If you are a male hunter, or are in a relationship with one, it’s obvious that biochemistry takes control over one’s mind and body when it’s time to go into the backcountry. For many thousands of years, man was raised to be part of nature and it’s cycles, and with the changes of the seasons, the male’s hormonal system adapted to the ways of living that demanded fitness, focus, and fortitude.
Today, our lives are much different with cars, computers, alarm clocks, convenience foods, and the lack of necessity living. We are challenged with societal norms that do not appreciate or understand the call of the hunt. Modern day society confuses hunting with violence, fear, and negativity, and portrays all hunters as immoral and barbaric, yet we have generations of men who long for the hills, even when they don’t know what that means. Lack of positive initiation and ceremonies for boys confuses the mind, while the body’s natural hormonal processes continue on as it did thousands of years ago.
Having lived with a hunter for over 20 years, it becomes ever more clear to me that his happiness, health, and relationship with hunting directly affects our marriage, his relationship with our daughters, and his interactions with others in his daily life. Hormones, the messengers of growth, energy, emotion, sex, and sleep within our bodies, have interesting cyclic changes that occur in all men, especially the hunter who knows of his longing. This hormonal cascade is likely why the hunter becomes “addicted” to the hunt, and why understanding this could be crucial to the hormonal health of the entire family.
This article is not meant to leave women’s hormones out. Women hunt and have the same hormonal influences with the exception of elevated estrogen, not testosterone, but women’s hormonal systems are much more complicated. I like to look back on traditional cultures, since they were forced to live in the fluctuations of nature. Women were in most cases not hunting, but were doing all the activities of daily living that were supporting men to hunt. This proved to be as much, if not more consistent work throughout the seasons, something hunting is not. Women also tend to be more social creatures, and have better built in signals for hormonal bonding, likely because our bodies do a number of things mens’ can’t- like childbirth and breastfeeding. These hormonal signals are something that we can get without having to go on the hunt, due to our natural ceremonies in life. Men have less biological ceremonies, thus the traditions of hunters, warriors, and scouts allowed them to experience hardships that women naturally lived through. The relationship can be flipped, and whether you are a man or woman on the hunt, the hormonal impacts are many on the brain, muscles, bones, and connective tissues.
A Clean, Lean Diet is Man’s Best Hunting Partner
Traditionally, the diet of the hunter was not rich with sugary carbohydrates as we know today. During berry and fruit seasons, these foods were enjoyed readily and then dried for the rest of the years. Foods like white rice, white bread, and white sugar were only consumed by royalty (who were plagued with diseases like gout, diabetes, and obesity) because they were considered expensive-which they were in those days due to the sugar making process. Obviously this has changed over the many centuries, and sugar has become one of the cheapest, health reducing foods globally. Most all hunter society’s around the world had lean proteins, lean animal fat, bone marrow, and seasonal foods such roots, tubers, berries, and wild plants. When one was on the hunt, foods such as pemmican, dried meats, organs, and fat from bone marrow were consumed in high amounts due to sustaining consistent energy.
The most important hormone that is consistently working to relay energy to the cells is INSULIN. Every time you eat, insulin is secreted from the pancreas, and shuttles glucose (sugar) into the cell, creating energy. When you don’t eat, your liver will release stored glycogen (sugar) to provide energy, and thus insulin will also be secreted. Insulin works in symmetry with other hormones, and if the hunter’s diet isn’t primed for efficiency the rest of the year, a long, stressful, hunt will leave one “wasted”, ill, or unable to perform. Healthy insulin management and sensitivity should always be a 1st goal when thinking about hormones.
Being in good physical shape, with increased lean muscle and ample amounts of testosteron (T) and human growth hormone (HGH) already turned on, is important before taking on a high stress backcountry trip. Just like having an off season fitness regime, proper eating will fuel the muscles for the mountain, and the brain for focus. During the more adrenalin pushed moments, appetite will be suppressed and for good reason. But once you return to camp, or home, this becomes the most important time to support these hormones with proper nutrition for recovery. I know it’s cliche, but let food be your medicine, and since that’s what part of this trip is about (getting meat), then don’t skimp on this very key factor.
A Quick Look at the BIG 5 “Hunting” Hormones
When I work with men, the first thing they ask about is testosterone. There is no doubt we are seeing epic declines in testosterone due to environmental factors, poor diets, stress and lack of lifting heavy sh$* , but when it comes to hormonal balance, testosterone does not work by itself. In the entire hunting experience, there is a cascade of hormonal fluctuations that are synergistically working to make it happen. There are many more hormones in play here, but the following are the Big 5.
Testosterone (T) is man’s “winning” sex hormone. It gives men the confidence, stature, and push, even with great fear. Testosterone has specific actions within the body such as classic Herculean male characteristics, mental and physical stamina, muscle growth, and sexual performance. Testosterone is highest in a man’s late teens, and begins to decrease naturally over time. All activities that require pushing, pulling, lifting, and “chop wood, carry water” will increase testosterone in men of any age. When testosterone decreases common symptoms become loss of drive, loss of muscle, weaker bones, and sexual dysfunction (just to name a few)
Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is the main hormone responsible for growth as a child, and for increasing muscle mass, bone development, and connective tissue (in both men and women). Secreted by the pituitary in the brain, it creates growth by stimulation of Insulin Growth Factor- 1 in the liver, and along with testosterone, naturally decreases as we age. This hormone, along with testosterone is anabolic, meaning it creates growth in great amounts. Lifting heavy things, getting adequate sleep in darkness, and proper nutrition will all increase growth hormone.
