Cortisol Explained!

What is Cortisol? Cortisol is a stress hormone produced by the adrenal gland. Unlike Testosterone, Insulin and
Growth hormone, Cortisol is catabolic. Catabolism is the breakdown of tissue
and more specifically muscle.  Cortisol
also reduces protein synthesis and increases fat storage so if you have never
given a second thought to the impact Cortisol could be having on your body, you
should because as a Bodybuilder the prospect of reduced muscle gain, coupled
with muscle loss and fat gain goes against what you are trying to achieve.

Some Cortisol release is inevitable and necessary. Your body will produce Cortisol on a daily basis with
the amount varying throughout the day with the highest levels being first thing
in the morning when you wake up and the lowest between the hours of midnight and
4am. This cycle is natural and unchangeable, however, daily life can cause
Cortisol levels to be raised for either a short, or even long periods of time. It
is this excess of Cortisol that is undesirable.

We all relate Cortisol to stress, and we all relate stress with work, but there are so many other types of
stimulus that can cause stress and therefore the release of Cortisol...

Exercise and Cortisol

When you start your weight session, initially your levels of
Testosterone and Growth hormone will increase but this only occurs during the
first 45-60 minutes. After this first hour, Testosterone and Growth hormone
levels begin to FALL and Cortisol levels begin to RISE. This release of
Cortisol, due to its catabolic effects, causes the breakdown of muscle and can reverse
the anabolic effects of your training. Sometimes less is more and when it comes
to time spent in the gym, this is definitely true. Keep workouts to under an
hour by keeping the intensity high. That means keep rest periods short and
weights high.


Cardiovascular exercise also causes stress on the body which causes
Cortisol levels to rise, and even more so than weight training because cardio
does not create the same anabolic response experienced during weight training.
So unlike weight training, the outcome of cardiovascular exercise, if the only
form of exercise will be muscle loss, especially if duration is too long and
frequency high. Limit the negative effects of cardio by limiting sessions to 30
minutes and use short sprints or interval training to avoid muscle breakdown.


Nutrition and Cortisol

What and when you eat can have a huge impact on Cortisol levels. As
Cortisol levels are high first thing in the morning, it is important that you
eat breakfast to reduce catabolism that may be, or may be about to occur. Post
workout nutrition is also important as this is the time when you need to
provide your body with the nutrients it needs in order to repair and grow from
the workout you have just completed. Make sure protein and carbohydrate intake
at these times are high in order to induce the release of Insulin which is
anabolic and will numb the effects of Cortisol. Also eating 5-7 smaller meals
during the day will help keep Cortisol levels lower than eating larger meals
less frequently. Avoid drinking too much caffeine and other drinks/supplements
which contain stimulants as these may raise Cortisol levels.


Sleep and Cortisol

Referring back to your body’s natural cycle, Cortisol levels are at
their lowest and Growth hormone is at its highest during the night, but if you
are awake, this cycle is disrupted and you will not benefit from what should be
a very anabolic period. If Cortisol levels are raised due to either mental or
physical stress, it will affect both the quantity and quality of sleep. Sleep
is important for your body to repair, recover and grow. A lack of sleep can
contribute to the effects of overtraining and increase Cortisol levels further.

Make sure you get enough sleep by getting into a routine of going to
sleep at the same time and waking up at the same time every day.  Aim to get 8 hours sleep a night, but quality
is more important than quantity. If you find you are having problems either
getting to sleep, staying asleep or waking up too early, it may be because you
are deficient in Magnesium and Zinc. Magnesium is involved in 300 biochemical
reactions in the body including ATP production, protein synthesis and the
detoxification of Cortisol, and Zinc has numerous roles in the body including
the regulation of hormones so I recommend everyone takes a Magnesium and Zinc
supplement before bed to help with sleep and general wellbeing.


Fat and Cortisol

If your Cortisol levels are high, your Insulin sensitivity will be
low. This increases the likelihood of fat storage, especially around the
abdominal area, which will also increase the chances of you having a heart
attack or stroke. Take Omega-3 Fish oils to improve Insulin sensitivity which
will not only help reduce body fat and Cortisol levels, but will help you build
muscle and improve your body composition.


Other effects of Cortisol.

High Cortisol levels can have other negative effects on the body such
as increase blood pressure, lower immunity, lower bone density and increase the
rate of aging due to an increase in oxidants (the opposite of Antioxidants)
which increase inflammation and cause the damage or death of cells.


But it’s not all bad...

The release of Cortisol at certain times can have its benefits, for
example if you injure yourself, you may not feel any pain due to the release of
Cortisol and Adrenaline. It also comes in handy when you need a quick burst of
energy for survival reasons such as running away from danger (or for the bus).


To summarise, aim to do these five things to help control Cortisol

  • Keep training to under an hour and limit aerobic
  • Eat 5-7 meals a day, ensuring you eat breakfast
    and post workout.
  • Aim for 8 hours sleep a night.
  • Supplement with Magnesium, Zinc and Omega-3.
  • Set aside time to relax – read a book, go for a
    walk etc.



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