As promised, my focus on hormone manipulation continues. In this article I’m going to discuss a nasty, muscle eating hormone called Cortisol. You might know Cortisol better as the “Stress Hormone”. After reading this article you should come away with a better understanding of what Cortisol is, its functions and why you should avoid allowing your body to produce copious amounts of it. In addition I’ll provide some suggestions on how to keep this hormone from standing in the way of your fitness goals.
What Is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a Glucocorticoid that is produced by the Adrendal Glands. These hormones are responsible for the regulation of glucose metabolism. As previously mentioned, Cortisol is more widely known as the “Stress Hormone”. It has earned this name because your body manufactures Cortisol in response to stress. The stress that stimulates the release of this hormone comes in the form of many things we encounter daily such as; work, kids, relationships, obligations, lack of sleep, lack of calories and yes even our precious training sessions. Truth is there is so much stress in our lives today that we don’t even realize it because we’ve become accustomed to it.
Back in the day stress wasn’t as abundant. Thousands of years ago stress came in the form of predators. The only time you were stressed was when you where running or fighting for your life. In this situation Cortisol was a life saver. Through a process called gluconeogenesis, Cortisol would provide a rush or glucose into the blood stream. Providing the energy required to escape the threat, allowing you to hunt & gather another day. This is what is referred to as the Fight or Flight response.
In our infancy as a race this hormone was crucial to our survival. Today however this Fight or Flight response to daily stress is being triggered continually. Consistently high levels of Cortisol can lead to many health problems such as:
- Low levels of Insulin, Growth Hormone & Testosterone
- Increase in Gluconeogenesis, the production of glucose by way of breaking down muscle
- High blood sugar levels which may lead to a decrease in Insulin sensitivity, possibly resulting in Diabetes
- Increased fat storage in the abdominal area which may lead to other conditions such as Heart Disease
There are many other health problems associated with high Cortisol levels, too many to list in this article without losing sight of the topic. For the sake of this article I want to focus our attention on the issues listed above, particularly gluconeogenesis.
Now gluconeogenesis isn’t what many doctors would call a health problem by normal standards, but it is a problem if you’re trying to build muscle and or burn body fat. Here’s the text book definition of the term: The synthesis of glucose from molecules that are not carbohydrates, such as amino and fatty acids.
Simply put, gluconeogenesis is the break down of both fat and muscle tissue to create the glycogen that is dumped in the blood stream to provide for the Fight or Flight response. Hopefully you can see the issue here. The breakdown of muscle is to be avoided at all costs if your trying to build it! Also, breaking down the active, calorie eating tissue that is muscle is detrimental to any weight loss efforts since muscle is one of the driving forces of or our basal metabolic rate!
Consistently high levels of Cortisol, produced because of too much stress, will result in a Catabolic state! This is why it’s important for anyone who’s trying to build muscle or burn fat, to learn how to manage and reduce Cortisol levels. With that said let’s discuss some of the changes you can begin to implement so this hormone doesn’t get in the way of your fitness goals.
If you exercise consistently then you’re already ahead of the curve when it comes to managing Cortisol levels. Studies show that unfit individuals produce more Cortisol in response to physical stress than their fit counterparts. This makes sense for the obvious reason that exercise is less stressful for those who are in shape. In addition to building a body better suited to handle stress, exercise also triggers the production and release of endorphins that reduce anxiety and depression two very powerful types of stress.
While exercise can help your body cope with stress, too much exercise can be detrimental. High intensity training sessions (is there another kind?) lasting more than an hour can stimulate the release of Cortisol. If you really get after it in the gym try to limit your workouts to around an hour, any longer and you’re going Catabolic! For the dudes who frolic in front of the mirror for two hours, don’t worry, your intensity level isn’t high enough to be perceived as stress so carry on. If you do need to go longer than an hour at a high intensity, I suggest eating before, during and immediately after your workout to blunt the release of Cortisol and minimize the damage.
By taking control of what you eat and the frequency of your meals, you can greatly reduce cortisol production and it’s negative side affects. The first suggested change to your eating habits is to eat smaller meals more often. By eating smaller meals you’re less likely to cause an inconsistency in your blood sugar levels. There are studies to support both high blood sugar levels AND low blood sugar levels contributing to the release of Cortisol.
In order to maintain reasonable Cortisol levels you will need to reduce or eliminate high glycemic carbohydrates from your diet. Eating high glycemic foods causese your blood sugar levels to spike rapidly because of how quickly these foods are digested. If you’re unable to abstain from eating these foods then at the very least try to eat them just before your workout. This way your blood sugar levels will be reduced through the activity, minimizing Cortisol production.
Focus on eating more complex carbohydrates such as Sweet Potatoes, Yams, Quionoa, Brown Rice, Oatmeal and other whole grains. Eating these foods will keep you full and provide sustained energy without added Cortisol production. Avoiding carbohydrates all together can result in higher levels of Cortisol as well, however many people (including yours truly) have had great success burning body fat while following low carb or Ketogenic diets. Perhaps Cortisol levels are higher in those who follow a low carb diet and don’t adjust their Protein and Fat intake, causing their overall caloric intake to be too low. Severe caloric restriction is perceived as stress and thus causes avoidable Cortisol production.
In addition to avoiding sugar, high fructose corn syrup and other refined, high glycemic carbohydrates you’ll also want to reduce or eliminate your consumption of caffeine. Yeah, I know, that’s a tough one, especially for a caffeine junky like myself. But if you’re serious about minimizing Cortisol production and maximizing your efforts in the gym then the sacrifice must be made! Take steps now to ween yourself off of your stimulants and find alternatives if you must. For example, you could try replacing caffeine with sleep. In addition to stimulants causing more stress to your system, caffeine is also a diuretic which can dehydrate you. Take a wild guess how you’re body perceives dehydration…yep, more stress!
