Cortisol

I would like to talk a little bit today about hormones and one particular hormone…

Lets start by understanding what hormones are exactly! Most people are aware of them during puberty and then (barring child birth and the menopause) forget about them and their effects. They are a chemical substance produced by your body that controls and regulates the activity of certain cells and organs. As a result, anyone wishing to lose body fat or gain muscle mass should be paying attention to their hormones and their effects.

Introduce our Dr Evil for today’s blog…

CORTISOL! Lets start by saying that Cortisol is an essential hormone in your body and we aren’t trying to remove it, just reduce the excess production of it, but there are a few dangers linked with excess production:

  • Reduced levels of growth hormone and testosterone
  • Increased risk of osteoporosis
  • Reduced muscle and increased abdominal fat levels
  • Impaired immunity
  • Reduced glucose utilisation
  • Impaired memory and learning

So why have I chosen to talk about this particular hormone? What exactly does it do? And why is that so bad? Well Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released by the adrenal gland under high levels of mental and physical stress and high temperature, of which it’s three main functions are:

  • The reduction of protein synthesis
  • The facilitation of protein to glucose
  • The halting of tissue growth

So with that said, a higher level of excess Cortisol in your body is going to inhibit your ability to build muscle and/or burn body fat, particularly around your waist.

How does this affect you as a client wanting to gain muscle or lose body fat then? Well let’s say your goal is fat loss, but you’re only going to the gym first thing in the morning. Cortisol is usually released first thing in the morning, and your then putting your body under extra physical stress by doing HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) first thing in the morning, maybe on an empty stomach? You’re going to be increasing your Cortisol levels and adding to your excess levels and therefore (because you will struggle to maintain/build muscle mass) lowering your metabolism which will inhibit your ability to lose weight (particularly fat loss). Alternatively you may be in a high power/pressured job, and under higher levels of emotional stress. This will still increase your Cortisol levels, so should you be trying to increase your muscle mass then it will therefore be harder due to higher levels in your body (halting tissue growth and protein synthesis).

So what can we do to try to limit the amount of excess Cortisol our body is producing?

  1. Exercise – Ok ok ok, so I am now going to contradict myself, but the correct exercises and particularly for the correct durations will increase your endorphin release and should balance any creation of Cortisol. Aerobic sessions should be between 30-45minutes long (excluded warm up and warm down) and weight sessions no more than 45 minutes.
  2. Nutrition – Try to control Cortisol release by eating first thing in the morning. Not only will you not be training on an empty stomach and entering a catabolic state, but the effect of insulin on Cortisol is greatly diminished in the morning and so by directly initiating a release by eating you negate this.
  3. Stress Management – So it wouldn’t be possible for me to sit here and say “If you have a stressful job then quit” (as much as I would love that!) so we have to try to manage the levels you are at. Try to make sure you take breaks where possible, potentially getting out your place of work on a lunch break for a short walk, or doing another job for 10-15 minutes every couple of hours. Also try to create time/opportunities for other hobbies that you find relaxing.
  4. Glutamine supplements – Cortisol breaks down muscle to obtain blood glutamine so introducing this supplement may reduce this effect.
  5. Sleep – At your deepest sleep Cortisol release is at its lowest levels so try to achieve multiple deep sleep cycles each night.
  6. Caffeine – Caffeine is a stimulant, and as such as little as 2-3 cups of caffeinated drink can stimulate Cortisol release.
  7. Vitamin C increase – intaking as little as just 3g on Vitamin C per day can lower Cortisol levels.