some of it out. Some people become so NH3 toxic that they literally smell like ammonia, especially after their sweaty clothes are in the laundry basket for a day or more. This is not “body odor” stink – but NH3 stink.
Endurance athletes, and/or those athletes deficient in protein, end up literally breaking down muscle in order to use those proteins for fuel (converted to glucose) which in turn floods the urea cycle and ammonia toxicity results. This ammonia toxicity essentially makes you feel super crummy and unmotivated. Similar to the previously discussed leaky brain problem due to insulin, high ammonia levels also impair the BBB. Actually, this can get so bad to actually cause something called hepatic encephalopathy, though these individuals often have some kidney or liver impairment. Additionally, high NH3 in the brain lowers the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA which will cause a person to feel irritable and have difficulty sleeping – they can’t chill out yet they have no motivation to do anything.
Spin Your Cycle More Efficiently
The urea cycle must function well to convert the toxic NH3 to much less toxic urea. Certain nutrients are needed for this, as well as a properly functioning Krebs cycle – that’s how you make energy (ATP). If your ATP production is low then often your urea cycle will be inadequate which means your energy will be low from deficient ATP as well NH3 toxicity.
One main nutrient your urea cycle needs is manganese, along with others shared by the Krebs cycle. Vitamin B6 (P-5-P as previously discussed for NT synthesis), and vitamins B1, B2, B3, and B5 are also necessary along with biotin and magnesium (a very common athlete-depleted mineral). If you’re deficient in any of these nutrients and training long and hard, then you might be feeling unmotivated from poor urea cycle activity and NH3 toxicity AND dopamine and serotonin imbalances. Hopefully you’re starting to see how this is all related!
Creatine and Phosphorus for a Powerfully Motivated Athlete
Additionally, if your ATP levels are being depleted, you’ll also deplete phosphorus (P) and at the same time your body will rely more on creatine phosphate (CP) for energy. Phosphorus is needed to make (CP) which is a source for quick energy by the muscles and even sometimes the brain, and in this case it’s on stand-by for when aerobic metabolism is spent and there’s little left of ATP. Yet since there is not enough P to make CP, the amino acid arginine, (which is a main amino acid in the urea cycle), shunts to combine with the amino acid glycine to help make more CP not just for energy but also as a way to rid some of the NH3 through its breakdown into creatinine. So now there is inadequate arginine for the urea cycle and NH3 becomes elevated as the CP is not as efficient in detoxifying NH3 as the urea cycle. By taking phosphorus you can essentially support that creatine pathway more effectively and keep some arginine for the urea cycle and also provide the ‘P’ back in the ATP for energy. Phosphorus has long been my “go to” supplement after long distance races – it gets my motivation back almost immediately. Of course, that does not mean it will work for you. Every nutrient you decide to take should be based off your own unique physiology.
Adjust Your Diet and Training
If you’re burning up protein to use for fuel and making yourself ammonia toxic then of course you need to figure out why that is and not just rely on taking certain nutrients, especially if it’s happening to you all the time. Some physicians tell their athletes to eat more carbs. After all, if you eat more carbs then there is no reason for your body to break down protein to convert into glucose and then there is no nitrogen-ammonia problem. This, for some, works. If you are training often and with intensity then yes, I believe you need some carbs and just can’t rely on ketones for energy. You’ll just be depleted both physically and mentally. (You’re actually toxic – and that’s not good.)
However, most athletes are just training improperly. If you’re always training anaerobically and burning sugar rather than fat for fuel you will quickly become glycogen (stored sugar) depleted and rely on amino acids for energy. So don’t necessarily eat more carbs but rather train your aerobic system so you don’t burn so many carbs but burn fat. More fat, less carbs is the way to go with both training and daily diet. One caveat here is that if you’re NH3 toxic and eat more protein during this time (such as a nice big steak), you’re probably going to feel worse as you flood your body with more nitrogen. So find the balance as you recover – or don’t get there in the first place. You don’t have to actually smell NH3 on your sweat/clothes to be toxic – I never did when I used to have the problem.
That about sums up this Sock Doc Three Part Series on Athletic Motivation. There was a lot of chemistry and a lot of physiology so it’s good to read it again (and again). If it still doesn’t make sense maybe your brain is ammonia toxic or you have a leaky brain!
Listen to the Podcast of this third part of the Motivation Series with my friends over at Trail Runner Nation.