This is the key to limiting Cortisol, since everything from diet to training can be considered stress. In order to have any significant affect on your Cortisol levels you need to learn to eliminate and/or manage stress. The advice outlined above will give you a great start, to further reduce the impact on stress in your life try some of the following suggestions.
- Find or make time everyday to unwind
- Consider taking a yoga class
- Go to bed early or take a nap
- Schedule a weekly or monthly massage
- Read a book
- Listen to music
- Watch a comedy
Really all you need to do is find something you enjoy that will take your mind off of life. I understand that this is difficult for most people to do but you need to figure out how to change your lifestyle in order to implement at least one method of coping with stress.
There are a lot of supplements available that claim to help with stress management or block Cortisol altogether. The list that I’ve compiled includes several of what I feel are the best supplements for this purpose. However before you run out and stock your cupboards full of these products, I would suggest following the advice outlined above. After you’ve made some lifestyle changes to reduce your stress levels, then it might be worth giving some of these supplements a try.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Ohio State reportedly studied two groups over 12 weeks. One group was given 2,500 mg of an omega-3 supplement which was equal to 4 ounces of Salmon. The other group was given a placebo. Their study showed that individuals who were given the Omega-3 supplement reduced their stress levels by up to 20 percent! Aside from this Omega-3 fatty acids provide a ton of other health benefits such as improved cardiovascular health. If you’re looking for an awesome Omega-3 supplement check out Universal Animal Omega – 30 Packs or Optimum Fish Oil Softgels – 200 Softgels. Both products are made by two of the most prominent companies in the supplement industry, check them out!
This herb is a powerful stress/Cortisol suppressant. Ashwagandha works to reduce the amount of Cortisol released by the Adrenal glands thus minimizing the affects of stress. It has been used for hundreds of years to treat anxiety, depression and arthritis. Today many cancer patients use Ashwaganda to aid in the recovery from chemotherapy. Here are a couple solid products from reputable companies. NOW Ashwagandha – 450mg/90 Vcaps & Universal Animal Cuts – 42 Packs
Another herb considered to be a powerful adaptogen, Rhodiola has been used to treat depression, increase energy, reduce body fat, improve performance and aid in recovery after exercise. In addition to all of these benefits this herb has received recognition for it’s ability to enhance ones sense of well being therefore improving mood and the users response to stressful situations or environments. I recommend trying NOW Rhodiola – 500mg/60 Vcaps click the link to get a 1-2 month supply for less than $10!
The first vitamin I would recommend to combat stress and Cortisol is vitamin C. This vitamin works to minimize stress by enhancing the immune system, thus reducing the risk of infections and illness. When you’re sick your body is stressed. So beef up your immune system and prevent potential spikes in your Cortisol levels. I like Emergen-C but here’s another stellar product NOW C-1000 – 250 Capsules.
The next vitamin is the B vitamins, specifically B6 and B12. B6 helps to maintain healthy Cortisol levels by supporting the Adrenal gland. B12 helps to reduce stress by preventing stress to the Adrenal gland, which can lead to increased (or decreased) Cortisol levels. Here is a solid Vitamin B supplement that contains plenty of B6 & B12 along with a few others NOW B-100 Caps – 250 Capsules
Calcium supplements won’t lower Cortisol, but studies indicate that low levels of Calcium cause Cortisol production. Taking this mineral or eating foods that contain it, is more of a preventative measure. There are however some reports that Calcium supplementation has a positive impact on ones mood, possibly helping them to manage stress.
Magnesium supplementation has been shown to decrease overall stress and anxiety, possibly preventing Cortisol release. In addition Magnesium plays a large role in muscle function and energy metabolism. Also,when taken with Calcium, Magnesium will increase the amount of Calcium that is absorbed, allowing the consumer to get more out of each supplement.
Zinc is another excellent mineral that has been shown to decrease Cortisol levels. In one study medical students where split into two groups. One group was given 25mg of Zinc at 7am after a 12 hour fast. Blood from both groups was drawn and tested every half hour for 4 hours. The results concluded that the group that had been given the Zinc supplement showed a reduction in their Cortisol levels of 59%! It should also be noted that the control groups showed an 18% decrease in Cortisol levels within that same time.
You can take your mineral separately or you can find a quality, all in one mineral supplement. Here’s a good one from NOW Nutrition – NOW Full Spectrum Minerals – 100 Tablets
There are a lot of other supplements, I could honestly write an entire report on them but I’m going to stop here. If you have any other supplements that you use to manage stress or reduce Cortisol, please leave a comment below as a contribution to the article.
Wrapping It Up
This article is all about reducing your stress levels to keep Cortisol levels at an appropriate level, not how to eliminate it entirely. Cause no matter how bad Cortisol can be when there’s too much of it, it’s still a necessary hormone that is responsible for many functions in the body. Cortisol is kind of like beer, too much of it is bad but a little bit is absolutely necessary.
I hope this article has answered some of your questions about Cortisol. I know I learned a lot about the topic! I’ve already started reducing my caffeine intake, ya it sucks, but hey I’m trying to get huge over here and you can’t do that in a Catabolic state! Anyways hopefully you’ll be able to apply some of these suggestions and start building that body you want. Thanks for reading and best of luck with your bodybuilding goals!