- When Is The Best Time of Day to Exercise?
- Cortisol: The “All Natural” Caffeine
- Adenosine Makes Muscles and Motivation Wimpy
- The Melatonin and Core Body Temperature Balance
- Your Ideal Exercise Time
- by Rob Suchet, head coach at RJS Fitness
- The Stress Response to Training
- Thermogenic effect of training
- Increased GLUT4 expression after training
- What to do if I have no choice but to train in the evening?
- The Link Between Cortisol and Exercise
- How Exercise Affects Your Cortisol Levels
- Symptoms and Side Effects of Cortisol Imbalance
- What to Do If You Think Your Cortisol Levels Are Off
- How Long Until Your Cortisol Levels Return to Normal?
- Understanding the stress response
- Chronic activation of this survival mechanism impairs health
- Sounding the alarm
- Techniques to counter chronic stress
- Cortisol Test
- What is a cortisol test?
- What is it used for?
- Why do I need a cortisol test?
- What happens during a cortisol test?
- Will I need to do anything to prepare for the test?
- Are there any risks to the test?
- What do the results mean?
- Is there anything else I need to know about a cortisol test?
- What exactly is cortisol?
- The relationship between exercise and cortisol
- High cortisol levels don’t have to mean the end of your fitness routine
- Optimizing cortisol for exercise and recovery
- What are the functions of cortisol?
- Where is cortisol produced?
- How is cortisol produced?
- Cortisol and your circadian rhythm
- Cortisol and exercise
- What are the effects of high cortisol levels / sensitivity in the long term?
- What are the effects of low cortisol levels / sensitivity in the long term?
- Lifestyle factors
- All About Cortisol
- What is cortisol?
- Why is cortisol so important?
- What you should know
- For extra credit
- Summary and recommendations
- Eat, move, and live… better.©
- Cortisol, stress and exercise
- What does cortisol do?
- Exercise, stress and your cortisol levels
- Does Exercise Lower or Raise Cortisol Levels
- Control Your Cortisol: A Leading Muscle-Science Expert’s How-To Guide
- There’s growing interest in cortisol, namely in how to control it when you train very hard and frequently. But aren’t there some good aspects to cortisol?
- Most serious athletes across sports train twice a day. For instance, swimmers train for hours, both morning and afternoon. How do they manage cortisol?
- Do some people release and produce more cortisol than others? And is it an advantage or disadvantage?
- Cardio is thought to result in tons of cortisol circulating in the body. Is that true? Or is weight training “worse?”
- From a hormonal point of view, what’s the best time to do cardio and weights?
- What do you think about cortisol testing? Pros and cons?
- What supplements help with cortisol control? And do they really work?
- Can you combine Relora and phosphatidylserine, or is that too much?
- What are signs of excessive cortisol production?
- What are the signs of inadequate cortisol production?
- What is the relation between cortisol and testosterone levels?
- I’ve read that unfit people tend to release more cortisol than the fit. True, and if so, why?
- On a final note, which weight training style is better for muscle growth and reduced cortisol production: low reps, more rest, and heavy OR more sets, moderate intensity a la volume?
- Cortisol Levels And Cardio: What Endurance Athletes Need To Know
- How Cortisol Levels Effect Runners, Cyclists, OCR, And Other Endurance Athletes.
- What Is Cortisol And What Roles Does It Play In The Bodies Of Endurance Athletes?
- What Happens To Cortisol Levels During Endurance Exercise?
- What Causes Chronically Elevated Cortisol Levels?
- What Happens When Cortisol Levels Remain Elevated in Endurance Athletes?
- What Can You Do To Avoid High Cortisol Levels?
- Do Any Supplements Help With Cortisol Control?
When Is The Best Time of Day to Exercise?
Because of artificial light, easy access to food and high levels of stress, we can override natural circadian rhythm quite easily. Here are a handful of hormones and processes to keep in mind when attempting to identify your ideal time of day to exercise.
Cortisol: The “All Natural” Caffeine
Cortisol is called the stress hormone, but is only problematic when it’s too high or low at the wrong time. In an ideal circadian rhythm, cortisol rises in the morning and remains level throughout the day to support alertness and energy.
Because cortisol is like caffeine and is ideally rising in the morning, you may not need both. In fact, caffeine could suppress cortisol, making it tough to feel awake without caffeine. Consider performing your workout in the morning before you consume caffeine. Even if you still need or want caffeine later, you’ve given your body a natural chance at producing its own state of wakefulness.
“The research is all over the map on the best time to exercise, mainly because research is looking at all different types of benefits from stress management to weight loss and body composition,” says Bronwyn Bacon, N.D. of Elevate Health in Bozeman, Mont. “For example, with weight loss I have seen evidence that supports morning exercise being best, whereas I’ve seen research that suggests afternoon workouts are best for building muscle mass. For this reason, I think it’s hard to pin down a specific time that is ‘best.’ In the end, we are far too sedentary of a society and we are overworked, so I think it’s good to get exercise in when you can based on your schedule.”
Adenosine Makes Muscles and Motivation Wimpy
When you are awake, the sleep hormone adenosine gradually inhibits the neurons in the brain and facilitates tiredness by the end of the day. In a normal circadian rhythm, adenosine is lowest in the morning and increases as the day goes on, while cortisol levels decline.
When you sleep, adenosine breaks down. When you drink caffeine, you feel less sleepy because caffeine inhibits adenosine binding by occupying the same receptors in the brain. Too much caffeine can disrupt sleep and recovery from exercise. Not getting enough sleep at night alters circadian rhythm. Suppressing adenosine with caffeine to counteract lack of sleep seems to work well in the short term, but chronic sleep deprivation has long-term health consequences.
In the afternoon, adenosine is high and cortisol is dropping. Some people feel less energetic for this reason and might benefit from gentle exercise, meditation or a nap. Other individuals might find a moderate or vigorous workout helps them finish the day strong. If you feel completely wiped out in the afternoon, you should consult with your doctor because it could be a sign of underlying health issues.
“Some people have an afternoon slump due to recent high stress or depression,” says Dr. Bacon. For these people, exercise could be excellent to boost energy. In contrast, someone who is having chronically low cortisol from long-term stress would do better with rest and meditation. An ‘afternoon slump’ could suggest an abnormal dip in cortisol, but it can also be due to many other things, such as high stress levels or poor eating choices.”
The Melatonin and Core Body Temperature Balance
Melatonin, the sleep hormone, is strongest when you are on a regular sleep rhythm and experience consistent exposure to light. Aim to wake up within 15-20 minutes of the same time every morning, even on weekends. In an apparently healthy individual, this habit helps maintain a regular rhythm for cortisol, adenosine and melatonin.
Conversely, you can give yourself a chronic feeling of jet lag with irregular sleep habits. Without energy and motivation, exercise is less likely to happen no matter what time of day you choose to work out.
In addition, melatonin and core body temperature (CBT) have an inverse relationship. As melatonin elevates with darkness, CBT decreases; as CBT rises in the morning and lightness increases, melatonin decreases. Exercise causes CBT to elevate and then drop several hours later, which is why you shouldn’t exercise too close to bedtime. High CBT could suppress melatonin and inhibit sleep. The amount of time to exercise before bedtime varies between individuals, but three to six hours is appropriate for most people.
“Some research studies show that morning exercise influences higher levels of melatonin at night,” explains Dr. Bacon, “especially if you exercise outside in the daylight.”
Your Ideal Exercise Time
It seems that morning is an idyllic time of day to exercise, but the best way to find out is to set a strong foundation for exercise and then experiment to find what works for you. Exercise at the same time each day for at least a week and record how you feel (mentally and physically) and how well you sleep. Exercise should feel good, elevate energy and be enjoyable if you are working out an the appropriate intensity and choosing a modality that suits you.
Learn more about hormones and exercise here.
by Rob Suchet, head coach at RJS Fitness
I am frequently asked when is the best time to train? so I thought I’d write a short blog to help answer the question…
Firstly I should start by saying that for many people the opportunity to pick-and-choose when they train is very limited by their work, family commitments etc. but for those who are able to choose when they train, there are a number of scientific reasons why I advise that it’s always better to train in the morning than later in the day or evening.
The Stress Response to Training
This is the most important reason why I advise people to train in the morning. Cortisol is an important hormone (similar to adrenaline) which is produced by our adrenal glands in response to environmental stress. It is an important hormone which helps us get through stressful situations in everyday life and in a healthy individual cortisol is naturally highest in the morning; in fact it rises gradually throughout the night until it wakes us. During the day cortisol levels should reduce untilwe’re ready to go to sleep again (look at the green zone on the graph below, which represents a normal daily cortisol curve). Exercise is a stressor on your body: when you exercise your adrenal glands release extra cortisol, increasing your performance in the gym. By training in the morning you will capitalise on the fact that your cortisol levels are elevated already and there’s plenty of time left for them to normalise before you go to bed, but if you train later in the day or evening, your natural cortisol rhythm may be disrupted, making it difficult to reach the deep, restorative level of sleep which is essential for your tissues to re-grow and repair, let-a-lone the other important functions that only occur when the body is in a state of deep rest (liver detoxification, cancer cell destruction). We use London-based laboratory Genova Diagnostics for our clients’ Comprehensive Adrenal Stress Profile tests which are a very useful tool for analysing your current cortisol patterns, allowing us to tailor lifestyle, nutrition and supplements programmes to their specific needs.
