So, most people know what protein, carbs, and fats are (Unless you’re a baby). But, seldom does your average gym-goer or athlete know what glycogen is.
And if you want to maximize your gains, then you need to know more than just the basics of nutrition. But, lucky for you… we’ve got your back (As we always do) and no longer will you be in the dark about how glycogen helps fuel your workouts and how you can maximize glycogen synthesis to reach your potential in the gym.
Now, if you’re looking for more keto information then we can’t help you, but we can if you’re ok with learning about the exact opposite… more carbs!
So, let’s get straight into this thing…
What is Glycogen?
Glycogen is a carbohydrate utilized by the body to fuel any form of physical activity. And since carbs are the only macronutrient to break down fast enough to support your activities, it’s very important that you understand how the process works. (1)
Now, when we eat carbohydrates our bodies turn them into glucose, which forms glycogen as a result of the pancreas producing insulin.
But, what’s insulin?
Good question… insulin is what your body uses to transfer sugar or glucose to your body’s cells and tissues. Your body cannot process sugar and glucose effectively without insulin, so these substances just build up which causes dehydration, and acid buildup, which if not addressed, can lead to ketoacidosis which is very dangerous. (2)
Insulin signals the body to link together multiple glucose chains which create the glycogen and it’s very important to consume sufficient amounts of carbohydrates to allow this process to occur.
But, back to glycogen… studies show the depletion of this energy source to directly correlate with decreased performance and energy output. And glycogen is created from over 60,000 glucose molecules so you’ve got to have a constant supply.
But when levels are too low, insulin drops and the enzyme glycogen phosphorylase breaks down into glucose used by the body.
ATP (Adenosine triphosphate)
Now, glycogen also plays a big role in the production of ATP since the latter is known as the “currency of life”. (3)
And ATP is present in every process which requires energy to perform a function. In fact, it powers myosin which converts chemical energy into movement. So, if you want more ATP to fuel your activities then glycolysis is needed from glycogen, although fat triglycerides, creatine phosphate, and mitochondria are even more important for creating these ATP stores. (4)
Where is Glycogen Stored?
Glycogen is stored in the muscles, and liver with a smaller amount found in the brain, fat cells, heart, and kidneys.
Now, Keto and low carb isn’t a good idea when trying to replenish your glycogen stores. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to maintain glycogen in your muscles if you’re not eating enough carbs and/or if you’re exercising too intensely; which uses up these stores.
But something to make note of is that our muscle cells can only house around 1-2% of glycogen, and our liver stores 10%. So it’s no wonder why we can’t continue with physical activity without having sufficient fuel to do so. (5)
Where Inside a Cell is Glycogen Stored?
So, glycogen is in fact stored inside the liver cells, muscle cells, and even fat cells. But, within these cells is a liquid called cytosol. (6)
The cytosol is the intracellular fluid which houses the substances which form the cells. And the glycogen within the cytosol breaks down into the glucose which these mitochondria consume for energy.
What is the Major Structural Difference Between Starch and Glycogen?
If you weren’t aware, starch is also made from glucose as well and it’s a polysaccharide like glycogen. But it’s synthesized from plants, unlike the glycogen starch which is created in the liver and muscles like mentioned previously. (7)
Now, the plant-extracted starch is formed together by a large number of glucose units joined by glycosidic bonds which are made from the two polymers amylase (Unbranched chain of glucose which forms helix or coil) and amylopectin (Branched-chain of glucose). (8)
But Glycogen is a large branched polymer of over 60,000 glucose molecules as mentioned earlier.
What Cells in the Body Respond to Glucagon By Breaking Down Glycogen and Releasing Glucose?
The liver cells break down glycogen and release glucose.
When we eat food or carbs more specifically, high levels of insulin and low levels of glucagon promote glycogen or glucose storage in the liver for later use when your body needs it for energy.
So, for example, if you’re sleeping your liver will release glucose and this is known as a process called glycogenolysis. (9)
But, when our glycogen stores run low, our bodies preserve the glucose for our organs (Sort of like a survival mode).
Ketosis and Glycogen
So, the process of ketosis takes over when our bodies are low on glycogen.
And what happens is that our liver creates ketones from fat cells and this is the new energy source. This process results from low insulin levels but if you want to sustain really long activities then keto may not be the way to go. (9)
Now, there’s no doubt low carbs can offer benefits where blood sugar and maintaining a healthy weight are concerned.
But, Jennifer Ventrelle, MS, RD, a dietitian, and lifestyle program director for the Rush University Prevention Center explained: “there are still health risks associated with a diet that severely restricts carbohydrates for more than just a few months.”
And she touched on the saturated fats which many people get too much of when doing low carb or keto especially.
But when we don’t get enough carbs our bodies will use protein as energy too… “Doing this for more than a few months — especially when trying to maintain an active lifestyle — can become dangerous. Under these conditions, the body is more likely to store fat, slow its metabolism, and be at risk for dehydration, muscle aches, and fatigue,” Ventrelle explained.
But these low carb, high protein diets can also cause unsafe rapid weight loss (Water weight which causes dehydration) and kidney problems as well. So, one must be very careful with these diets. (10)
What is Glucose Storage Disease?
So obviously, glycogen is the main culprit for Glucose storage disease (GSD). (11)
Now, GSD is considered a metabolic disorder which is inherited and this severely affects the metabolism’s ability to break down nutrients and utilize them for energy. And this results from an enzyme deficiency which is necessary for breaking down the glycogen.
There are about 11 different types of GSD types but a Doctor would usually have to perform tests to ensure a proper diagnosis.
How Many Carbs Do We Need for Sufficient Glycogen Storage?
Try to get in at least 1-3 grams of carbohydrates per pound of bodyweight each day when weight training to put on size. Now, the less active you are the fewer carbs you’ll need. But, if you’re weight training and performing high aerobic activity then make sure to carbs on the higher end.
Runners and highly active individuals should aim for a definite 3-5 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight each day for optimal results and to sufficiently fuel your efforts without running out of gas.
But, for those who want to lose weight, 1-1.5 grams of carb is ideal.
We can generally store about 600 grams of glycogen in our bodies at one time so always having a constant supply of carbs is crucial for optimal storage. But it’s essential for making gains! (12)
Glycogen consumption for muscle and strength benefits
If you train heavy, you need carbs before and after a workout. This is the time to eat most of your carbohydrates as your body will need to utilize the carbs to load and replenish your glycogen both before and after a hard training session.
But more glycogen also makes your muscles look fuller while creating more ATP stores which provide plenty of fuel for fast and explosive lifts.
We hope you were able to digest all of this beneficial information about glycogen and its processes.
Remember to keep your carbs in an optimal range to keep your muscles and liver saturated with plenty of fuel but not too much. This will do you a big favor when it comes time to get into your intense activities.
But, if you’re looking to create a state of ketosis where your body uses fat as energy, then, you might benefit from this info. However, keto has its disadvantages and that’s something you’ll have to consider if you decide to go that route.
Don’t make it a complicated process, the process of glycogen synthesis is a science but thankfully, we only have to worry about the nutritional part to ensure we keep making gains!