Dear Mark: Social Contact and Neuroplasticity; Extra Protein and Muscle Gain

Feature_Dear_Mark_10.31.16As you all know, one of my favorite parts of doing this blog is the constant, unyielding, uncompromising feedback I get from readers. When I make a mistake, or overlook a crucial piece of a puzzle, someone tells me where I went wrong or provides that missing piece. For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’ll be addressing two emails from readers who took me to task for things I missed on this week’s posts.

The first comes from Simon, who had a great suggestion for increasing neuroplasticity. The second comes from Jen, who highlighted a new study shedding light on the effect of extra protein on muscle gains.

Let’s go:


I really liked your post on neuroplasticity, but I think you may have missed a big one: socializing!


This makes sense on an intuitive level. When you’re alone, you control the environmental inputs. You can expose yourself to novel situations and inputs, but you’re the primary arbiter. It’s a curated experience.

Adding one, two, or several more big-brained hominids (or an entire party full of them) who can think and talk for themselves catapults you into new strata of novelty. Spending time with other members of the most intelligent species on earth can be intense.

You’re not reacting to a static novelty input, like a new route home or a beautiful piece of art you’ve never seen before. You’re responding to another living, breathing mind who challenges you.

You’re not analyzing a character in a novel or movie. You have to exercise empathy, to place yourself in another person’s shoes (and head) to maintain real communication.

Keeping up with other people requires mental agility. I’m thinking that has to induce some profound neuroplasticity. So, what does the research say?

We know that social isolation turns off genes related to neuroplasticity in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus—at least in rodents.

Chronic social isolation also causes depressive-like symptoms while reducing neuroplasticity. 

We’ve all heard of oxytocin, the “love” hormone. Perhaps a more accurate description is “socializing” hormone. Hanging out with other people increases secretion of oxytocin partially to increase pleasure and promote socializing, actually triggering the release of endogenous cannabinoids. A good laugh with friends really can leave us feeling high as a kite.

But oxytocin also helps us tune into the emotional cues and body language others give off, determine friend from foe, and respond accordingly. In animals, it has also been shown to mediate certain types of neuroplasticity, particularly in instances of sensory deprivation. It’s almost like the body “knows” that socializing with other humans requires a nimble mind able to make new connections in the brain.

Great suggestion, Simon!

Hey Mark,

Any thoughts on this paper? Made me think of your post from the other day on lowering protein or not.


Here’s the paper. They took weightlifting novices—people who hadn’t lifted regularly for the past 2 years but who did regularly play team sports—split them up into a high-protein group (1.8 g/kg per day) and a normal-protein group (0.85 g/kg per day), and placed them on identical training regimens for 8 weeks.

They did bench press, shoulder press, lying shoulder extensions, seated rows, lat pull downs, and bicep hammer curls. They totally skipped leg day, in other words.

To hit 1.8 g/kg protein per day, the high-protein group used whey protein on top of their regular food. The normal-protein group got a non-caloric placebo drink.

Focusing on the latissimus dorsi (the “wings”), the researchers found that both groups experienced similar gains in size and strength. Extra protein had no effect on either.

Why the latissimus dorsi? For one, it hadn’t been studied much in this context, despite being the largest muscle in the human body. The second reason they chose it was “its relevance in many athletic gestures.” I can only assume they’re referring to the fist pump.

They also took a biopsy of the lats to analyze the effect the different protocols had on muscle fiber distribution. Normally, sticking with a resistance training program increases conversion of type 2x (super fast twitch, maximal force production, burns through energy) fibers into type 2A (fast twitch, less force production than 2x but more endurance). This indicates that your muscles are gaining metabolic efficiency. What once required super fast twitch fibers and maximal effort no longer does.

The high protein diet blunted the conversion, retaining more type 2x fibers. Is this good or bad?

It depends.

More 2x fibers mean greater capacity for truly explosive movements. These are useful for power sports, sprints, weight lifting, and other activities requiring all-out max efforts. If those are the types of activities you enjoy, eating a bit more protein may help retain them.

More 2A fibers mean a greater capacity for strength-endurance. You can still go hard and heavy, but you’ll last a bit longer. These are important for athletes who engage in strength-endurance activities like cycling.