Thermogenic effect of training
Another reason why it’s best to train in the morning is that exercise raises your core body temperature and boosts your metabolism for several hours after you finish training (high intensity training has a much greater effect than steady-state cardio here too). During this time your body will be using more energy and the body will choose to use fat as the preferred source of fuel, unless you’re eating lots of sugars and starches which will spoil this fat-burning bonus! Therefore there’s a metabolic advantage to be had from getting your training done before midday.
Increased GLUT4 expression after training
This is where it gets a bit sciency, but this is another important reason why I advise people who want to burn fat to train in the morning. We have GLUT4 receptors on the outside of all of our muscle cells which helping regulate blood sugar by carrying it across the cell membrane and into our muscle cells rather than allowing it to be converted into triglycerides and stored in adipose (fat) cells. After high intensity exercise (or weight training) the expression of GLUT4 receptors can be higher than at other times, therefore we can take advantage of this by exercising before a meal or even better in the morning.
What to do if I have no choice but to train in the evening?
If you can only train in the evening here are a few tips to prevent excessive increases in cortisol. Firstly, keep your training session short and sharp, lasting no longer than 45mins. Next, keep your work intervals intense (heavy) but short (i.e. 10-20secs, avoiding the excess accumulation of lactic acid) and allow sufficient recovery between sets or intervals to feel almost ready to go again (up to 2mins). Long sets and short rest intervals, while very effective for fat burning due to high levels of growth hormone production, cause lactic acid accumulation and become increasingly painful – this level of discomfort places increased stress on the adrenal glands and subsequent increase in circulating cortisol. Finally, and it probably doesn’t need to be said, but train as early as possible, allowing maximum time between finishing your training and going to bed.
So, train in the mornings to optimise stress hormones, improve insulin sensitivity/blood sugar balance and to burn more fat all day long!
Gregory D. Cartee and Katsuhiko Funai Exercise and Insulin: Convergence or Divergence at AS160 and TBC1D1? Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2009 October; 37(4): 188–195.
For more information about the issues raised in this blog or our unique approach to personal training, visit rjsfitness.co.uk or call us at the studio in Bath on 01225 571255.
The Link Between Cortisol and Exercise
Flash-forward to the 21st century, and we may not be facing the “stress” of lions, tigers, and bears (oh my), but we’re experiencing other (and way more) stressors that cause a cortisol response in the body.
“In general, modern stress is a different beast compared to the type and amount of stress the body has evolved to deal with,” says Molloy. Nowadays, people are almost always under stress at work, he says, and then there’s all the “little” stressors of everyday life like a passive-aggressive slack message, an ex watching your IG story, a troll on Twitter, an email with no exclamation marks, train delays, traffic, etc. that also cause a cortisol response in the body.
Unfortunately, “our bodies haven’t evolved or adapted to the amount of stress we’re constantly throwing at them,” says Dr. Christofides. “So our stress response is constantly telling our systems that we’re under attack, even when that ‘attack’ is just the go-go-go pace of everyday life.” (Related: This Is Your Brain On Stress). And over time, “this can cause your cortisol levels to get out of whack,” says Molloy. And that’s when cortisol can become a problem. (See More: Chronic Stress Can Shorten Your Life Span)
For example, you might have a natural cortisol increase before a CrossFit competition or work presentation. Again, this is still a typically good thing because a brief spike in cortisol is associated with benefits such as improved memory and a higher pain threshold.
But because most people are experiencing more instances of stress more frequently than ever before, “sometimes your cortisol levels get out of whack,” says Molloy. And that’s when cortisol can become a problem. (See More: Chronic Stress Can Shorten Your Life Span)
Sometimes wonky cortisol levels are caused by a nodule in the adrenal gland, triggering it to make too much cortisol (known as Cushing syndrome), or adrenal gland making too little cortisol (known either as adrenal insufficiency or Addison’s Disease), adds Nolte. But these aren’t the cortisol issues most people are facing. Typically, the issue is excess stress.
How Exercise Affects Your Cortisol Levels
Remember how Malloy said that a stress responses can be triggered by emotional, mental, or physical stimuli? Well, if you’ve ever been through a break-up, gotten in a fight with your Mom, or had an unreasonable school or work deadline, you probably understand emotional and mental stress. But do you know what counts physical stress? It can be anything from a muscle tear after a soccer game or an injury after a car accident to general fatigue, dehydration/malnutrition, or exercise, according to Dr. Christofides. Yep, exercise causes physical stress.
Don’t read it wrong: Exercise isn’t bad! What is bad is the high-stress culture. And if you’re under a lot of mental/emotional stress, exercising can sometimes help because it forces your cortisol levels to spike, which can then lead cortisol levels to stabilize, explains Dr. Christofides. What comes up, must come down, right? Well, it doesn’t always work like that.
Sometimes, exercise exacerbates pre-existing cortisol imbalances, she says. “Because exercise yields the body’s stress response, when cortisol levels aren’t in homeostasis, it can cause cortisol levels to just remain high,” she says. This is especially likely if you exercise at the end of the day, for a long period of time, or at uber-high intensities. (See: Is Your Really Intense Workout Making You Sick?)
“If you work out at the end of the day when your cortisol levels are supposed to be on the decline, it can cause your cortisol levels to deviate from their circadian rhythm,” says Molloy. Usually, it’s a short-term deviation and your cortisol levels return to normal. But exercising at night can exacerbate preexisting cortisol issues, he explains. (That’s why exercising in the morning can be part of the solution, but more on that below).
The population most at risk for cortisol imbalances are endurance exercisers, according to Dr. Christofides. That’s because endurance exercise increases the amount of time your body is under physical stress, according to a study on the topic published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. If you’re biking or running for two to three hours a day a few times a week, that’s a lot of time with elevated cortisol levels, she says. So for people who already (‘already’ being the key word here!) have messed up cortisol levels, due to a really stressful out-of-the-gym life or a preexisting condition, endurance training can exacerbate the issue. While this shouldn’t scare you out of training for a marathon, it should encourage you to prioritize your emotional health, mental health, and recovery during training. (See: How I Learned to Love Rest Days).
Molloy says he also sees cortisol problems in communities of people who consistently perform strenuous workouts such as HIIT and CrossFit. “If you’re going through a break-up, divorce, or crunch-time at work, you probably don’t want to be doing a workout that’s landing you flat on your back,” he says. That’s because, during these high-stress periods, your cortisol levels are already way up. So if a workout is leaving you flat, it probably spiked your cortisol levels even higher. Doing a workout that’s going to majorly spike your cortisol levels when you’re at a high-stress period of life is like trying to put out a fire with fuel—it makes the situation worse.
Symptoms and Side Effects of Cortisol Imbalance
If you love your current workout routine, the thought of dialing it back may sound counterintuitive, but “the cost of working out at 100 percent when your mental and emotional stress levels are at 100 percent is compromised muscle mass, strength plateaus, weight gain, and generalized exhaustion,” says Molloy of the side effects of cortisol imbalance.
There are other non-exercise related symptoms, too—most of which are similar to the symptoms of overtraining syndrome. Some other symptoms of a cortisol imbalance are:
Depressive or anxious thoughts
Short-term memory issues
Lack of menstrual cycle
Because the whole endocrine system is interconnected, this is just the tip of the iceberg, says Len Lopez D.C., a chiropractor and fitness expert. For example, “your body needs progesterone to make cortisol. When there’s an overproduction of cortisol, it can cause an imbalance in your progesterone and estrogen levels, which can lead to estrogen dominance,” he says. (That in itself can lead to a number of other health issues such as obesity, cardiometabolic diseases, and even cancer.)
It’s also worth mentioning that mental health issues like anxiety and depression have a direct relationship with cortisol. Some studies have linked heightened cortisol levels with mental health issues, while others have found that chronically elevated cortisol levels increase your risk for mental illness in the future.
Because, again, cortisol touches every single system in the body, chronically elevated cortisol levels can lead to other scary health issues such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
What to Do If You Think Your Cortisol Levels Are Off
If you think you’re experiencing a cortisol imbalance, it’s a good idea to chat with an endocrinologist. If that’s indeed the case, there’s good news: You probably don’t have to stop working out completely. Instead, you may have to make some adjustments to both to your gym and out-of-the-gym routines.
For starters, try going to the gym in the morning. This will align your exercise-induced cortisol surge with the surge that happens naturally, explains Dr. Christofides. “Just don’t go to the gym in the morning in place of sleeping a full seven to eight hours. That’s the number one way to make this worse,” she says.
If you’re an ultra-marathoner or self-identified Cardio Bunny, you may need to schedule in an off-season where you’re *not* logging too many miles. Or, you may simply need to incorporate more low-intensity weight training or yoga into your routine.
What if high-intensity exercise is your jam? Good news: “I would never say to stop doing CrossFit or HIIT,” says Adam Splaver, M.D., cardiologist (and passionate CrossFitter) with The Doctor’s Dr. This kind of exercise is tremendously beneficial, he adds. (FYI: Check out more on the health benefits of CrossFit and the health benefits of high-intensity interval training.)
The trick isn’t to cancel your box or HIIT studio membership, but rather to go less often or work out at a lesser intensity. Molloy is a fan of the former: “If you’re stressed, try performing these workouts at 70-85 percent of your max intensity.” (Related: How Much HIIT Is Too Much?)
Of course, “it’s almost impossible to prescribe an exact workout regime that would reduce the risk of this because it’s so individual,” says Dr. Splaver. What’s important, he says, is to tune into (and then listen to) your body.
