Stressed? What You Need to Know About Cortisol
All About Cortisol
What is cortisol? Cortisol is a very important hormone that is involved in many critical body functions. Cortisol is a produced by your adrenal glands. It falls into a category of hormones known as “glucocorticoids,” referring to their ability to increase blood glucose levels. Cortisol is the primary glucocorticoid.
Cortisol is a stress hormone. Your body is supposed to produce cortisol in the morning and then the production of cortisol is supposed to wane throughout the day.
Cortisol and Stress
We also produce cortisol in response to stress – physical, mental and emotional. Stress can be more than just regular stress as we know it such as job pressures or a fight with your spouse. It can also include extremely low calorie diets, intense training, high volume training, lack of quality sleep or being caught in a traffic jam. Trauma, injury and surgery are also major stressors to the body (Note: much of the research done on cortisol and stress has been done on recovering patients, and such findings may not carry over to healthy, athletic populations).
Cortisol is part of the fight or flight response. Faced with a “life or death” situation, cortisol increases the flow of glucose (as well as protein and fat) out of your tissues and into the bloodstream in order to increase energy and physical readiness to handle the stressful situation or threat.
The problem is that many people are under chronic stress and are therefore pumping out too much cortisol on a daily basis which can be incredibly damaging to your system.
So what is a normal level of cortisol?
Cortisol levels are higher in adults than children and levels fluctuate throughout each 24 hour period, so tests must account for the time of day. Cortisol concentrations are highest shortly after waking around 6 – 8 a.m. and they are also elevated after exercise (a normal part of your body’s response to exercise).
You can try getting your cortisol level tested if you choose to. The most common methods of testing is a blood, saliva and 24 hour urine tests.
If you are under chronic stress or if you are exhausted all the time, then yes, it is a good idea. Also, for serious competitive athletes, it may be worth it to have cortisol tests done on a regular basis. Some strength and conditioning coaches insist on it.
If you cannot get your coritsol tested for time or money reasons, a great resource is Dr. Alan Christianson’s symptoms assessment is a great place to get a general idea of how you are doing. See AdrenalQuiz.com for his quiz. You can also see the assessment in his book, The Adrenal Reset Diet. This can give you a good indication of what is going on without the labwork.
Cortisol and Abdominal Obesity
Yes, there is a relation between these twp. There is a link between high cortisol levels and storage of body fat, particularly “visceral” abdominal body fat (also known as intra-abdominal fat).
Visceral fat is stored deeper in the abdominal cavity and around the internal organs, whereas “regular” fat is stored below the skin (known as subcutaneous fat).
Visceral fat is particularly unhealthy because it is a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes.
Cortisol is Not Bad for You!
Excessive cortisol is not good. But cortisol is not inherently bad; it’s a vitally important hormone and part of your body’s natural stress response.
Cortisol is a hormone that is essential for life as part of our natural stress response. There are many hormones in our bodies, which in the proper amounts, maintain good health, but in excess or in deficiency, have negative effects or even contribute to health problems or diseases. Cortisol is no different. You want to maintain a healthy, normal level of cortisol, not suppress your cortisol to nothing or allow it to remain elevated.
Chronically elevated cortisol levels may have a variety of negative effects. Cortisol is catabolic and elevated cortisol levels can cause the loss of muscle tissue by facilitating the process of converting lean tissue into glucose. An excess of cortisol can also lead to a decrease in insulin sensitivity, increased insulin resistance, reduced kidney function, hypertension, suppressed immune function, reduced growth hormone levels, and reduced connective tissue strength. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol can also decrease strength and performance in athletes.
What to Do If You Have a Lot of Stress in Your Life
It makes sense to take steps to reduce stress in your life and lessen the impact of stressors that cannot be avoided. Trying to avoid stress completely is not possible, nor is it desirable. Stress is an important part of life because you can’t achieve positive adaptations and growth without stress to trigger them. It’s continuous stress that you want to avoid. It’s okay to expose yourself to stress, provided there is a sufficient period of rest afterwards so you can fully recover.
One of the best ways to keep cortisol in the normal range is to reduce stress and allow time for recovery and renewal. There are effective and natural means of reducing stress that don’t cost a penny, including getting out in nature, deep breathing, enhancing sleep quality, relaxation exercises, meditation and visualization-guided imagery. It’s important to develop a calm mind and sense of tranquility. For more details, See The Adrenal Reset Diet mentioned above.
How to Balance Your Cortisol Levels Naturally
Tips/ Information on What to Do About High Cortisol Levels:
- Avoid very low calorie diets, especially for prolonged periods of time. Low calorie dieting is a major stress to the body. Low calorie diets increase cortisol while decreasing testosterone.
- Use stress reduction techniques (stress, anger, anxiety, and fear can raise cortisol).
- Avoid continuous stress. Stress is an important part of growth. It’s when you remain under constant stress without periods of recovery that you begin breaking down.
- Avoid overtraining by keeping workouts intense but brief (cortisol rises sharply after 45-60 min of strength training).
- Get plenty of quality sleep (sleep deprivation, as a stressor, can raise cortisol).
- Avoid or minimize use of caffeine.
- Limit alcohol.
- Stay well hydrated (at least one study has suggested that dehydration may raise cortisol).
- Carb cycle per The Adrenal Reset Diet.