by Michael Roussell, PhD T-Nation
When it comes to forging a lean muscular body, total calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fats get the most the attention. It's for good reason, too, since trying to sculpt a noteworthy physique for beach season without being mindful of what you stuff in your gullet is a surefire way to get mistaken for a wayward beluga whale instead of a hard training bodybuilder.
However, often times it's what most would consider the "little things" such as sleep, endocrine disrupting chemical loads, and micronutrient statuses that can be the veritable little hinges that swing big doors.
The most overlooked of this group are the micronutrients: vitamin and minerals. Let's look more closely at two minerals, zinc and magnesium, and the role they play in your physique development.
Minerals and Their Function
Minerals play very important (yet often overlooked) roles in your body as they serve as cofactors or pieces to enzymes and compounds that carry out important functions.
Take iron, one of the most well-known minerals for example. Iron sits inside hemoglobin serving as the molecular docking station that holds onto oxygen and keeps the entire hemoglobin compound together. Without iron, this whole system would fall apart. This is typical for all minerals in your body – they do the dirty work for essential functions. Zinc and magnesium are no different.
Magnesium is required for over 300 different reactions and is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body. Magnesium is a physiological rock star, playing a role in regulating blood pressure, blood sugar, and energy metabolism. Nuts, seeds, spinach, and certain whole grains are all good dietary sources of magnesium.
Magnesium supplements come in all different types, however, avoid supplements containing magnesium oxide. While they contain the highest percent of elemental magnesium, research shows they're absorbed the poorest.
Zinc is an essential mineral found mainly in animal protein sources, with oysters being the best source. It's required for the proper functioning of 100 different enzymes. These enzymes play a role in a wide variety of systems in the body ranging from protein and DNA synthesis to immune function to cellular division. Your body doesn't readily store zinc so maintaining a consistent intake is required to maintain the needed levels in your body.
Mineral Depletion and Repletion
Despite the essential role of minerals, the importance of maintaining high mineral levels in our foods stuffs has been essentially ignored.
Some research has estimated that the mineral content of the food found in supermarkets is 40% lower than that of 50 years ago, making it harder to get what we need to make sure our bodies are running on all cylinders.
Adding back zinc and magnesium to your diet can help fight the depletion effects due to lack of dietary intake and exercise (another main cause of mineral depletion). Blood magnesium levels can decrease as much as 5% from just walking on a treadmill for 90 minutes at 3 miles per hour.
Research shows us some interesting benefits of supplementing with zinc and magnesium to replete our bodies:
Magnesium supplementation improves exercise tolerance during times when you haven't gotten enough sleep.
Magnesium supplementation can improve cardiovascular function during exercise.
Zinc supplementation can prevent exercise-induced decreases in thyroid hormone and Testosterone levels in both sedentary men and elite athletes.
As noted, the effects of hard training on zinc and magnesium levels further exacerbate the problems already created by the mineral depletion of our soil. Here's what you can do to get your body back on track.
ZMA® or zinc monomethionine aspartate and magnesium aspartate–This supplement was developed by Victor Conte in the mid-late 1990s through his company SNAC, which carried out micronutrient testing and optimization for high-level athletes, amongst other things (wink, wink).
While Victor Conte's role as steroid guru to the stars took away from the growing popularity of ZMA®, it remains a solid supplement that provides two key minerals for hard training athletes – and it's inexpensive. Take it right before bed and you can reap the relaxing effects of the magnesium as well (see below).
Topical Magnesium–As mentioned, magnesium is a muscle relaxant, making topical magnesium a great tool for people who have trouble unwinding and falling asleep at night. The importance of sleep and its effect on hormones such as leptin, ghrelin, and growth hormone can't be understated. Topical magnesium is a simple way to optimize sleep for certain people.
Falling asleep can be the sticking point for many lifters and if you're not falling asleep within 30 minutes, then you have a problem that needs to be addressed. If ZMA® isn't doing the trick, rubbing some topical magnesium behind your knees 20 minutes before bed should help you fall asleep faster.
Top off this night time regimen with a couple caps of Z-12™ and you won't stir until your alarm goes off the next day.
Simple Mineral Testing
When dosing individual vitamins and minerals I always like to have an actual reason to do so other than X vitamin is good for you so I'll just take more. The best way to do this is through testing your mineral levels, although this isn't the easiest or most convenient approach.
Zinc, however, proves to be the exception. You can get a quick and easy handle on your zinc status by using the oral zinc sulfate test. This test is simple – it involves holding a shot glass-sized amount of zinc sulfate in your mouth for five seconds, then swallowing it. You then describe what it tastes like using one of the following:
- Tasteless like water = Low Zinc Status.
- Slightly dry but mineral-like. A sweet taste developed after a few seconds = Zinc Status Marginally Low.
- It has a distinct taste that gets stronger over time = Zinc Status Almost Where It Should Be.
- Instant strong and unpleasant taste = Zinc Status Good.
You'd be amazed how many people fail this test miserably. The first time I did it, I was at Peak Performance in New York and thought that fellow T Nation contributor Dan Trink was playing a trick on me and had slipped me a Dixie cup of plain water. My zinc status was that poor!
If you can't find someone that does the oral zinc test, purchase a zinc tester (Metagenics makes one) and test yourself. Then, based on your results, add ZMA® and/or a standalone zinc supplement. Test yourself again in a couple of weeks and continue the process until your zinc levels get fixed. Once you do you'll be amazed. You'll sleep better, recover better, and have more energy to train.
Unfortunately, there isn't such an easy test for magnesium, although too much oral magnesium is an excellent laxative. So if you happen to overestimate your dosages, you'll know pretty quickly by your increased, perhaps frantic trips to the bathroom.
It Isn't Sexy But It Works
Several years ago I wrote an article for T Nation with Alwyn Cosgrove called Non-Sexy Training & Nutrition. It was full of effective but less than glamorous training and nutrition methods. Minerals fit into this category.
Taking a ZMA® supplement or complete mineral supplement every night isn't sexy but it will fill some pretty important nutrient holes that will make everything else that you're doing that much more effective.