Are you feeling a little less pumped after your workouts? It could be because of cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and it can have an impact on the way your body's muscle fibers break down and rebuild during your workouts.
In fact, cortisol not only impairs the recovery of muscle tissue following your workout but can have far-reaching implications on everything from your energy levels, to testosterone levels, motivation and drive.
But not to worry- we have got you covered. The goal is to manage cortisol, not shut it down completely, since it has important roles too.
What Exactly Is Cortisol?
Cortisol is one of the most essential hormones in the body- make no mistake about that. It is synthesized by the adrenal glands from cholesterol, and usually secreted under conditions of "stress". Stress is quite a subjective word, but in terms of cortisol, it refers to both of a physical and mental/psychological origin.
This means that if you're faced with a real life or death scenario, such as being held at gunpoint, the release of this hormone goes through the roof. However, just feeling mentally overwhelmed can also increase its secretion, which is not ideal but nevertheless what we are exposed to quite often nowadays.
The Positive Roles of Cortisol/ Benefits Of Cortisol
Cortisol is not all bad. In fact, far from it. Take away cortisol, and you are unlikely to survive to the end of the week. In case you're wondering, here are some if its vital, yet underrated positive roles in the body.
Cortisol Increases Energy Levels In Response To Stressors
At its core, cortisol is all about survival. Never was this more obvious than to prehistoric man. Food shortages were common, especially during the ice age. as a result, extended periods of time without food were frequent, necessitating the need for survival mechanisms. One way cortisol helped man to survive was via the process of gluconeogenesis after fat stores would have been exhausted(1).
The body would turn to stored protein, in the form of muscle, and break it down to provide the energy needed to power the brain and other vital organs. This process is facilitated by cortisol.
Cortisol plays a supporting role on improving digestion, especially as a result of diminished stomach acid and reduced gastrin supply. Gastrin is a hormone whose function is to increase secretion of hydrochloric acid in the stomach. Cortisol can help maintain this response even when calories are scarce (as digestion is impaired in a malnourished state).
The Impact Of Chronically Elevated Cortisol Levels On Health
Stress Affects Your Recovery Time And Makes You More Susceptible To Injury
You have probably heard many times before that cortisol weakens the body, but you've probably never understood exactly why this happens. In a nutshell, cortisol works as a powerful anti-inflammatory agent.
This means that the normal levels of increased inflammatory processes after your workout are impaired, leading to compromised recovery. You can reasonably understand why this is a bad thing, as improper recovery leads to suboptimal repair of muscle and supporting structures. This is one of the primary reasons why it is not a good idea to use over-the-counter NSAIDs to treat post workout pain and discomfort.
It Impairs Your Immune System
Stress is one of the key triggers of the immune system. While cortisol is known as the stress hormone, it is not this which actually causes stress – it is merely secreted in response to stress. However, by decreasing the impact of this stress mediated inflammation, appropriate measures are not initiated.
For instance, cortisol diminishes the effect of several immune specific mediators(2), including histamine, interleukins, natural killer cells, T cells and interferons. By inhibiting the actions of these immune mediators, it is much more difficult for the immune system to take care of foreign bodies.
Difficulty Gaining Muscle
While stress is the necessary trigger by which muscle building is ignited, on the flip side, stress also triggers cortisol release. Testosterone, one of the body's primary anabolic hormone is said to possess a relationship that is negatively inverse with cortisol.
What this means is that as cortisol levels increase, testosterone levels are reduced. This is why it is very important to try to keep stress levels under control if you're serious about bodybuilding or gaining more lean muscle.
Stress Makes You Crave Junk Food
Did you ever notice that when you are stressed you tend to eat more? Yes, it's true, cortisol is associated with increased appetite and cravings for sugary food, primary drivers of weight gain.
Cortisol binds to receptors in the hypothalamus that can cause an individual to crave food that is high in fat and carbs. In addition to this, other hormones associated with appetite such as leptin and corticotropin releasing hormone are also elevated.
Cortisol Can Disrupt Your Metabolism
Cortisol can affect your metabolism in several ways, ranging from diminished insulin secretion and promoting insulin resistance- which will lead to greater levels of circulating blood sugar and the body signaling that it needs more sugar to do its job.
Then there is the fact that it reduces the absorption of calcium leading to possible deficiency, reduces collagen synthesis ( leading to joint problems), and it may also act as a diuretic which increases potassium excretion.
Potassium excretion can cause an imbalance and lead to excessive sodium retention which is very bad for blood pressure.
Common Cortisol Raising Triggers
If you work out frequently, you need enough carbohydrates to support healthy testosterone levels. Although this statement might sound controversial, the findings from multiple studies suggest it is true.
Strangely enough, the exact mechanism behind this phenomenon has not been proposed, but it is believed to be associated with cortisol. People who routinely consume a lower carb diet have an associated testosterone level that is lower, with cortisol being higher.
Elevated cortisol levels are also indicative of training stress, which is also why low-carb diets tend to encounter great difficulty maintaining workout intensity. Even well-meaning ketone bodies produced by the liver are not sufficient to ameliorate these energy deficits.
- Physical- exercise, fights
- Mental- anger, fear, anxiety
While living in the tropics may seem like a dream come true, you also run the risk of being exposed to chronically higher temperature-mediated stress. As temperature increases, so too do cortisol levels.