From there, a few lifestyle changes can go a long way in balancing your cortisol levels:
Sleeping a full 7 to 8 hours a night
Fueling properly (and eating enough)
Smoking and drinking less (or not at all)
Taking adaptogens (specifically ashwagandha and astragalus)
Going to therapy
Spending more time with friends
“It’s amazing what a difference journaling for three minutes before bed can do for your overall stress levels,” says Molloy. (See more: All The Ways Journal Could Make Your Life Better)
How Long Until Your Cortisol Levels Return to Normal?
“You can see some real differences within one or two weeks,” says Molloy. “But it all comes down to how out-of-whack your cortisol levels are and how much you’re able to change your lifestyle to address them.” And of course, continuing to manage your stress levels is key to keeping them from spiking too high again, he says.
If you think your cortisol levels are doing something wonky, head to your healthcare provider to chat about solutions. And even if you’re not convinced your cortisol levels are off, your health and wellness routine could probably benefit from the aforementioned lifestyle changes.
- By Gabrielle Kassel
Understanding the stress response
Chronic activation of this survival mechanism impairs health
Updated: May 1, 2018Published: March, 2011
A stressful situation — whether something environmental, such as a looming work deadline, or psychological, such as persistent worry about losing a job — can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated physiological changes. A stressful incident can make the heart pound and breathing quicken. Muscles tense and beads of sweat appear.
This combination of reactions to stress is also known as the “fight-or-flight” response because it evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling people and other mammals to react quickly to life-threatening situations. The carefully orchestrated yet near-instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses helps someone to fight the threat off or flee to safety. Unfortunately, the body can also overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as traffic jams, work pressure, and family difficulties.
Over the years, researchers have learned not only how and why these reactions occur, but have also gained insight into the long-term effects chronic stress has on physical and psychological health. Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. Research suggests that chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction. More preliminary research suggests that chronic stress may also contribute to obesity, both through direct mechanisms (causing people to eat more) or indirectly (decreasing sleep and exercise).
Sounding the alarm
The stress response begins in the brain (see illustration). When someone confronts an oncoming car or other danger, the eyes or ears (or both) send the information to the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing. The amygdala interprets the images and sounds. When it perceives danger, it instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus.
When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.
The hypothalamus is a bit like a command center. This area of the brain communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, which controls such involuntary body functions as breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and the dilation or constriction of key blood vessels and small airways in the lungs called bronchioles. The autonomic nervous system has two components, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal in a car. It triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers. The parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake. It promotes the “rest and digest” response that calms the body down after the danger has passed.
After the amygdala sends a distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream. As epinephrine circulates through the body, it brings on a number of physiological changes. The heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Pulse rate and blood pressure go up. The person undergoing these changes also starts to breathe more rapidly. Small airways in the lungs open wide. This way, the lungs can take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. Extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. Meanwhile, epinephrine triggers the release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats from temporary storage sites in the body. These nutrients flood into the bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body.
All of these changes happen so quickly that people aren’t aware of them. In fact, the wiring is so efficient that the amygdala and hypothalamus start this cascade even before the brain’s visual centers have had a chance to fully process what is happening. That’s why people are able to jump out of the path of an oncoming car even before they think about what they are doing.
As the initial surge of epinephrine subsides, the hypothalamus activates the second component of the stress response system — known as the HPA axis. This network consists of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands.
The HPA axis relies on a series of hormonal signals to keep the sympathetic nervous system — the “gas pedal” — pressed down. If the brain continues to perceive something as dangerous, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which travels to the pituitary gland, triggering the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This hormone travels to the adrenal glands, prompting them to release cortisol. The body thus stays revved up and on high alert. When the threat passes, cortisol levels fall. The parasympathetic nervous system — the “brake” — then dampens the stress response.
Techniques to counter chronic stress
Many people are unable to find a way to put the brakes on stress. Chronic low-level stress keeps the HPA axis activated, much like a motor that is idling too high for too long. After a while, this has an effect on the body that contributes to the health problems associated with chronic stress.
Persistent epinephrine surges can damage blood vessels and arteries, increasing blood pressure and raising risk of heart attacks or strokes. Elevated cortisol levels create physiological changes that help to replenish the body’s energy stores that are depleted during the stress response. But they inadvertently contribute to the buildup of fat tissue and to weight gain. For example, cortisol increases appetite, so that people will want to eat more to obtain extra energy. It also increases storage of unused nutrients as fat.
Fortunately, people can learn techniques to counter the stress response.
Relaxation response. Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, has devoted much of his career to learning how people can counter the stress response by using a combination of approaches that elicit the relaxation response. These include deep abdominal breathing, focus on a soothing word (such as peace or calm), visualization of tranquil scenes, repetitive prayer, yoga, and tai chi.
Most of the research using objective measures to evaluate how effective the relaxation response is at countering chronic stress have been conducted in people with hypertension and other forms of heart disease. Those results suggest the technique may be worth trying — although for most people it is not a cure-all. For example, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital conducted a double-blind, randomized controlled trial of 122 patients with hypertension, ages 55 and older, in which half were assigned to relaxation response training and the other half to a control group that received information about blood pressure control. After eight weeks, 34 of the people who practiced the relaxation response — a little more than half — had achieved a systolic blood pressure reduction of more than 5 mm Hg, and were therefore eligible for the next phase of the study, in which they could reduce levels of blood pressure medication they were taking. During that second phase, 50% were able to eliminate at least one blood pressure medication — significantly more than in the control group, where only 19% eliminated their medication.
Physical activity. People can use exercise to stifle the buildup of stress in several ways. Exercise, such as taking a brisk walk shortly after feeling stressed, not only deepens breathing but also helps relieve muscle tension. Movement therapies such as yoga, tai chi, and qi gong combine fluid movements with deep breathing and mental focus, all of which can induce calm.
Social support. Confidants, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, relatives, spouses, and companions all provide a life-enhancing social net — and may increase longevity. It’s not clear why, but the buffering theory holds that people who enjoy close relationships with family and friends receive emotional support that indirectly helps to sustain them at times of chronic stress and crisis.
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
What is a cortisol test?
Cortisol is a hormone that affects almost every organ and tissue in your body. It plays an important role in helping you to:
- Respond to stress
- Fight infection
- Regulate blood sugar
- Maintain blood pressure
- Regulate metabolism, the process of how your body uses food and energy
Cortisol is made by your adrenal glands, two small glands located above the kidneys. A cortisol test measures the level of cortisol in your blood, urine, or saliva. Blood tests are the most common way of measuring cortisol. If your cortisol levels are too high or too low, it may mean you have a disorder of your adrenal glands. These disorders can be serious if not treated.
Other names: urinary cortisol, salivary cortisol, free cortisol, dexamethasone suppression test, DST, ACTH stimulation test, blood cortisol, plasma cortisol, plasma
What is it used for?
A cortisol test is used to help diagnose disorders of the adrenal gland. These include Cushing’s syndrome, a condition that causes your body to make too much cortisol, and Addison disease, a condition in which your body doesn’t make enough cortisol.
Why do I need a cortisol test?
You may need a cortisol test if you have symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome or Addison disease.
Symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome include:
- Obesity, especially in the torso
- High blood pressure
- High blood sugar
- Purple streaks on the stomach
- Skin that bruises easily
- Muscle weakness
- Women may have irregular menstrual periods and excess hair on the face
Symptoms of Addison disease include:
- Weight loss
- Muscle weakness
- Abdominal pain
- Dark patches of skin
- Low blood pressure
- Nausea and vomiting
- Decreased body hair
You may also need a cortisol test if you have symptoms of an adrenal crisis, a life-threatening condition that can happen when your cortisol levels are extremely low. Symptoms of an adrenal crisis include:
- Very low blood pressure
- Severe vomiting
- Severe diarrhea
- Sudden and severe pain in the abdomen, lower back, and legs
- Loss of consciousness
What happens during a cortisol test?
A cortisol test is usually in the form of a blood test. During a blood test, a health care professional will take a blood sample from a vein in your arm, using a small needle. After the needle is inserted, a small amount of blood will be collected into a test tube or vial. You may feel a little sting when the needle goes in or out. This usually takes less than five minutes.
Because cortisol levels change throughout the day, the timing of a cortisol test is important. A cortisol blood test is usually done twice a day–once in the morning when cortisol levels are at their highest, and again around 4 p.m., when levels are much lower.
Cortisol may also be measured in a urine or saliva test. For a cortisol urine test, your health care provider may ask you to collect all urine during a 24-hour period. This is called a “24-hour urine sample test.” It is used because cortisol levels vary throughout the day. For this test, your health care provider or a laboratory professional will give you a container to collect your urine and instructions on how to collect and store your samples. A 24-hour urine sample test usually includes the following steps:
- Empty your bladder in the morning and flush that urine away. Record the time.
- For the next 24 hours, save all your urine passed in the container provided.
- Store your urine container in the refrigerator or a cooler with ice.
- Return the sample container to your health provider’s office or the laboratory as instructed.
A cortisol saliva test is usually done at home, late at night, when cortisol levels are lower. Your health care provider will recommend or provide you with a kit for this test. The kit will likely include a swab to collect your sample and a container to store it. Steps usually include the following:
- Do not eat, drink, or brush your teeth for 15-30 minutes before the test.
- Collect the sample between 11 p.m. and midnight, or as instructed by your provider.
- Put the swab into your mouth.
- Roll the swab in your mouth for about 2 minutes so it can get covered in saliva.
- Don’t touch the tip of the swab with your fingers.
- Put the swab into the container within the kit and return it to your provider as instructed.
Will I need to do anything to prepare for the test?
Stress can raise your cortisol levels, so you may need to rest before your test. A blood test will require you to schedule two appointments at different times of the day. Twenty-four hour urine and saliva tests are done at home. Be sure to follow all the instructions given by your provider.