Realize that these are probably very small differences. When you get down into the weeds like this, mucking around with fiber types, you’ll see marginal returns. It’s important to keep an eye on the big picture: Eating more than double the protein improved neither size nor strength.

Does this mean you should definitely eat 0.8g/kg protein per day? No. Like I said in last week’s post, experiment. Try going lower in protein, just to see if you can get away with it and save money (protein is expensive, especially the high-quality stuff) while preserving your performance and body composition. Maybe you can’t, and higher protein just works better. That’s fine too.

Just another thing to file away for later consideration.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!

TAGS:  dear mark

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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30 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Social Contact and Neuroplasticity; Extra Protein and Muscle Gain”

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  1. It’s kind of hard for me to take the word “neuroplasticity” seriously. It sounds like some fall-apart product made in China.

  2. Hey Mark, do the benefits of socializing corresponding to being with people only? I love dogs and feel so happy when I’m playing with them, walking them, when they lay on my lap and take a nap etc. Hanging with homo sapiens … not so much LOL. 🙂

    1. I hear ya (especially the homo sapien part), only make mine cats.

  3. As someone who has been very socially isolated for over a year now — partly by choice and partly by circumstance, I have to say that while I understand and acknowledge the roles of oxytocin, dopamine, and other hormones & neurotransmitters in supporting physical and psychological/emotional health, I think it needs to be said that, at least for some people (me, me, me!) it can be very situationally dependent. For example, this past weekend, I was at a gathering with extended family, and at one point I excised myself to run to the bathroom and cry. Rightly or wrongly, I felt like a massive, massive failure compared to every other person at the table. Everyone else had a lot more “going for them” than I do, and I find that over and over again.

    Yes, these feelings really come only from inside my own head, but they are certainly based in at least some degree of objective reality. I know how much money I do or don’t make, I know what I have and have not accomplished, and what I have to “show for myself.” And when you always, *always* feel like the biggest loser in any room you walk into, and in any group of people you’re mingling with, well, sometimes social interaction does me far more harm than good.

    Yes, I know I need to work on this, and I am. But I thought it was worth pointing out that it’s not just *any* socializing that’s beneficial. In some cases, unless you’re with people you jive with, and who help you feel at home and “okay” in your own skin, being with other people can actually make things worse. (Again, feeling comfortable in one’s own skin is something only that individual can achieve, but it helps if you’re not surrounded by people who [even if only in your own twisted estimation] put your shortcomings and failures into stark relief.

    I’m a huge introvert, and it seems to be getting stronger as the years pass. This is not to say that I only interact with people whom I feel comfortable “comparing” myself to. Not at all. It just means that I am very selective about the limited social interactions I choose to engage in. (And don’t tell me to “get over” comparing myself to others. I can limit it, yes, but it is likely just evolutionarily honed & hard-wired human nature to size oneself up against others, no?)

    1. I wouldn’t say comparing yourself to others at your level of intensity is necessarily innate. It’s true, we take social cues form each other as we are fundamentally social creatures. It’s part of our programming. But when i becomes debilitating, that is something than can be improved for sure. I have a good friend (very intelligent and talented in many fields) who sabotaged himself relentlessly. He’s also a strong introvert. If someone gave him a compliment, he felt it was surely insincere and would spend hours dissecting the encounter and assigning all sorts of imagined motivations. This was applied to all social interactions. So naturally he would deconstruct things until they fell apart. Everything was suspect and nothing was taken at face value. Eventually, moving to another country, meeting the right girl, and having a kid gave him something other than himself to focus on and he’s much happier, less anxious and far less cynical now that he’s no longer trapped in his head. So I’ve seen it happen in person. People can make major transformations and let go of patterns that are holding them back, but sometimes it requires a changing the environmental conditions first. Or, like when treating a phobia, incremental exposure to the thing that you fear until you become desensitized. Many paths to the same destination.

      1. Yes, I have lots of work to do on my psyche, for sure. I know it all (well, maybe not *all,* but a lot of it) comes from inside my own head, even if there are some objective and undeniable facts contributing to it. It starts with making some very substantial changes to many facets of my life.