Cortisol is a “stress” hormone secreted by the adrenal glands on a circadian rhythm, usually higher in the morning for energy, and lower at night for sleep. Cortisol will be secreted under high stress situations, whether it be emotional, mental, or physical. Cortisol works with testosterone, growth hormone, and adrenaline during exercise to increase fat burning, but when it’s secreted in presence of high insulin (sitting around on the couch), low T and HGH, it’s a perfect way to put on the pounds around the middle and lose your lean muscle. Cortisol needs to be balanced and not elevated for excessive amounts of time- something we are seeing more and more in our non stop, stressed out, nature deprived culture. Activities that decrease cortisol are meditation, yoga, time with friends and family, nature, sex and intimacy. Cortisol is also affected by artificial light, so another reason why falling asleep in the backcountry may work with the sun’s cycle.
Adrenalin and 5. Noradrenalin. Adrenalin is secreted by the adrenals, and is the gas pedal hormone. It is closely related to cortisol. Under exercise, the body will secrete adrenaline to signal the body to begin burning calories, and cortisol, testosterone, and HGH will all go up to start to burn fat. Adrenaline affects mainly body tissues Noradrenaline, produced in the brain and adrenal gland, is also the breakdown product of dopamine, which is needed for intense focus. When high amounts of dopamine are produced under intense focus, folks will increase their amount of noradrenaline in the system. Noradrenaline is what will increase heart rate and signals the emotional and memory centers of the brain, and is one way the hunter bonds to the memory of the experience. These stress hormones are lumped together, because they can both have the effect of the “rush”, but they do have a few distinctions. Noradrenaline is more focused, and adrenaline is more chaotic. Imagine holding back your bow on an elk running at you- you must remained focused (noradrenaline) while your heart rate elevates, but can get target panic with the inability to perform due to excessive adrenaline being secreted into body tissues. Too much chronic adrenalin secretion without exercise will increase insulin and cause cravings and loss of muscle. Adrenalin and noradrenalin also needs to be in balance like cortisol so one doesn’t get “burned out”. The same things that decrease cortisol will decrease adrenalin and noradrenalin.
Putting It Together: The Four Phases of The Big 5 Hormones in Hunting
During the first phase of a hunt which may requires loading the truck, setting up camp, hiking with weight, and being in nature, testosterone and growth hormone will naturally be increasing. The thought of the hunt itself will increase these hormones, and once in the environment, they will continue to increase so that you can burn fat and build the muscle required to get up the mountain and get your tasks done each day. Cortisol will also begin to increase, as even the thought of the stress of the hunt, will demand more energy and “push”. Noradrenaline/Adrenaline will naturally increase with cortisol, to improve focus and enhance the senses that may not be used to their full capacity in modern life. Everything is working together to create awareness, fortitude, and tracking in the backcountry. Also, for many hunters, they are living their purpose in these moments, which will also increase T.
The second phase of hormonal stimulation comes in spotting an animal that will be pursued. Just as this animal can see, hear, and smell you- your senses become keen at this moment. Your T, HGH, Cortisol, and adrenaline, and noradrenaline increase to bring you improved muscle performance and stamina. Be careful in this state however, as adrenaline can take it’s grip on many a man and create target panic. It also helps to be consistently eating high quality food for this very moment. If you are famished, your liver will be secreting glycogen, thus insulin secretion, and when this happens you will have an excessive amount of adrenaline secreted (Adrenalin is secreted in high intensity exercise when the body doesn’t have enough energy- this over time “burns out” your insulin.)
If there is success in the hunt, adrenaline and noradrenaline are at an all time high, which will naturally suppress hunger. Stopping, praying, giving thanks, breathing, laughing, crying, these are all great ways to help clear adrenaline and cortisol, and calm the body and mind before beginning the long arduous task of dressing and hiking the animal out. This process continues the elevations of T and HGH with the feeling of “winning” as well as carrying heavy loads of meat out of the hills.
The third phase of the hunt is the down time, or the time shared in brotherhood with friends or family. Preference and how we choose down time is different for everyone, but in the end we all need others to influence our hormone behavior over time. Perhaps you are a solo hunter, and each night you return to your camp alone, eat your dinner, and fall asleep. You may hunt for many days, and if you are successful with an animal, you may not be able to share your story until you come out of the hills. In many cases solo hunters, will call and relay the story to someone they are close to, and this will naturally begin the process of bringing down cortisol and adrenaline. For some, like my husband, being alone at the end of the day, allows for relaxation and reflection, meaning lowering of daily cortisol and adrenaline.
A common part of the hunt for those who hunt in groups is the time spent at the end of the day, sharing stories and bonding. This decreases the daily stress hormones and allows the body to sleep, recovering for another hard day. For many the hunting experience, is much more about camaraderie and bonding with someone else, it’s the perfect way to decrease the long term effects that excess cortisol and adrenaline secretion can have on your body.
The fourth phase of the process is coming home. Besides the brotherhood of men, the relationship between the lover and children will further decrease the stress hormones that were built up during the process. Giving of the animal to the family, sharing your story, and giving attention to your lover will continue the natural decline of both cortisol and adrenaline. In many cases, hunters will return exhausted physically, but mentally overstimulated so they cannot sleep or wake well for a period of time after, due to elevated stress hormones. Telling the story, sharing the experience, and getting physical connection with your loved ones, will decrease cortisol and adrenaline, but keep the T and HGH high, which is essential for good recovery. This would include laughter, sex, snuggling, sleep, and playing with your children.
Looking at the whole picture, it becomes evident, that men were built for activities such as hunting. Within their hormonal biochemistry, they are built to handle hardship, stress, and the successes that may come out of it. These hormonal advantages fed people for thousands of years, and they should not be misread today as egotistical, savage, or un-evolved. Building muscle, facing challenge, and pushing the limits is a birth right of the male physiology, and is exemplified in the backcountry athlete/hunter.
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