Are there any risks to the test?
There is very little risk to having a blood test. You may have slight pain or bruising at the spot where the needle was put in, but most symptoms go away quickly. There are no known risks to a urine or saliva test.
What do the results mean?
High levels of cortisol may mean you have Cushing’s syndrome, while low levels may mean you have Addison disease or another type of adrenal disease. If your cortisol results are not normal, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a medical condition needing treatment. Other factors, including infection, stress, and pregnancy can affect your results. Birth control pills and other medicines can also affect your cortisol levels. To learn what your results mean, talk to your health care provider.
Is there anything else I need to know about a cortisol test?
If your cortisol levels are not normal, your health care provider will likely order more tests before making a diagnosis. These tests may include additional blood and urine tests and imaging tests, such as CT (computerized tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans, which allow your provider to look at your adrenal and pituitary glands.
“Dude, I think something is out of whack with my hormones,” I tell my workout buddy, as I walk towards my CrossFit box for the second time in one day. Some time in the last three months—after I’d left my 9-to-5 cubicle for the much-more-flexible schedule of a WFH writer—I’d gotten into the habit of working out twice a day.
I’d do my Olympic weightlifting or a “Workout of the Day” (WOD) in the morning, and then take a 7 p.m. CrossFit class at night. My body was definitely sore, but two-a-days were my time to socialize. After all, who needs coworkers when you’ve got workout buddies?
All was well until a subtle shift started happening inside my body. I felt off. Even after 8 or 9 hours of sleep, I’d wake up wiped and craving coffee. Workouts that usually left me glowing, instead turned me into a washed-up blob on the floor. I phoned a doctor friend, who suspected that all the high-intensity exercise was messing with my cortisol—you know, that pesky stress hormone—levels. She was right. Here’s the low-down on the hormone, how exercise impacts it, and what to do if flare-ups leave you feeling…off.
Photo: Stocksy/Rob and Julia Campbell
What exactly is cortisol?
Cortisol is in charge of regulating changes in the body that happen in response to anxiety and tension, and it plays a role in managing our bodies fight-or-flight response. “Cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands, which are little glands on top of your kidneys that look like hats,” says Kecia Gaither, MD, MPH, FACOG. “Your cortisol levels naturally rise and fall throughout the day. For most people, cortisol spikes in the morning when you first wake up, lulls in the afternoon, and may spike again in the late evening.” You know that feeling you describe as a “second wind”? That’s your cortisol cycle talking.
When your hormonal levels are balanced, you feel calm and collected, alert, and in stasis. “When they’re out of balance, you might experience fatigue, insomnia, irregular periods, increased appetite, problems with blood sugar regulation, weight gain, increased inflammation, and decreased libido,” says Robin Berzin, MD, founder and CEO of Parsley Health.
“It can also cause a generalized sense of burnout, digestive issues, and migraines,” adds behavioral health therapist, Danielle Swimm, MA, LCPC, who says if you feel like any of these symptoms are familiar to you, to consider seeking advice from a healthcare professional.
The relationship between exercise and cortisol
So what in the heck does all of this have to do with fitness? “When you do really high intensity exercise or endurance exercise, your body releases cortisol in response to the stress,” she says. In fact, research suggests that moderate to high-intensity exercise may increase cortisol. Generally, that increase is seen as acute—meaning it won’t have long-term effects. “But if you’re doing intense workouts more than once a day and several days a week, your cortisol levels will stay elevated,” says Dr. Berzin.
In the short term, Gaither says a tell-tale symptom is slowed recovery between sets and increased resting heart rate. In the long term, however, these consistently elevated cortisol levels can lead to the health woes that you likely work out to avoid: blood pressure, diabetes, weight gain, osteoporosis, and even impaired fertility. “If cortisol levels are chronically high, it can increase hormones like testosterone and subsequently estrogen, while also decreasing hormones like progesterone. Which can cause disruptions in the menstrual cycle and acne,” says Dr. Berzin. This leads to what’s referred to as the “female athlete triad“—a combination between irregular or absent periods, low bone mineral density, and not a lick of energy.
Photo: Stocksy/ Lumina
High cortisol levels don’t have to mean the end of your fitness routine
So let’s get right down to it. Does that mean that if you have high cortisol levels you have to stop working out all together? No. “The solution is to adjust your workouts. So instead of doing daily high intensity workouts, incorporate yoga and gentle exercise,” says Suzie Welsh RN, an adjunct professor at Villanova University’s School of Nursing and founder of BINTO. “Exercise is obviously a very good-for-you thing if done at the right intensity, and the right amount. The goal is find balance in both your workout routine and your cortisol levels.”
Once I ID-ed the route of my blah-ness, my cortisol levels didn’t automatically return to normal. It took a while. For over a month I committed to healing my body: I went to sleep at 10 each night and let myself sleep until 7 or 8 in the morning. I quit chugging coffee as soon as I woke up (turns out: that can also throw off hormones). I started taking rhodiola which is thought to help the body cope with stress. And most importantly: I incorporated restorative exercise like yoga and RomWOD into my fitness schedule.
I also took a serious look at why I was going to the gym so often. Turns out sometimes it was because I was just bored of working from home, or craving mid-day human interaction. I started scheduling two to three lunch dates a week, and surrounding myself with fellow WFHers in the afternoon, which is the time when I frequently start to feel isolated. I even started making plans to hang with my fit-fam outside of the gym (gasp!). Eventually, everything fell into equilibrium. Once or twice a week, I still work out twice a day, but I workout smarter than ever before. And that’s a win in my book.
Prepare yourself before hitting an intense class: Take this test to gauge your fitness level, and master proper form for these four common exercises.
Optimizing cortisol for exercise and recovery
You may have heard of cortisol before – it’s the body’s ‘stress hormone’.
When we are subject to physical (e.g. exercise, injury, temperature extremes) or psychological (e.g. stressful life events) stressors, our bodies release cortisol as part of our stress or ‘fight-or-flight’ response.
During this stress response, cortisol regulates glucose metabolism, reduces inflammation and regulates blood pressure.
Like testosterone, estrogen and aldosterone, cortisol is an example of a steroid hormone. It is derived from cholesterol and acts on steroid receptors deep within cells.
We can further classify cortisol as a glucocorticoid hormone.
Glucocorticoids are a type of steroid hormone that enter inside cells and bind to glucocorticoid receptors (GRs). This then causes various genes to be switched on or off. Specifically, cortisol switches on the manufacture of anti-inflammatory proteins but switches off the production of pro-inflammatory proteins.
- Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone and underlies our fight or flight response.
- Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone.
- Cortisol exerts its effects by binding to glucocorticoid receptors (GRs).
What are the functions of cortisol?
In times of physical or psychological stress, we need to ensure our brain, muscles and other tissues have an adequate supply of glucose for energy.
For example, if we encountered a dangerous animal, our brain requires glucose to remain vigilant of the threat. Similarly, our skeletal muscles may need an immediate supply of glucose to fend off the animal (a ‘fight response’) or to help us run away (a ‘flight response),
In this respect, one of cortisol’s principal functions is to stimulate the production of glucose by the liver, thereby increasing blood glucose levels and maintaining a rich energy supply for tissues.
– Increase in blood glucose levels
Cortisol stimulates a process called gluconeogenesis – the production of glucose in the liver from the breakdown products of protein and fat.
When cortisol is released, it stimulates the breakdown of protein in muscle. This causes a release of amino acids (the building blocks of protein), which are then converted by the liver into glucose. This newly produced glucose is subsequently released into the bloodstream to supply various tissues.
Cortisol also acts on fat stores in adipose tissue where it enhances the breakdown of triglycerides into fatty acids and glycerol. These fat metabolites are also converted into glucose in the liver and released into the bloodstream.
In concert with its effects on the liver, cortisol also acts on the pancreas to inhibit the secretion of insulin. As you may recall from your Fasting Blood Glucose trait, insulin is the hormone that acts to lower blood glucose levels. By suppressing the effects of insulin, cortisol ensures blood glucose levels are kept high.
– Suppression of inflammation
As part of a short-term (acute) stress response, cortisol moderately suppresses the immune system and limits inflammation. This may be beneficial, as it prevents the body from wasting energy on an excessive inflammatory response.
When cortisol binds to the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) inside immune cells, the receptor moves to the nucleus and alters the way in which genes are made into proteins (a process called gene expression). More specifically, the glucocorticoid receptor switches off the production of pro-inflammatory molecules (cytokines) e.g. IL-1, TNF-a but enhances the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines e.g. IL-10.
– Regulation of blood pressure
Cortisol acts to increase blood pressure.
There are several mechanisms by which it does this. It may sensitize blood vessels to the effects of vasoconstrictor molecules such as noradrenaline. Cortisol also weakly mimics the hormone aldosterone. It therefore stimulates the reabsorption of sodium and water by the kidneys, which increases blood volume and blood pressure.
- The effects of cortisol are designed to help us escape or overcome a stressor.
- Cortisol raises levels of glucose in the blood.
- Cortisol causes the breakdown of protein and fat to produce glucose.
- Cortisol reduces inflammation.
- Cortisol increases blood pressure.
Where is cortisol produced?
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands.
Your adrenal glands, which also produce other hormones, including adrenaline and aldosterone, are key glands located just above your kidneys.
Like other hormone systems, production of cortisol is regulated by two key structures in the brain: the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland (sometimes called the ‘master gland.’).