        1. Hi Amy. I know what you said. I had a long period in my life where I didn’t want to go out, at all. I had agoraphobia, and actually didn’t want to see anyone except my husband. It resulted from traume after being bullied at work. The thing is that is was beneficial for me, I just wanted to protect myself from this people, so I benefited from it. I had depression as well so it wasn’t nice. But I knew there had to be a solution for it,

          I kept ruminating incessantly about the bullying and couldn’t stop, and felt a failure, not having a career anymore so I avoided everyone. I tried many things, several psychologists that didn’t work. Then found something that helped me, and even though I don’t live in the States I flew there. No years of working or going to expensive sessions that don’t work. It was the Sedona Method, there are cd’s and free teleconference calls. Give it a look, if you don’t like it fine, but keep looking for solutions, and if you go to a therapist and doesn’t work, don’t do what I did, continue going in case in 6 more months it will, it won’t. Good luck

    2. Amy – you’re not the only one. Large crowds do NOT make my neuroplasticity increase. Blood family, forget about it – even if you do your work to clear the buttons they mash, they will always find the residue and create new ones.

      Now, a conversation with 1-4 people who I A) get along with and B) can have an intelligent conversation with on mutually agreed interesting topics on – yes, that does the trick. For us introverts, its the choice to find like-minded people who uplift you and make time to spend with them. That’s the hard part – finding the like minded. Then it’s to tell the Ideal Woman/Ego thank you for your input, now go hide in your cave while I live this life.

      The comparison comes from true caveman times. Look up Alison Armstrong’s work on communicating with men and the resulting work she did on how women communicate with and judge each other. You can learn to tell cavewoman to zip it and come from your frontal cortex instead of your lizard/fight or flight brain.

      1. Yeah, there’s a difference between introversion, shyness, and being antisocial. They’re not the same things. I am generally very quiet and keep to myself, but under the right circumstances, I can be downright scintillating! 😉 Good to know I’m not alone.

    3. I feel the same way most of the time. However, the strength of the negative feelings I feel in relation to others varies, and some days it’s worse than others. Like mood, I guess.

    4. You have a valid point. As a strong introvert with difficult current circumstances, I completely relate to what you’re saying and have also spent a lot of time trying to figure out how best to deal with the good side of socialization and how negatively many social activities and circumstances affect me.

      I read an article a few years ago (so sorry I can’t remember the exact source) detailing a study on socializing and all the good effects it can have on an individual, but this study made a point that I had not seen others mention – it recognized that the positive effects on our emotions, mind, and body are from positive social experiences. Negative social experiences, like you mention, are worse for us than no socialization. In other words, in terms of mental and physical health, it’s better to be alone than to be subject to constant negative socialization.

      I think that social events are good stressors, like exercise, or fasting, or cold exposure. All good things that can give great benefits. But like everything else we discuss here, the best way to implement these things in our lives can vary greatly depending on the individual and their circumstances. Mark has said over and over that if you are experiencing other stressors, like injury, sleep deprivation, illness, intense life stressors from family or jobs, etc., than you need to maybe back off on the good stressors like exercise. The extra stress won’t help, it will just hurt you more. And you need to recognize your own natural constitution – some people can fast without too much difficulty, for others it can be completely debilitating and they need to back off and, say, do shorter fasts, modified fasts, or maybe not fast at all, and don’t beat yourself up over not doing what everyone else is doing – that’s just more stress you don’t need.

      So we need socialization, but for me, as an introvert, even the best social circumstances are a higher stressor than other people experience. And negative social experiences affect me worse than they do other people. And I have to take that extra stress into consideration, and I’ve learned that sometimes I just can’t handle that extra stress, or if it can’t be avoided, than I need to do what I can do to prepare for it and recover from it so it doesn’t knock me down as bad.

      I sympathize and completely relate to how you feel around you’re family. I’m definitely the biggest “failure” in my family in terms of what I don’t have or haven’t accomplished. And in my case, I realized a while ago that my family has a lot of narcissistic tendencies, and there is a lot of focus on what people have and don’t have and how they judge that, and there are pretty much constant subtle and not so subtle attempts to put me or other people down to help them feel better about themselves. I’ve had to work a lot on my own perceptions of value – that I have value as a person regardless of my finances, or social circumstances, or accomplishments, and also that no matter how successful I am in those areas, there will be people who will try to knock me down and make me feel less, and that, frankly, those aren’t really the things that I want to matter the most to me in this life. It’s a long, difficult journey, but recognizing and managing all of my stressors, as I mentioned above, avoiding or limiting what I know will be negative and detrimental social experiences, and working on why those things can knock me down so hard and what aspects I can work on to change has helped a lot.