This might help shed some light on why cooler climates, or just cold showers are so effective for productivity and enhancing hormonal balance. The cold triggers the release of endorphins; feel-good chemicals that actively oppose the detrimental effects of cortisol.
What You Can Do To Control Cortisol
Restrict Exercise Sessions To 60 Minutes Or Less
Many people are under the impression that working out more equates to greater progress. While it is important to maintain a moderate intensity and tempo while working out, doing so for a longer period of time is not better(3).
This is especially true when talking about high-intensity sessions. But this is not the exception – as even moderate to low intensity cardiovascular exercise done for periods of time exceeding one hour yield a disproportionate increase in cortisol levels over baseline. This is not good, as it tends to prolong recovery time, impair muscle growth and can harm your immune system, among other things.
Glycogen levels are depleted during the initial one hour as well, lending credence to the theory that lower glucose is associated with increased cortisol levels.
Limit Caffeine Intake
Ah coffee, Everyone's favorite pick me up beverage in the morning. However, what if your world was turned upside down when we tell you that the morning might not be the best time to have that cup of Joe?
Yes, turns out you might be better off having your caffeine fix later in the afternoon when cortisol and other stimulatory neurotransmitter levels drop.
Cortisol naturally peaks between 6 and 8 AM every day, so having your coffee at this time is actually counterproductive and only seeks to elevate this hormone even more.
In contrast, when taken in the afternoon, that extra spike of cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine release from the adrenal glands can help you get more done. In general though – you should not overdo the daily caffeine. Try to have no more than two servings daily, equivalent to a maximum of 400 mg caffeine.
Stress and sleep seem to exist on opposite sides of the spectrum, don't they? When you're stressed, you can't seem to sleep; but when you sleep, you feel less stressed. This is why establishing an effective evening routine is so important.
Sleep has a restorative effect, increasing the production of testosterone, growth hormone, and initiating repair. Cortisol levels are also reduced during this phase, along with resting heart beat and metabolic rate.
meditation is one of the most important practices to get control of the psychological aspect of stress. While it might be easier to control the physical side, many people struggle from mental overwhelm. If this feels like you, then meditation is just the thing.
Simple mindfulness techniques can go a far way; reaffirmation and gratitude can help you appreciate that things aren't as dire as you might feel in the moment.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids Can Help
Omega-3 fatty acids, primarily obtained from cold water fish or via fish oil supplements, have the beneficial effect of mitigating increases in cortisol levels. The omega-3 fatty acids belong to the class of polyunsaturated fats which are strongly anti-inflammatory. The reduction in inflammatory mediators means that cortisol does not have to be recruited as often.
In addition to this, the reduction in stress also means that HPA (hypothalamic pituitary-adrenal axis) dysregulation is less likely to occur.
11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase 1 is an enzyme found in the human body that catalyzes the conversion of cortisone into its active form cortisol. By actively inhibiting this enzyme, you reduce cortisol levels. One of the best examples of this class of enzyme inhibitors? Turmeric (or rather, it's active constituent curcumin).
This role of curcumin is said to be invaluable to reversal of metabolic syndrome which is in large part mediated by cortisol.
Dark chocolate is well established to be better for your health than milk chocolate, but exactly how much? Well, enough to actually benefit your health! Dark chocolate, which is composed of over 70% cacao, is rich in a flavonoid known as epicatechin. This compound exerts strong anti-catabolic (RE: anti-cortisol) action, helping stimulate muscle growth and blunting post-workout pain.
This is definitely one of the healthiest treats you can indulge in while adhering to a healthy lifestyle, so no need to avoid rich dark chocolate (free of preservatives, of course).
A diet that contains enough of the essential macronutrients in carbohydrates and proteins help to keep cortisol levels within an accepted range. Pre-and post-workout nutrition consisting of a fast digesting protein source such as why is also very helpful in ameliorating the rise in workout associated cortisol.
The adaptogens ginseng and ashwagandha have gained immense favor in fitness circles over the past decade, and for good reason. Not only are they believed to be "energetics"- compounds that boost energy levels, but they are also amongst the best compounds on earth for reducing the negative impact of cortisol on the body.
A high stress burden, and associated cortisol elevation, can take a toll on the body in multiple ways. From diminished testosterone levels and fertility, to depression and demotivation, cortisol is a wonderful servant but a horrible master.
The adaptogens make the body more tolerant of stresses, in turn limiting the excessive secretion of cortisol by the adrenal glands. They work equally against physical and mental stress, and increase work capacity even against underlying high stress states.
There are many other nutrients that play a supporting role in regulating cortisol synthesis or expression, including the critical trace minerals zinc and magnesium, along with the B vitamins.
These nutrients also support optimal testosterone synthesis, which in itself has a controlling effect on cortisol.
Cortisol in an unavoidable part of life. It can have an adverse impact on your bodybuilding goals if you let it. With proper nutrition, a sound workout plan and good lifestyle habits, it's nothing to lose sleep over.
Follow some of our advice above- your longevity in fitness will thank you.
(1) Thau L, Gandhi J, Sharma S. Physiology, Cortisol. [Updated 2021 Sep 6]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538239/
(2)Morey JN, Boggero IA, Scott AB, Segerstrom SC. Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function. Curr Opin Psychol. 2015;5:13-17. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.03.007
(3)Budde H, Machado S, Ribeiro P, Wegner M. The cortisol response to exercise in young adults. Front Behav Neurosci. 2015;9:13. Published 2015 Feb 3. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2015.00013