When exposed to a stressor, your hypothalamus releases a hormone called corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH). This then acts on your pituitary gland, which secretes another hormone: adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH travels down the bloodstream to the adrenal glands, where it stimulates the production of cortisol.
This communication network between the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands is also called the HPA (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal) axis. The activity of your HPA axis influences how much cortisol you produce in response to stressful events, including exercise.
- Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands above the kidneys.
- Cortisol release is regulated by your hypothalamus and pituitary gland.
- The system of nerves, hormones and structures that regulate cortisol is called the HPA axis.
How is cortisol produced?
Cortisol is produced from cholesterol – a fat-like substance produced by the liver and also found in certain foods. A healthy amount of cholesterol in the diet is therefore needed to produce cortisol.
The biochemical pathways that convert cholesterol into cortisol are also those involved in the production of sex steroid hormones (e.g. testosterone and estrogen) and aldosterone (a hormone that regulates your fluid balance).
More specifically, cholesterol is first converted into pregnenolone. In one pathway, pregnenolone is then converted into the sex steroid hormone, progesterone. This is subsequently converted in three stages into cortisol.
- Cortisol is made from cholesterol.
- Cortisol production is related to the production of other hormones.
Cortisol and your circadian rhythm
Levels of cortisol in the blood vary throughout the day according to a 24-hour biological cycle or “circadian rhythm”.
Typically, cortisol levels are highest when we wake up, first thing in the morning. They then decrease during the remainder of the day, reaching their lowest point at nighttime. We call this pattern of hormone release diurnal variation.
The exact relationship between cortisol and the time of day also depends on your internal biological clock. This, in turn, is influenced by your genetic make-up, including genes such as your CLOCK gene.
- Cortisol levels fluctuate over a 24 hour cycle.
- Cortisol levels are highest first thing in the morning and fall throughout the day.
Cortisol and exercise
The relationship between cortisol and exercise is complex.
Generally speaking, physical exercise is a short-term stressor which temporarily increases circulating levels of cortisol.
There are good reasons for this. As mentioned earlier, cortisol helps to increase levels of blood glucose, which can then be used to supply exercising muscles.
After exercise, cortisol levels typically return to baseline. Nevertheless, adequate recovery between training sessions is required to ensure that cortisol levels are not chronically elevated over time.
Inadequate recovery can lead to symptoms of overtraining (e.g. fatigue, reduced performance).
In the short term, the amount of cortisol released in response to exercise depends on several factors, including:
- intensity of exercise
- duration of exercise
- training experience
- time of day
– Intensity of exercise
Studies suggest that more intense exercise sessions cause larger increases in cortisol levels.
Exercise at above 60% of VO2 max (maximum rate of oxygen consumption) leads to significant increases in cortisol.
By contrast, research shows that low intensity exercise at lower than 40% of VO2max, produces very minimal increases in cortisol.
The same is true of resistance training, with heavy training volumes linked to larger increases in cortisol.
– Duration of exercise
Longer-duration exercise leads to greater increases in cortisol.
Research suggests that training sessions longer than 90 – 120 minutes cause more significant rises in cortisol. In line with this, some studies have found endurance athletes to be at greater risk of chronically high cortisol levels (with inadequate recovery in between sessions).
– Training experience
Trained individuals experience lower rises in cortisol in response to exercise compared to untrained individuals.
This phenomenon likely results from adaptations to the HPA axis in response to regular exercise. On a related note, people who exercise regularly (at a healthy training volume) are shown to be at a lower risk of high cortisol levels and experience less stress.
– Time of day
As cortisol levels obey a circadian rhythm and fluctuate over a 24-hour cycle, the time of day at which you exercise influences your cortisol levels.
Generally speaking, cortisol levels are at their highest first thing in the morning on waking. Intense or long-duration exercise in the morning can therefore lead to higher levels of cortisol.
Bear in mind that the precise relationship of cortisol levels to time of day varies from person to person, dependent on your internal biological clock.
- Cortisol increases in response to exercise.
- Training intensity, duration, time of day and training experience all affect cortisol response.
- Adequate recovery is required for cortisol levels to return to baseline.
- Insufficient recovery increases risk of overtraining and fatigue.
What are the effects of high cortisol levels / sensitivity in the long term?
Cortisol is beneficial as part of a short-term response to physical or psychological stress.
The issue arises, however, when levels of cortisol are elevated for long periods or, similarly, we are excessively sensitive to the effects of cortisol in the long term. This may occur if we undergoing excessive exercise training volumes without sufficient recovery.
As cortisol is a catabolic hormone (i.e. it breaks down tissue), prolonged exposure to high levels of cortisol can lead to the breakdown of muscle tissue. This can negatively impact muscle gains and exercise performance.
Cortisol also increases blood glucose levels and inhibits insulin secretion. As explained in your Fasting Blood Glucose Trait, if your blood glucose levels are chronically raised, you are at higher risk of weight gain, Type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
As cortisol suppresses the immune system, raised cortisol in the long-term can make you more susceptible to infections. This is one reason why we are more likely to catch a cold when exposed to chronic stress.
In general, the following may be symptoms of excessively high cortisol levels / sensitivity:
- Low mood
- Fat gain, particularly around abdomen
- Difficulty concentrating
- Poor libido
- Menstrual abnormalities
- Blood sugar abnormalities
- Decreased bone mineral density
- High blood pressure
- Easy bruising/ delayed wound healing
- Muscle weakness, particularly of arms and legs
What are the effects of low cortisol levels / sensitivity in the long term?
As cortisol is essential for maintaining blood pressure, low cortisol levels/sensitivity can lead to low blood pressure.
Other effects of low cortisol may include:
- Muscle and joint pain
- Weight gain
- Poor libido
As mentioned earlier, cortisol exerts its effects in the body by binding to special receptors inside cells, called glucocorticoid receptors (GRs).
Variation in the genes encoding these receptors can affect both the function and quantity of glucocorticoid receptors. In turn, this influences how sensitive you are to cortisol.
In this respect, variations of your NR3C1 gene, which encodes a type of glucocorticoid receptor, impact your cortisol sensitivity.
Genes encoding the enzymes involved in the synthesis and signalling of cortisol are also important and accounted for by our TrueTrait algorithm.
- Variants of your Glucocorticoid Receptor (GR) genes affect your cortisol sensitivity.
Your exposure to physical and psychological stress, which triggers cortisol release, is obviously heavily dependent on your lifestyle. We may not be able to completely avoid stressful situations at the workplace, at home, in relationships etc., but there are other, perhaps more controllable, lifestyle factors that strongly influence our stress response and cortisol levels.
Skipping meals signals to our HPA axis that we are undergoing starvation (a form of physical stress), which then triggers the release of cortisol.
Specific nutrients in our diet also affect our production and response to cortisol. For more information, check out your Actions on TrueFeed.
Adequate, high-quality sleep is needed to help cortisol levels return to baseline and aid recovery. Insufficient sleep can lead to rises in cortisol levels.
Caffeine has been shown to stimulate the secretion of cortisol. Drinking caffeine while undergoing acute stress may also prolong your cortisol stress response.
All About Cortisol
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone that belongs to a family of steroid hormones known as glucocorticoids. It’s secreted by the adrenal cortex, which is located in your adrenal glands that sit atop your kidneys. Cortisol is the main glucocorticoid in humans.
Glucocorticoids affect every cell in the body so needless to say, they’re pretty important.
In particular, glucocorticoids released in the body send feedback to the brain and influence the release of CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone) and ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone). ACTH stimulates the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol. The rise in cortisol secretion follows ACTH release after a 15-minute to 30-minute delay.
Why is cortisol so important?
Cortisol accelerates the breakdown of proteins into amino acids (except in liver cells). These amino acids move out of the tissues into the blood and to liver cells, where they are changed to glucose in a process called gluconeogenesis. A prolonged high blood concentration of cortisol in the blood results in a net loss of tissue proteins and higher levels of blood glucose.
Isn’t this bad?
Well, not exactly. By raising plasma glucose levels, cortisol provides the body with the energy it requires to combat stress from trauma, illness, fright, infection, bleeding, etc.
Obviously, this is bad from a muscle breakdown perspective; however, the body is simply trying to preserve carbohydrate stores and deliver energy when it’s needed most. Acutely, cortisol also mobilizes fatty acids from fat cells and even helps to maintain blood pressure.
As it’s part of the inflammatory response, cortisol is necessary for recovery from injury. However, chronically high levels of cortisol in the blood can decrease white blood cells and antibody formation, which can lower immunity. This is the most important therapeutic property of glucocorticoids, since they can reduce the inflammatory response and this, in itself, suppresses immunity.
Thus, cortisol is:
Whether these effects are “good” or “bad” depends on whether cortisol’s release is acute (ie brief and infrequent) or chronic (ie ongoing).
What you should know
Here are the cortisol reference ranges. Notice that they depend on the mode of measurement (urine vs serum) and time of day.
Cortisol has a close relationship to exercise and training status.
For example, cortisol levels can be a sign of overtraining. To be indicative of overtraining, cortisol increases may need to be higher than 800 nmol/L.
The type of exercise regimen performed can dictate hormonal response.
Acute high intensity resistance exercise is associated with increased plasma cortisol concentration. In other words, after something like a sprint or a high-intensity conditioning or bodybuilding-style workout, plasma cortisol concentration increases. The response is similar to that seen of growth hormone. The most dramatic increases occur when rest periods are short and total volume is high.
Cortisol responses to increased training volume are variable. Response depends on specific training protocols and diurnal variations (variations over the course of the day).