      There are no easy answers because we are all different, and our circumstances are all different. I see everything in the Primal lifestyle as a tool, but not everyone is able to use those tools the exact same way, nor should they.

      Sorry I rambled so much, hope some of it helps :). You are not alone.

    5. Hi Amy,

      I am certainly a deep introvert too, and at 51, can tell you it deepens more and more with time.

      I can identify with your feelings of inadequacy, and just someone telling you or anyone else, what they feel, think and experience is not real and getting out of their / your my shell will help, is (excuse the language) bullshit.

      Knowing your writings, from an outsider’s point of view, I look on you as an accomplished person. Someone I greatly admire, someone who delivers knowledge to me.

      The issue is, in my opinion, that we suffer from comparing ourselves continuously against what we think is true accomplishment. This problematic outlook makes us carry a seriously heavy burden. My brother eventually tortured himself into a mental hospital stay for 9 months last year by always measuring himself against others (among other things)

      We need to find the path towards realizing and making it our own, that its not worth it. Here’s to you being one of my favorite people to follow and read the writing of.

      1. Thanks, Helen. 🙂 Very sweet of you. (And thanks for reading my work!) All I can say is, what seems to be true of me “on paper” and in Virtual Land is about as far from the reality in my own head as it could possibly be. :-/ If people could hear my inner monologue, they would be horrified.

    6. OH Amy I totally related to your response, and thank you, because I got a lot out of reading it. As other posts ask “Does it have to be homosapiens?” your example gives me pause to point out same. I happen to live in rural Alaska where the company is far from making me feel “like a massive failure” as you put it. Instead, the stimulation available is less than mediocre. Thus, like you, I prefer to stay home. I would rather delve into actual literature,create something, engage in food preservation activities and canine companionship. The disappointment of interacting with what is available often overwhelms my desire to live in pristine surroundings with clear glacial water, clean air, no noise or light pollution, and clean foods. Thus, as with most things, there is the trade-off…I figure its not you thats the loser…perhaps consider putting that impulse to size oneself against those others into perspective. I’m betting some of those folks aren’t as “okay” in their own skin as you are, or they wouldnt be one-upping each other at a family gathering to the point you felt like crying.

  4. Hey Mark, I’m finding it difficult to buy decent avocados this time of year. What is a good substitute? Thanks

    1. Depends on what you want them for. Texture? Flavor? If you’re primarily looking for monounsaturated fats, you can just use olive oil, macadamia nuts, cashews, or maybe avocado oil. But if you’re looking for texture in a smoothie or something, you’d need something else, obviously.

    2. The price of avocados has ~doubled in the past month where I’m at (supposedly due to a shortage) but the prices of olives, eggs, meat, herring and sardines are all still cheap. So I’m eating more of the latter and less avocados.

  5. I’ve wondered if oxytocin also helps you sleep. I easily isolate myself with up to a week of not spending time with anyone, and then I can’t sleep. I seems to be that I don’t get sleepy until 3-4 o’clock, which it when it starts to get lighter. I figuring my body doesn’t dare go to sleep since I’m all alone and therefore must be unsafe in the wild.

  6. I wonder how this interacts with introversion. I’m quite a quiet introvert, and enjoy being alone. Some social interactions leave me stressed, but certainly not all of them. (I don’t consider myself shy, FWIW.)

    However, regardless if a situation is stressful, it does cause one’s mind to be constantly firing. I believe my strong introversion causes me to be exhausted by this, rather than exhilarated – I mention this because there are all sorts of associations with the term ‘introvert’ and I wanted to be sure that people realize that I am talking about the classbook definition.

    It would be interesting if someone actually studied this.

    1. There’s several good books that explain introversion well (Quite, Introvert Advantage, etc)

      The most basic definition of an introvert is one who recharges their batteries by being alone. Extroverts recharge by being with others. So too much social interaction leaves us introverts drained while an extrovert never wants to let the party stop. Conversely, isolate an extrovert and they become drained and irritated.

