There are certain catch phrases that pop up in the health and fitness industry and certain ‘trends’ of conditions that become popular for periods of time. This can be beneficial in raising the profile of certain elemental aspects of nutrition and therapy and what we can actually control via our diet and supplementations to assist with our own health and recovery.
Cortisol has a vital role in the body as one of the body’s ‘stress hormones’. It is released from the adrenal glands into the body in the ‘fight or flight’ mode and it’s job is to prime the body for physical and mental stress and exertion. It downgrades systems such as reproduction and immune function in order to give the body the maximum amount of energy available to execute exertion (that is fighting the bear or running from the bear). Cortisol raises plasma glucose – that’s energy from the blood to be readily available for actioning muscles and vital functions. It is also present and in action when the body when it faces pathogens such as an infection.
However Cortisol can also have a negative effect on the body and when the levels are too high, it can reduce protein synthesis, decrease musculature and increase abdominal body fat. (you can see where the application to the fitness industry in heading with this). Seriously excessive levels of cortisol in the body can lead to a condition known as Cushings Syndrome. This toxic level of cortisol occurs due to prolonged exposure to excessive amounts of cortisol and creates excessive amounts of body fat, purple/pink stretch marks around the face, thin fragile skin that bruises easily as well as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
Cortisol levels are naturally higher in the morning when we wake. This is the body priming the system for action, getting us up and out of bed, getting the muscles and joints moving and active. It has a trough at 3-4am when we should be asleep and regenerating our body and letting our immune function do it’s job and repairing muscle fibres and monitoring healthy organ function. (*This is important when we discuss timing of exercise and type of exercise.)
Hypo-cortisol production can be caused from issues with Adrenal Glands or with dysfunction in the Hypothalmic-Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) Axis. This is the ‘stress response’ centre of the body. This delicate axis is important in regulating the body’s response to both physical and psychological stress. The body doesn’t differentiate between types of stress. The HPA Axis merely senses stress and it kicks in. Damage to this axis is often caused by growths on the Adrenal Glands in the form of tumours. So excessive cortisol levels may be a result of an imbalance here and should always be checked with a medical professional if excessive symptoms of cortisol consistent with excessive abdominal fat, pink/purple marks, poor tissue healing etc are present.
Cortisol is a term that has many uses in the fitness and medical industry and can be bandied about as a bit of a ‘miracle cure’ of issues such as tendinitis and chronic pain with inflammatory conditions that keep us from being active and doing that which we choose to do.
Many of us know about cortisol through it’s application to soft tissue injury rehabilitation – the ‘quick fix’ cortisone or corticosteroid injection. These shots are usually administered into joint spaces and areas that have chronic inflammation such as Plantar Fasciitis and Bursitis. Due to the nature of cortisol downgrading inflammation, it is used often when inflammatory issues are creating more harm than good. It can downgrade inflammation where it is causing problems such as with rheumatoid arthritis, providing pain relief and a reduction in inflammatory symptoms.
Usually these injections are limited to six weeks and no more than 4 – 5 per year. You want to avoid having too many shots for risk of developing excessive cortisol levels. There is also the risk that too many shots may weaken other structures such as ligaments and possibly even prevent muscular repair. Often these shots are used in conjunction with an anaesthetic and a temporary reduction in pain is often associated with the administration of the medication.
The cortisone shot is a quick hit of one element to downgrade inflammation that is chronic or not allowing an area to heal. If the inflammatory response is sustained (because we may choose to keep using or asking too much of the injury) cortisol can help to temporarily downgrade the inflammation so that healing can actually progress to the next stage. It does NOT actually heal the injury. It allows the body to activate it’s healing process’ and get healing happening.
In the ‘fitness industry’ cortisol is a foe to be reckoned with. You don’t want cortisol running around your body as it has an effect on downgrading protein synthesis and turning protein into glucose. For someone who wants to maximise their protein synthesis for muscular development whilst limiting excess fat storage – then cortisol is not your friend. Being aware of cortisol levels and how it affects you when you do exercise is important. The type of exercise that an athlete performs can also determine how much cortisol is released in our system.
Sustained endurance training will deplete glycogen stores and thus stimulate cortisol to make more glycogen available in the blood. Short and sharp bursts of exercise (such as high intensity training with regular rest periods) will cause less of a concentration of plasma cortisol in the blood. Hence going for your sustained cardio session first thing in the morning when you haven’t eaten may not be the best choice if you are looking to limit your cortisol response. (*see above) For those aiming for the glamour fitness body – this is bad news. Elevated cortisol reduces muscular protein synthesis and possibly retention of excess glycogen – no photo shoot for you.
Nutritionally, the amount of fuel available within the body also has an effect on cortisol. If you are exercising under malnutrition or without enough glycogen in the blood, your body is going to produce more cortisol to release glycogen in the blood stream so it can use it as fuel. If you enter into a training session and you haven’t ingested food or energy, you are asking for more cortisol to be released and get the necessary energy to fuel your exercise. Again, not exercising on a fuelled body can be a recipe for disaster if you are trying to monitor your cortisol levels.
It also comes down to what we eat and when that can have an effect on cortisol. Foods with a high GI rate will increase the presence of cortisol in the body. This not only includes those foods with high sugar contents but can also be certain foods high in grains or starch. Rice, potatoes and breads can be detrimental to balancing cortisol levels particularly first thing in the morning when cortisol levels are naturally high.
There are some dietary supplements out there as well that claim to ‘block cortisol’ in the system. These supplements are aiming at those wanting to ‘reduce weight and excess body fat’ by blocking cortisol release. Scientific research on the whole suggests that there is very little evidence to suggest that these products actually have any influence on cortisol levels and/or weight loss.
Chronic stress has a huge role to play in cortisol levels. When the body is stressed, it doesn’t discriminate whether this stress is emotional or physical. It just hears ‘STRESS’ and it responds in kind with elevating blood pressure, downgrading immune function, priming muscles and releasing cortisol! So high levels of sustained stress have a huge impact on cortisol levels in the body. Not resting and not managing your stress levels efficiently can create a perfect storm for excessive amounts of cortisol in your body. Think about what that means - when life is frantic and crazy and you decide to go and bash out a huge workout – you may be doing more harm than good!
So if you are getting on the cortisol band wagon and worried about it from an exercise and nutritional perspective, or whether you genuinely have issues with the excessive release of cortisol from your adrenal glands or Hypothalmic-Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) Axis, be sure to understand how you can manage your own lifestyle to best deal with excessive cortisol in the system. Diet factors, stress management, timing and types of exercise all have a role to play in making sure we keep cortisol at a ‘healthy’ balance in our system.