Again, it is important to distinguish between acute and chronic cortisol release. When muscle glycogen concentrations are low, cortisol is released and fuel use shifts toward protein or fat so that judicious use is made of the little glucose that remains. However, in the long-term, excessive cortisol will encourage fat synthesis and storage, along with provoking appetite.
On the other hand, aerobic endurance training, particularly running, is linked with protein loss from muscle (partially induced by cortisol). Endurance trained individuals typically have a higher cortisol response, while resistance trained individuals have a higher testosterone response. Secretion of cortisol is elicited at exercise intensities between 80% and 90% of VO2 max, which means that in this case, we’re not necessarily describing recreational exercise — we’re referring to endurance training.
Time of day and time of eating
The degree of cortisol release during high intensity exercise depends in part on the time of day and the timing of meals. When exercise is performed during a time of already high cortisol levels (for example, in the morning), it doesn’t increase above already elevated levels.
Cortisol secretion displays 7 to 15 spontaneous or meal-associated “pulses” throughout the day.
Cortisol circadian rhythms are closely coupled to the sleep-wake cycle. Peak cortisol release occurs between 7 and 9 in the morning, the time of dark-light transition.
Changes in cortisol over a 24-hour period
The physiological environment
Cortisol causes atrophy in muscle (mainly fast twitch type 2) and bone. The anabolic effects of testosterone and insulin oppose cortisol’s catabolic effects.
The acute increases in cortisol following exercise also stimulate acute inflammatory response mechanisms involved with tissue remodeling. In the short term, this is a necessary response that helps with repairing damage produced by training. Only long-term cortisol elevations seem to be responsible for adverse catabolic effects.
Stress (both psychological and physical) can result in the “alarm reaction.” If stress is ongoing, this can cause enlarged adrenal glands and atrophied lymphatic organs. When adrenals enlarge, they can produce excessive cortisol; when lymphatic organs shrink, they create fewer white blood cells. The immunosuppressive effects of intense exercise have been attributed to high plasma cortisol concentrations that prevail after prolonged intense exercise.
For extra credit
- Excessive secretion of glucocorticoids produces a collection of symptoms called Cushing’s syndrome. One of the symptoms is a redistribution of body fat, known as lipodystrophy.
- Protein and carbohydrate consumption after exercise can offset the cortisol response.
- High blood levels of glucocorticoids can stimulate gastric acid and pepsin production and may exacerbate ulcers.
- Cortisol levels can be up to 50% higher in animals under stress if alone (ie socially isolated).
- Estradiol increases the binding protein for cortisol so that circumstances associated with increased (pregnancy) or decreased (exercise induced amenorrhea and menopause) estradiol alters the amount of circulating free cortisol and its actions.
- Exercising in a depleted state can result in high levels of gluconeogenesis (protein breakdown).
Summary and recommendations
- Take regular, planned breaks from intense training
- Consume enough calories from non-processed foods to prevent depletion
- Get 7-9 hours of sleep per night to decrease stress and cortisol release
- Consume carbohydrates and protein after exercise sessions
- Don’t isolate yourself – spend time with friends and family
- Regularly participate in a stress-relieving activity like mild yoga or meditation
- Avoid excessive amounts of intense aerobic endurance training (unless training for endurance event)
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Cortisol, stress and exercise
What does cortisol do?
Cortisol has a vital job as one of the body’s stress hormones, released as part of the fight-or-flight reflex. It shuts down less critical functions like reproduction and immunity to focus on fighting the immediate physical threat and breaks down tissue to provide the energy necessary.
The functions of cortisol are supposed to be immediate and short lived, enough to see off any physical challenge. This was great for cavemen fighting sabre-toothed tigers -but less ideal in modern lives when stress can be psychological and constant.
The positive role of cortisol in your body
Cortisol has a vital physiological role. By raising plasma glucose levels at times of stress, cortisol provides the body with the energy it needs to face bodily attacks from injury, illness or infection. It has potent anti-inflammatory effects easing irritation and pain.
The negative effects of too much cortisol
Too much cortisol for too long can have serious, negative effects. The tissue breakdown, reduced protein synthesis and conversion of protein to glucose can decrease musculature and increase abdominal fat, not an ideal result! It also suppresses levels of growth hormone and sex hormones, which can reduce libido and fertility. It lessens glucose usage and increases blood levels potentially predisposing to diabetes and its effects on calcium can increase osteoporosis.
So it is clear that moderating cortisol levels is important for the maintenance of our health and wellbeing.
Exercise, stress and your cortisol levels
Exercise is perceived by the body as a form of stress and stimulates the release of cortisol. In general, the more your fitness improves the better the body becomes at dealing with physical stress. This means that less cortisol will be released during exercise and also in response to emotional or psychological stresses.
However, research shows that the time and intensity of exercise can affect the level of cortisol release. When it comes to exercise, more may not be better. Training for more than 60 minutes, even at a low intensity will burn up the body’s glycogen stores and stimulate cortisol release. A study confirmed that long-term cortisol exposure was significantly higher in endurance athletes.
Short high intensity exercise such as sprints, HITT or weight training cause less of an increase in plasma cortisol concentrations. However, the levels tend to surge if rest periods are short and work levels are high. This is particularly significant if exercising when starved or nutritionally depleted and was also increased by training in the early morning when cortisol levels are naturally higher and the response to exercise can be more.
What you can do to maintain healthy cortisol levels when training
It is possible to enjoy the undeniable benefits of exercise while minimising the impact on cortisol concentrations:
- Don’t overdo it. Take regular breaks from intense training and listen to your body.
- Leave intense sessions to later in the day, when cortisol levels are lower.
- Eat right to fuel your body and make sure you consume carbohydrates and protein after exercise to decrease the cortisol response.
- Consider adaptogens to improve your body’s response to stress.
- Check out our stress-busting article (coming on Friday!) for ways to cope with life’s stresses and strains.
Does Exercise Lower or Raise Cortisol Levels
Are you stressing your clients out by altering cortisol levels during exercise? We all know that there is a sweet spot when it comes to exercise. So, is the “Stress Hormone” cortisol an athlete’s friend or foe? The answers may surprise you!
Cortisol is among the human body’s most necessary hormones. On any given day, cortisol’s primary function is to control how our body creates and utilizes energy. The mechanisms by which this regulation occurs have been studied in depth, and the quest for understanding these complex dynamics seems to be ever evolving.
Normal Up’s And Down’s
Normal levels of cortisol are essential in protecting us from everyday stress. Typically our levels of cortisol rise in the morning, providing us with sufficient energy to get our busy day started. By the end of the day, circulating cortisol falls to a mere 10% of its morning levels, enabling the body to rest and sleep.
During moments of stress, our cortisol level rises, allowing the necessary adaptation for coping with and surviving emergency situations. When the body experiences a sense of calm, such as during prayer or meditation, cortisol levels once again ease down.
In the absence of sufficient cortisol, even a situation inducing minor stress can place undue demands upon the body. For example, simply skipping one meal can lead to a full- blown hypoglycemic episode without cortisol to safely elevate the blood sugar. While each of us is naturally going to react differently to lower levels of circulating cortisol, the common denominator/end result is the reduced ability to resist stress.
The Stress Response To Exercise
When the adrenal glands are unable to launch a satisfactory stress response, the body begins to deteriorate. The more often this happens, the more the stress becomes exacerbated. This leads to greater demands upon the adrenal glands; eventually, they cease their ability to produce cortisol. Such a situation is often referred to as “a vicious cycle”, and results in complete adrenal gland exhaustion.
Cortisol has been demonstrated to align closely in relationship to exercise and training status, and overtraining in particular. Levels in excess of 800 nmol/liter are generally indicative of overtraining. High-intensity resistance/strength training, such as performing sprints or engaging in rigorous bodybuilding workouts, have been correlated with increased plasma cortisol concentrations.
The most dramatic cortisol increases seem to occur when rest periods are short and total exercise volume is high. Upon its release from the adrenal gland, cortisol functions as an anti-inflammatory and a catabolic hormone.
In an average individual, cortisol breaks down about 1% of muscle proteins daily, which are then replaced as induced by growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor. With training, cortisol breaks down an average of 3-5% of muscle proteins daily. Overtraining releases excessive amounts of cortisol, eventually catabolizing a dangerous excess of proteins.
Upon its release from the adrenal gland, cortisol functions as an anti-inflammatory and a catabolic hormone. In an average individual, cortisol breaks down about 1% of muscle proteins daily, which are then replaced as induced by growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor. With training, cortisol breaks down an average of 3-5% of muscle proteins daily.
Overtraining releases excessive amounts of cortisol, eventually catabolizing a dangerous excess of proteins.
Conversely, aerobic endurance training, most notably seen with elite runners, is linked with protein loss from muscle degradation, which is partly induced by cortisol. Endurance athletes general exhibit a higher cortisol response, while individuals who specialize in bodybuilding have a higher testosterone response. Cortisol causes atrophy predominantly in fast twitch, or type 2, muscle fibers. The anabolic effects of testosterone work directly in opposition to cortisol’s catabolic effects.
The acute increases in cortisol following exercise also stimulate the inflammatory response mechanisms involved with tissue remodeling. This is a necessary adaptation that helps to repair cell damage inflicted by intense workouts.
Research has shown that long-term cortisol elevations seem to be responsible for adverse catabolic muscular effects. Thus, reducing levels of cortisol is necessary in order for an athlete to achieve tissue growth and positive adaptations to exercise training.
Cortisol accelerates the breakdown of proteins into amino acids. These amino acids move out of the tissues and into the bloodstream. Eventually, they migrate toward cells within the liver, where they are converted to glucose in a process known as gluconeogenesis.
