Sunday, January 26, 2014

Are High Cortisol Levels A Concern For You?

As most of us get our training routine in high gear, and start seeing great results, we tend to push ourselves even harder. While you might think the best way to break that plateau is to add an extra five sets of bench press, 20 minutes of cardio, or even a second training session in the same day, working harder, and not smarter, can come back and bite you. As you keep pushing yourself beyond your limits (especially if you’re in a caloric deficit) you begin to feel run-down, tired, and you may even have trouble sleeping. What’s going on?

Enter: Cortisol. What is cortisol? Cortisol is a hormone released from the adrenal gland in a response to physical and even mental stress.  It’s anti-inflammatory intentions means the body will begin to suppress its immune response to the stressor, and stop responding to the problem. When cortisol increases, protein synthesis decreases. Obviously this is bad when you are trying to build some muscle. Cortisol then tries to provide different fuels for the body when there’s not enough glucose. So in effect, during intense exercise when proper peri-workout nutrition and adequate rest are ignored, muscle breakdown can occur as cortisol attempts to provide the body with amino acids to be converted into glucose (Also known as Gluconeogenesis).  So cortisol sucks right? Not exactly. Without cortisol your body would go into shock when exposes to trauma.

Symptoms That Your Cortisol Levels Are Out of Control

Some signs that your cortisol is high and you may now be running on fumes include:
-       - The inability to fall asleep at night.
-       - When do you sleep well, you’re still tired when you wake up
-       - Lack of recovery between workouts
-       - Lack of feeling “refreshed”
-       - Getting sick very easily
-       - Weight gain, and noticeable fat gain in the abdomen region
-       - Anxious and depressed feeling (Because cortisol lowers serotonin production)
-       - Your sex drive is non-existent

All of these symptoms can obviously affect your performance in the gym. The inability to recover, and let your muscles fully recover between workouts, can prevent you from building strength. So not only did you not break your plateau, but now you might be moving backwards in the quest to achieve your goal.

Ways To Reduce Cortisol

Work Smarter, Not Harder
The hardest working individuals and those who are too stubborn to take a break are the ones that will usually have a cortisol problem. They bust their butts in the gym for two hours a day, and since their body is used to it, they recover just fine. As they notice a plateau or get frustrated by a lack of results or change, they add another hour of weight training.  They don’t adjust their nutrition or calorie intake, and the problem just gets worse. Individuals who are feeling tired, groggy, and can’t recover fully between workouts should look to take a 3-4 day break off from the gym. You’d be surprised how much stronger and how much more energy you’ll have in the gym in your day back.

Try to keep your workouts within 90 minutes, and if you find that you need more time, try to work with less rest. Or quit chit chatting between sets (You know who you are). Remember, you don’t grow in the gym; you grow outside the gym!

Better Sleep
Try going to bed a reasonable hour and get some good sleep in. If you still have trouble sleeping at night, you could try taking an extra nap during the day if time permits. Adequate sleep is CRUCIAL to have success in transforming your body, building muscle, and achieving your fitness goals.

Better Nutrition
Another reason why cortisol can get out of control is a lack of calories for energy. Many people don’t realize that when you’re dieting, your body is being placed under stress. It’s breaking down energy, whether it’s fat or muscle, to balance out the amount of energy to keep it going (Remember, to lose fat, your body needs to use fat stores for energy). Extremely long cardio sessions done multiple times a week, and sometimes twice daily, can be a recipe to get cortisol skyrocketing. I’ve heard of people doing an hour of cardio, then weight training, and then another hour of cardio later in the day. Then they wonder why they can’t lose that “stubborn” fat over their lower abs. When dieting, weekly or bi-weekly refeeds can help reduce cortisol levels and keep your hormones running optimally. Taking a diet break can also help breakthrough a plateau, and can recharge the batteries so to speak.

Some supplements have been shown to reduce cortisol as well. Phosphatidylserine and Rhodiola Rosea can help reduce stress and lower cortisol. Also, products such as Driven Sports' Lean Xtreme are focused predominantly on cortisol control. Supplements should not be the answer though. $30 for a supplement can easily be replaced by an extra rest day, or a better focus on your nutrition.

Peri-Workout Nutrition
Finally, a focus on peri-workout nutrition can help keep cortisol in check. Since cortisol can cause muscle breakdown to provide glucose in times of stress, pre and post workout nutrition is very important. Carbohydrates prior to exercise can help since the body will have a pool of glucose to use when trying to perform physical activity. Protein supplements can help also by preventing protein breakdown of muscle cells, by providing the body with amino acids as fuel. A whey protein shake prior to exercise can do the trick, and so can 10g of Branched Chain Amino Acids.

After your workout, your body is primed to soak up nutrients to help aid muscle recovery. It’s best, in my opinion, to have some carbohydrates and protein. The carbohydrates will help restore muscle glycogen and get insulin levels up. Protein will provide amino acids for growth and recovery, and insulin will help drive these amino acids into the muscles. If one is trying to go low carb, a whey protein shake, BCAA’s, or a protein source can suffice and be fine. Just consuming calories can help reduce cortisol and aid recovery. A reminder though, it’s total daily calories and meeting your macronutrient requirements that will influence body composition, meal timing is irrelevant to an extent.

Hopefully this article will help understand why cortisol can wreak havoc on one’s physique and stress levels. Don’t let cortisol fear you from working out two hours a day either, just make sure you get proper rest at night and proper nutrition to help your body recover and you’ll be fine. Remember, professional athletes train for 5-6 hours daily sometimes. They see ridiculous results too; mostly because of the nutritionists they have available, professional trainers, and massage therapists that can be extremely beneficial in recovery. For most, cortisol is something you’ll never have to worry about. For some of us, working harder might not be the best solution to your plateau!


  1. great article! i wrote one on cortisol a few months ago - it's an eye-opener for sure!