The Role of Glycogen in Diet and Exercise

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When your body needs energy, it can draw on its glycogen stores. The molecules, made from glucose in the food you eat, are mainly stored in your liver and muscles. From these storage sites, your body can quickly mobilize glycogen when it needs fuel.

What you eat, how often you eat, and your activity level all influence how your body stores and uses glycogen. Low-carb and ketogenic diets, as well as strenuous exercise, all deplete glycogen stores, causing the body to metabolize fat for energy.

Glycogen Production and Storage

Most of the carbohydrates we eat are converted to glucose, our main source of energy. When the body doesn't need fuel, the glucose molecules are linked together in chains of eight to 12 glucose units which form a glycogen molecule.

Triggers for This Process

  • Eating a carbohydrate-containing meal will raise your blood glucose level in response.
  • Increasing glucose signals to the pancreas to produce insulin, a hormone that helps the body's cells take up glucose from the bloodstream for energy or storage.
  • Activation from insulin causes the liver and muscle cells to produce an enzyme called glycogen synthase that links chains of glucose together.
  • Delivering glycogen molecules can to the liver, muscles, and fat cells for storage with plentiful glucose and insulin.

Most glycogen is found in the muscles and the liver. The amount of glycogen stored in these cells can vary depending on how active you are, how much energy you burn at rest, and the types of food you eat. Glycogen stored in muscle is primarily used by the muscles themselves, while those stored in the liver are distributed throughout the body—mainly to the brain and spinal cord.

Glycogen should not be confused with the hormone glucagon, which is also important in carbohydrate metabolism and blood glucose control.

How Your Body Uses Glycogen

Your body converts glucose to glycogen through a process called glycogenesis. During this process, your body breaks down glycogen in a process called glycogenolysis that the body can then use. Various enzymes help with this process.

At any given time, there is a set amount of glucose in the blood. When the level begins to decline—either because you have not eaten or are burning glucose during exercise—insulin levels will also drop.

When this happens, an enzyme called glycogen phosphorylase starts breaking glycogen down to supply the body with glucose. Glucose derived from liver glycogen becomes the body's primary energy source. Short bursts of energy use glycogen, whether that's during a sprint or lifting a heavy weight.

Your brain uses glucose for energy as well, with 20 to 25% of all glycogen going toward powering your brain. This is why you may feel mentally sluggish and experience "brain fog" when you don't consume enough carbs.

Glycogen and Diet

What you eat and how much you move around also influence glycogen production. The effects are especially acute if you're following a low-carb diet, where the primary source of glucose synthesis—carbohydrate—is suddenly restricted.

Fatigue and Mental Dullness

When first starting a low-carb diet, your body's glycogen stores can be severely depleted and you may experience symptoms like fatigue and mental dullness. Once your body adjusts and starts renewing its glycogen stores, these symptoms should begin to subside.

Water Weight

Additionally, any amount of weight loss can have the same effect on glycogen stores. Initially, you may experience a rapid drop in weight. After a period of time, your weight may plateau and possibly even increase.

The phenomenon is partly due to the composition of glycogen, which also contains water. As such, rapid depletion of glycogen at the onset of the diet triggers the loss of water weight. Over time, glycogen stores are renewed and the water weight begins to return. When this happens, weight loss may stall or plateau.

Gains experienced in the beginning come from water loss, not fat loss, and are only temporary. Fat loss can continue despite the short-term plateau effect.

Glycogen and Exercise

For endurance athletes who burn a lot of calories in a couple of hours, the amount of stored glucose can be an impediment. When these athletes run out of glycogen, their performance almost immediately begins to suffer—a state commonly described as "hitting the wall."

If you're undertaking a strenuous exercise routine, there are several strategies endurance athletes use to avoid decreased performance you may find helpful:

  • Carbo-loading: Some athletes eat excessive amounts of carbohydrates before an endurance event. While extra carbs will provide ample fuel, the method has largely fallen out of favor as it can also lead to excess water weight and digestive issues.
  • Consuming glucose gels: Energy gels containing glycogen can be consumed in advance of or as-needed during an endurance event to increase blood glucose levels.
  • Eating a low-carb ketogenic diet: Eating a diet high in fat and low in carbs can put your body in a keto-adaptative state. In this state, your body begins to access stored fat for energy and relies less on glucose as a fuel source.

A Word From Verywell

Glycogen is supplied through the carbohydrates in your diet and is used to power your brain and athletic pursuits as well as many other bodily functions. Restoring glycogen after you exercise is a vital part of the recovery process. Eating enough carbs for your goals and activity level is essential for success.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Will glycogen make you fat?

    Glycogen does not make you fat. The only thing that can increase body fat is consuming more calories than you burn while not using them to build muscle. Consuming more calories than you burn is also necessary for building muscle mass.

  • What happens when you have too much glycogen?

    Excess glycogen is stored in the liver where it may be used later for energy. Your muscles are also a storage area for glycogen. Excess glucose above this can be converted into triglycerides which are stored in your fat cells. Note that any type of excess calories, no matter which macronutrient they come from can lead to body fat gain. There is nothing inherent in carbs, glucose, or glycogen that increase your risk of gaining body fat.

  • What happens when you run out of glycogen?

    When your glycogen stores are depleted through exercise or due to not consuming enough carbs, you will feel fatigued, sluggish, and perhaps experience mood and sleep disturbances.

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Goyal MS, Raichle ME. Glucose requirements of the developing human brainJ Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2018;66(Suppl 3):S46-S49. doi: 10.1097/MPG.0000000000001875

  3. D'anci KE, Watts KL, Kanarek RB, Taylor HA. Low-carbohydrate weight-loss diets. Effects on cognition and mood. Appetite. 2009;52(1):96-103. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2008.08.009

  4. Winwood-Smith HS, Franklin CE, White CR. Low-carbohydrate diet induces metabolic depression: A possible mechanism to conserve glycogenAm J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2017;313(4):R347-R356. doi:10.1152/ajpregu.00067.2017

Additional Reading

By Laura Dolson
Laura Dolson is a health and food writer who develops low-carb and gluten-free recipes for home cooks.