While a prolonged elevated blood concentration of cortisol results in a net loss of tissue proteins and higher levels of blood glucose, such elevated plasma glucose levels allow cortisol to provide the body with the energy required to combat stress from an intense workout. This delicate system of checks and balances defines cortisol’s effects on the human body’s energy system.
The Effect Of Vitamins On Cortisol
A research study done on 17 junior elite weightlifters looked at the effects of vitamin C on cortisol levels. Results demonstrated that the individuals taking 1 additional gram of vitamin C per day improved their testosterone to cortisol ratio by over 20%. Such a decrease in cortisol can lead to increased muscle and connective tissue hypertrophy as well as enhanced recovery from training. Beta-carotene, which is often used to facilitate or improve healthy skin function, may also minimize cortisol levels.
As we have learned, cortisol plays a number of important roles in our daily health. It turns on the “light switches” in the body so we can get moving in the morning. It elevates during exercise to enable us to perform at a higher level without negative interference. It also acts as a buffer to stress. Just as oil in a car engine lubricates the mechanisms, cortisol enables the human body to operate at a higher pace without dangerously “overheating”
The Role of Cortisol in Concurrent Training
Rob Robergs, Ph.D. and Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
Many exercise enthusiasts and personal training clients strive to optimize muscular fitness gains with their fitness program. However, a number of clients refrain from doing cardiorespiratory training because they have been informed that the increases in blood cortisol during aerobic exercise will increase protein catabolism, resulting in the break down, or loss, of muscle. At fitness conferences, this very topic is regularly discussed and debated by fitness professionals and personal trainers.
This evidence-based article will aim to resolve many of the confusing issues with cortisol and muscular growth by discussing the newest concepts on how hormones work, the many functions of cortisol, the association of cortisol with aerobic exercise, and the possible catabolic affect of cortisol on muscle mass and muscular strength. From this review, practical applications for the fitness professional will be imparted to share with students and clients.
How do Hormones Work In the Body?
There are two main types of hormones; amine and peptide versus steroid. The biological differences between these hormone types are caused by a combination of their chemical structure and cellular mechanism of action.
Amine and peptide hormones are comprised of one or more amino acids (building blocks of proteins). As many amino acids have small electrical charges on some of their atoms, the molecules interact well with the small charges found on water molecules, and as such, can be dissolved in water. However, since cell membranes are mainly comprised of lipids, the amine and peptide hormones cannot cross cell membranes to get inside cells. Consequently, amine and peptide hormones bind to specialized protein receptors on the outside of cell membranes. Such binding causes changes in structure and/or charge distribution within the receptor, leading to the production of specific molecules that alter cell metabolism. For example, insulin released from the pancreas binds to an insulin receptor on target cells to increase the movement of glucose transport proteins to the cell membrane, thereby increasing glucose uptake into cells.
Steroid hormones are derivatives of cholesterol that are soluble in lipid and repelled by water. This means that to be transported in blood, which is largely water, they must be connected to proteins. Steroid hormones do not need a protein to bind to on the cell membrane to influence cell function. The steroid hormones pass into and through cell membranes where intracellular proteins aid in their transport to the nucleus, where they exert their functions. Steroid hormone functions are often related to increasing or decreasing protein synthesis.
Few hormones just do one thing, and often there is a need for hormones to interact with other molecules to exert their function. This is especially true for steroid hormones. For example, testosterone stimulates increased protein synthesis, but to do this requires the presence of molecules called somatomedins (also called insulin-like growth factors), produced in working skeletal muscle. This interdependence enhances muscle hypertrophy (growth) from strength training exercises.
What are the Functions of Cortisol in the Body?
Cortisol has multiple functions, one of which is to increase amino acid supply to the liver, and thus stimulating increased protein catabolism. However, the functions of cortisol are complex and simple interpretations can be misleading. For example, cortisol, like many steroid hormones, is released in a complex manner throughout the 24-hour daily cycle, with clear alterations in release caused by eating, sleeping and exercise. As the bulk of cortisol release and presence in the blood occurs during the sleeping hours, it could be argued that the daily profile of cortisol release may be more important for overall daily hormone regulation of body metabolism rather than its response to exercise. This makes research of hormone responses to exercise very difficult, as the acute response of cortisol may be totally different to the over-night release profile, which could be when cortisol has its most marked impact on the balance between muscle protein synthesis and catabolism. This will be discussed more in the next section.
What Function Does Cortisol Play with Aerobic Exercise?
When we exercise, regardless of whether it is strength training or aerobic exercise, cortisol is released in proportion to the intensity of the effort. Thus, even when you strength train, cortisol is released, and far more so than compared to aerobic exercise! With increases in exercise intensity, other hormones also increase, such as glucagan, adrenaline, noradrenaline and growth hormone. The concentration of other hormones in the blood, such as insulin, decrease during exercise. To accurately interpret the influence of hormones on body metabolism during and in response to exercise, you need to know how all hormones that influence a given metabolic function (eg. muscle catabolism) are responding. As previously explained, for some hormones, this may also require blood samples taken throughout the 24-hour cycle.
When concerned with prolonged aerobic exercise, cortisol clearly functions to preserve body carbohydrate stores. Cortisol increases alternate fuels for muscle, such as fatty acids and amino acids (from muscle amino acid stores and protein catabolism), impairs glucose entry into skeletal muscle, and supplies the fuels (amino acids) for the liver to increase glucose production (see Figure 1). All these functions are increased during times of low body carbohydrate nutrition, such as when blood glucose falls. Thus, when doing prolonged aerobic exercise, the muscle catabolic effects of cortisol can be diminished simply by maintaining blood glucose, which in turn is best done through the ingestion of carbohydrate (liquid and/or solid). Alternatively, when aerobic exercise is performed for durations short enough to not critically lower muscle or liver glycogen (e.g. < 45 min), then the exercise-induced cortisol release will most likely be irrelevant to muscle protein balance. Also, the theoretical metabolic effects of these increases in cortisol may be overcome by simultaneous increases in growth hormone, testosterone, and muscle specific somatomedins. The net result is the preservation of muscle mass.
What Else Could Explain The Difficulty to Increase Muscle Mass When Aerobic Exercise Is Added To Resistance Training?
This is the crucial question that needs answering. The additional explanations are two-fold. First of all, aerobic exercise adds a caloric expenditure to your training that needs to be matched with proper fuel intake. If insufficient carbohydrate is being ingested, which many individuals who strength train may experience due to diets higher in protein and low in carbohydrate, then these situations are ripe for generating the low carbohydrate conditions conducive to the action of cortisol as a carbohydrate sparing, protein catabolizing hormone. The problem here is not the aerobic exercise, but the inadequate carbohydrate nutrition!
The additional explanation lies in the counterproductive effects of aerobic training on the cell stimuli for muscle strength and hypertrophy. Although scientists do not know what these stimuli are as yet, muscle strength (and hypertrophy) gains may be inhibited if strength training occurs too soon after aerobic exercise (e.g. the same day). This has nothing to do with a hormone response mechanism, although it is easy to blame cortisol. Rather, we believe that the signals given to working muscle that induce either strength vs. endurance adaptations are diluted when combining strength and endurance (aerobic) training. This is like giving the muscle mixed messages. On the one hand we are telling the muscle to build more proteins for increasing mitochondrial mass (increasing the cells organelle involved in energy production) during aerobic exercise, and then we tell the muscle not to focus on mitochondria, but to now increase muscle contractile protein synthesis during resistance exercise. No matter what the order of the training, both exercise conditions may end up with a somewhat lessened training response.
Summary and Practical Applications
Here are some take-home messages from this article. First, do not view a single hormone response in the body to be interpreted to cause a hormone-related effect. Body metabolism is the balance of multiple hormone regulation in response to varying metabolic states. Second, adding aerobic exercise to a workout routine will not appreciably affect muscle strength and/or hypertrophy as long as carbohydrate intake is adequate. However, if a client is a competitive (or aspiring) body builder or athlete trying to maximize muscle growth, then careful thought should be given on how much and when aerobic exercise is done. Finally, for so many of our clients who wish to attain changes in body composition and body weight, adding aerobic exercise to their training programs will be an essential exercise program design component. Aerobic exercise can help these clients reach their goals while at the same time experiencing the improved health benefits of a balanced (strength, endurance, flexibility, etc.) fitness status.
Robergs R.A., Roberts S.O. Exercise Physiology: Exercise, Performance and Clinical Application. Mosby, St. Louis, 1997.
Griffin J.E., Ojeda S.R. Textbook of Endocrine Physiology. Oxford University Press, New York, 1988.
Control Your Cortisol: A Leading Muscle-Science Expert’s How-To Guide
Training is my drug.
I train hard. I train heavy. I push the limits.
I work out six days a week. I work out twice a day.
All because I want to be buff and ripped.
But my training addiction has a downside. Training this often and this intensely not only appeals to my psyche, it also triggers the release of a hormone called cortisol, which is always looking for new bodies to shrink and “smoothify.” (Yes, I invented that word.)
No wonder bodybuilders tell their children bedtime stories about the horrible hormone that will come and get them if they don’t eat their spinach. Cortisol wants to break down your muscle and increase body fat, the very things that you hope to avoid.
“I train hard. I train heavy. I push the limits.”
To help you train hard and train often while escaping cortisol’s clutches, I sat down and talked to my favorite muscle-science researcher, Jerry Brainum. He was the science editor at Muscle & Fitness for 10 years, has been a contributing writer at Ironman for 25 years, and consults on nutrition with world-class elite athletes such as Floyd Mayweather.
