Controlling Cortisol Levels

Controlling Cortisol Levels

Increasing muscle size and reducing body fat are the Holy Grail for athletes.  The most talked about variables to achieve muscle gain and fat loss are diet and training.  Although these are probably the most important, there are many other factors at play which most people fail to recognize.  One of these factors being hormone release.

Hormone release is one factor that causes the changes in muscle density of an athlete. For example testosterone, growth hormone and amino acids are all considered anabolic because of their tissue building properties and are therefore essential in muscle building.

However, there is another hormone closely associated with muscle development, one that is much less talked about, this is the hormone called cortisol.  Cortisol is termed catabolic as it has the opposite effect to testosterone, insulin and growth hormone in that it breaks down tissue. Cortisol, which is released by the adrenal glands under situations of high mental and physical stress and high temperature, is the body's primary catabolic hormone. Its primary functions are anti-stress and anti-inflammatory, meaning that it causes the body to suppress its immune response and stop responding to a problem or pain stimulus.  

Excess cortisol is often seen as the enemy to weight training because it cause a decrease in protein synthesis.  This is because cortisol provides alternate fuels for the body when there is not enough glucose. This occurs during starvation or fasting, but also during intense exercise. Cortisol facilitates muscle breakdown so that the amino acids in muscle tissue can be used to create sugar, via gluconeogenesis.  The human body cannot afford to waste energy while under duress, so it naturally follows that if cortisol stimulates the breakdown of muscle, it would also inhibit protein synthesis.  Therefore, causing a host of negative implications including a: reduction in growth hormone and testosterone output, osteoporosis, reduced muscle and increased abdominal fat, impaired memory and learning, reduced glucose utilization and impaired immunity.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot athletes can do in terms of completely restricting cortisol release, because while problematic, it is an important hormone nevertheless.  Cortisol levels generally go up and down throughout the day, and an elevated level at any given point isn't indicative of a problem.  Cortisol levels that are variable, flexible, and responsive reflect a healthy endocrine system.  If your body was to lose the ability to respond to stressors and appropriately regulate its cortisol levels, then that would be a problem.

Some studies indicate Phosphatidylserine assists in the maintenance of healthy levels of cortisole as well as Relora, a plant extract.  Ingesting carbs during or post-workout can also minimize cortisol release.  However, the best advice is to not sweat the small stuff.  No matter how strong or fit you are, high cortisol levels induced by chronic stress can wreak havoc on your mental and physical well-being.  So next time you get stressed, take a deep breath and remember that all chaos is only temporary.