      I remember when I was young and was “punished” by being sent to my room. Hah, that’s where all my stuff is! My room was my sanctuary. Now if i was an extrovert, that would had been a tough punishment.

      As Amy pointed out, introversion is not shyness or antisocial. It’s just how you cultivate energy. I’m a bold and very self confident introvert. Socially fearless with no sense of embarrassment. Speaking in front of crowds is easy. However, afterwards, I want to be alone or take a nap if it was a big event because I’m so drained. Parties are really draining, even my own.

    2. I am very much an introvert and always have been. Being alone doesn’t bother me at all; in fact I often prefer it. Although I’m not overly shy, I intensely dislike large get-togethers. For me it’s always a case of, “Okay we made an appearance. Now how soon can we get out of here.” I think that, for me, it’s similar to boredom rather than being uncomfortable or feeling inadequate. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with preferring one’s own company to that of a room full of people.

  7. Thanks for reminding us about another reason why socializing is important. We hope to move out of state after retirement and one thing that will be on the list of things to do, is to make new friends. This article reinforces the importance of mingling with people, I think especially as we age and just want to stay home. Thank you for listening to your readers.
    Let me add. My husband and one daughter are introverts too(as I read in other comments on this post) and I am now more sensitive to my husband not liking large gatherings of people he does not know (like work parties). So yes, we will stick to smaller groups and we will hopefully meet some nice people along the way.

  8. I did up my protein (by about 10-15g/day, from food) in response to one of your posts; I also switched to doing my pushups/pullups/squats slowly, to failure, after one of your posts. I am gaining muscle mass faster, but I have no idea which of these are responsible, or if both are. I’m just happy it’s happening.

  9. That was all the motivation I needed to get out there and be with people this week … great post as always!

  10. Off topic, but mark I think it would be great to have primal meals available on Deliveroo and UberEATS. It would cost much less than opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant and it may have more impact. This would be great!!

  11. Love the part about socializing and neuroplasticity. One of the biggest challenges I’ve experienced recently has been being more authentic and connecting more with others in a deep way. Even though it is all emotional, it’s still nothing more than chemicals in the brain (as with anything) so it’s an incredible psychological / biochemical mix going on.

  12. Love seeing so much neuroplasticity discussion on MDA!

    An excellent book is Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself. But really, there are so many good ones out there. Neuroplasticity may seem “cutting edge” in conventional circles…but has made its way into mainstream neuroscience. And it of course aligns perfectly with paleo-primal discussion of gene expression.

    One of the main supports for neuroplasticity is living in a stimulating environment, so for sure socialization can be part of that!

  13. This is just another study done with poor programming of scientific methodology, contrasting innumerable studies showing higher protein consumption (more so than this), results is more mTOR, and consequentially, muscle hypertrophic accretion, as well as strength, endurance, and power.

    ‘During the warm-up (10 to 15 min before the beginning of each training session) and 1 h after the end of the training session, the subjects received 250 mL of a beverage containing 15–20 grams of protein, for a daily amount of 30–40 grams or a placebo. The amino acid composition of the protein supplement was as follows (for 10 grams): leucine (1.12 g)’

    This describes the high protein intervention was ingested in essentially a split before and after the RT, and therefore the aminoacidemia and MPS could have given virtually no benefit over the NP group, assuming they had a meal within 1-2hrs before and 1-2hrs after the RT. Research shows MPS has a capped turnover rate and returns to baseline after 2-3hrs even in the presence of still-elevated aminoacidemia. This is not to mention the fact that their definition of HP in this study was only of 30-40 grams above the non-supplemented group. Moreover, exactly how can one be satisfactorily confident in scientific research that relies on humans to eat as directed, and take their food diary entries as sound evidence that they are following the strict guidelines set, which if not followed, completely nullify the entire purpose of the research question asked?

    As a perfectionist, I love the knowledge that science isn’t magic, and therefore has absolute answers, and searching for those makes life interesting. Conversely, our capability to find these absolute answers is extremely limited presently, in numerous fields of research, and the flood of contradictory research is daunting.