There’s growing interest in cortisol, namely in how to control it when you train very hard and frequently. But aren’t there some good aspects to cortisol?
Yes. For one, cortisol is a primary anti-stress hormone. Without cortisol, you would go into shock and die if exposed to trauma.
Cortisol also plays an important role post-exercise, by helping to supply fat in order to power muscle-protein-synthesis reactions. So cortisol is definitely not all bad.
Most serious athletes across sports train twice a day. For instance, swimmers train for hours, both morning and afternoon. How do they manage cortisol?
Any type of intensive exercise is capable of elevating cortisol. But athletes with the highest levels are usually those who overtrain. Overtraining is a form of stress, and in response to any type of stress, cortisol release is activated.
Ultra-long-distance runners probably have the highest cortisol levels, but keep in mind that cortisol release is modified by athletic experience. Those new to exercise or sports will secrete higher amounts of cortisol than more experienced athletes. One easy way to manage cortisol is to get sufficient rest between exercise sessions, and also enough sleep.
A higher protein intake, especially branched-chain amino acids, also helps with recovery.
Do some people release and produce more cortisol than others? And is it an advantage or disadvantage?
Cortisol release is very high for those suffering from Cushing’s disease, and deficient in those with Addison’s disease. President John F. Kennedy was one of the more prominent sufferer of Addison’s. Having excess cortisol is a greater disadvantage for those seeking athletic success because of its catabolic effects.
Cardio is thought to result in tons of cortisol circulating in the body. Is that true? Or is weight training “worse?”
The effect of cardio exercise on cortisol has been greatly exaggerated. Levels begin to rise after an hour of aerobics. As for weight training, the more intense the exercise, the higher the cortisol release. But again, those more training experienced often show little or no change in cortisol. They’ve adapted.
“You’re not afraid of aerobic exercise, are you?”
From a hormonal point of view, what’s the best time to do cardio and weights?
Cortisol levels peak in the early morning, so exercising very early should result in higher cortisol output. Training in the evening produces the lowest cortisol response. But practically, it’s best to train when you most feel like it or can fit it into your schedule.
What do you think about cortisol testing? Pros and cons?
It’s a good idea for endurance athletes or those engaged in either longer workouts or who train more than once a day. The only con is the cost of the test.
What supplements help with cortisol control? And do they really work?
Phosphatidylserine has been suggested in some studies to support healthy levels of cortisol, with subjects taking 400 milligrams daily. Another supplement for this purpose is Relora, a plant extract.
Ingesting carbs during or post-workout also blunts cortisol release.
Can you combine Relora and phosphatidylserine, or is that too much?
Yes, you can mix it, but whether that would significantly increase any effect isn’t known.
What are signs of excessive cortisol production?
Water retention, bloat, excess fat in the central area (trunk) of the body, and failure to increase muscle size and strength. Cortisol promotes the release of myostatin, a protein that breaks down muscle.
Pauline doesn’t seem to have any trouble with cortisol, does she?
What are the signs of inadequate cortisol production?
What is the relation between cortisol and testosterone levels?
Cortisol has an inverse relationship with all anabolic hormones, including testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin. When cortisol is elevated, these other anabolic hormones are depressed, and vice versa.
I’ve read that unfit people tend to release more cortisol than the fit. True, and if so, why?
The enzyme that converts an inactive form of cortisol into the active form is found in fat cells. So the obese tend to produce more cortisol. Whether this perpetuates the obesity is still a matter of debate among scientists.
But there are experimental drugs that inhibit the enzyme that converts inactive cortisone into the active form, and these drugs have shown beneficial effects against obesity in preliminary animal studies. Also, those who are fit are able to handle any type of stress more effectively than those who aren’t fit.
As a result, fit people produce less cortisol even under stressful conditions.
On a final note, which weight training style is better for muscle growth and reduced cortisol production: low reps, more rest, and heavy OR more sets, moderate intensity a la volume?
Cortisol automatically goes up with both styles of training.
Cortisol Levels And Cardio: What Endurance Athletes Need To Know
EndurElite Chief Endurance Officer Matt Mosman discusses what cortisol is, the critical functions it plays in the body, what happens when cortisol levels are chronically elevated, and why this stress hormone is misunderstood by runners, cyclists, OCR, and other endurance athletes.
How Cortisol Levels Effect Runners, Cyclists, OCR, And Other Endurance Athletes.
Good morning, family of fast, Matt Mosman, the Chief Endurance Officer over at EndurElite. Today we’re gonna talk about the bad C-word, which is cortisol. Now, if you’re like a lot of people, you have been led to believe that cortisol in the body is a very, very bad thing. I’m here to tell you that it’s not as bad as you think in most situations. Now, at this point, you may be saying, “Jumping Jehoshaphat, Matt, cortisol is really not that bad?” For the most part, it is not bad unless it’s chronically elevated.
What Is Cortisol And What Roles Does It Play In The Bodies Of Endurance Athletes?
So, today what we’re gonna talk about is, we’re gonna talk about the critical roles that cortisol plays in the body. We’re gonna talk about what raises cortisol levels, and then what can happen if cortisol levels are chronically elevated and what kind of negative consequences that could have. So, simply put, cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Now, it plays a ton of different functions in the body. It helps regulate how carbs, protein, and fats are used. It helps control blood sugar. It helps reduce inflammation, which might come as a surprise for you. Assists with memory formation, regulates blood pressure, and then it also plays a part in your sleep-wake cycle. So, in the morning, cortisol levels start to raise a little bit and say, “Hey, yo, wake your ass up.”
What Happens To Cortisol Levels During Endurance Exercise?
So, those are some of the natural functions of cortisol in the body that are absolutely critical to your health. Now, let’s look at cortisol during exercise real briefly and see if that’s a cause for concern. So, as you exercise, once you get about to that hour, to an hour-and-a-half point, cortisol levels start to rise. And then when you finish, the cortisol levels won’t remain, you know, elevated for too long before they go back to baseline.
So, the natural rise in cortisol during exercise, it’s not a big deal because they do go back down to baseline afterwards. Now, there is a situation where that won’t be the case, which we’ll get to here in a second.
What Causes Chronically Elevated Cortisol Levels?
So, let’s talk about what can chronically elevate cortisol levels and the negative consequences that can have. So, culprit number one of chronically elevated cortisol levels are tearing your hair out kinda stress from all these work deadlines. Two is lack of sleep from things like your three-year-old waking you up in the middle of the night telling you that they’re hungry, which I don’t know what that’s all about. That never ever, ever happens to me. And then a third culprit of elevated cortisol levels is overtraining, overreaching and not getting enough recovery.
So, in these situations, cortisol levels, they will become chronically elevated if stress is constant, if you’re chronically sleep deprived, and as an endurance athlete we’re all a little OCD and we all have a tendency to overdo it. So, in those situations, cortisol levels can remain chronically elevated, and this is where it gets a little bit bad, or here’s what the negative consequences are of chronically elevated cortisol levels.
What Happens When Cortisol Levels Remain Elevated in Endurance Athletes?
Probably the biggest one is you just cannot feel like you can recover at all. You wake up in the morning, your muscles are sore. You have a general sense of malaise and you’re just not motivated to go out the door because your body is just hurting for certain.
A lot of people will experience unexpected weight gain, depression, problems with memory formation. Obviously, trouble sleeping, and headaches are all kind of symptoms of chronically elevated cortisol levels.
What Can You Do To Avoid High Cortisol Levels?
Now, what can you do to basically stop chronically elevated cortisol levels? Kinda trying to minimize cortisol levels, the increases after exercise, not necessarily chronically, but acutely. I mean, you wanna eat protein and carbohydrates immediately after exercise, and this will kinda help minimize the cortisol response. But back to the chronically elevated cortisol levels, I mean, it sounds really stupid and simple, but get sleep, try to minimize your stress. So things like meditation, going out for a walk. Finding a good way to de-stress is absolutely key. And then taking your recovery days, you know, if you have a hard workout, take at least one recovery day, if not more, to let your body recuperate. I mean, I always say the best judge of you know if you’re recovered is not by heart rate or all these other fancy methods, it’s just by how you feel. I think that’s the simplest way to kinda gauge, you know, if you’re recovered or not.
Do Any Supplements Help With Cortisol Control?
And then there are some supplements that may help with cortisol levels too. Off the top of my head, probably the best one is Ashwagandha, which is an adaptogen, which means it helps minimize the stress, the physical and mental stress of certain things like exercise. If you wanna try Ashwagandha, the recommended dose is about 6,000 milligrams a day, split up into three 2,000 milligram doses. So, check out Ashwagandha. I think it’s a pretty beneficial supplement. Lots of good research behind it, as far as reducing cortisol levels and kinda reducing the overall mental and physical stress of exercise and other life situations, like a stressful job or pain-in-the-ass kids, or things like that.
So that is the down and dirty on cortisol. The main point being is, cortisol really isn’t that bad when it’s produced natural in the body to do all of these different functions. When cortisol really comes in and has negative consequences is if it remains chronically elevated. So you wanna find a way to get lots of sleep, de-stress and get good recovery days. So, that is, in a nutshell, how to prevent, you know, chronically elevated cortisol levels.
So, if you have a friend who has experienced some of these negative effects of chronically elevated cortisol levels, please share this video with them. If you want other videos like this, on endurance training, nutrition, and supplementation, subscribe to the EndurElite YouTube channel or head on over to the EndurElite blog at www.endurelite.com. Get social with us on Instagram and the EndurElite Training & Nutrition Club Facebook page. And until next time, my endurance friends, stay fueled, stay focused and stay fast.