The Good And The Bad Of Cortisol

If you’ve done any research on hormones chances are you’ve heard about the hormone cortisol and all of its negative effects on the body. Cortisol is a steroid hormone, but it’s a catabolic hormone in your body and is largely responsible for the breakdown of muscle-protein to be used for energy and it also has the knack to store fat when levels are too high. Cortisol reduces the ability for our muscles to recover and interferes with nutrient transport. Bottom line is cortisol is not something we want much of and the more of it we have the more problems we have physiologically.

If you remember part 1 and part 2 of my exercise-induced hormones series you’ll hopefully remember that when it comes to hormones more generally associated with anabolism like testosterone short term spikes around and during training had no impact on muscle-protein synthesis or hypertrophy and rather it was more about your overall levels and long term elevation of these hormones that made the real difference. So here we are again, we know cortisol is bad, but is it that important to avoid raising cortisol levels surrounding training or is it similar where it doesn’t really make a difference in short terms spikes and is more about long term releases? That’s what we are here to find out today.

The first thing we need to establish are some of the things that influence cortisol levels:

1. Sleep – Getting enough sleep is very important as lack of sleep increases cortisol levels.

2. Stress – You may have heard of cortisol referred to as the “stress hormone” and for good reason. When you are dealing with a lot of stress your cortisol levels go through the roof.

3. Diet – A diet high in processed foods and fast-digesting carbs, alcohol, and caffeine have been shown to increase cortisol levels.

4. Restricting calories – Research out of the University of California showed restricting calories below 1200 calories per day in women increased the total output of cortisol.

5. Training – Yes training itself actually increases cortisol.

6. Water and fish oil – Research has shown proper hydration and supplementing with 2,000 mg’s of fish oil per day can lower cortisol levels.

Certainly doing all these things is very important for overall health and keeping cortisol levels low. However, since the main point of this article is to find out if increasing cortisol levels around training is a major concern, there isn’t much on that list we need to address. We know we should get good sleep, reduce stress and eat a healthy diet. This is nothing new to any of us. So what does that leave us with? In terms of training it’s diet, mostly caffeine, and training itself.

Caffeine can be a good source of energy to get you through a workout and has also been shown to help raise your metabolic rate. Caffeine does, however, increase cortisol levels so the question becomes does the good outweigh the bad? Cortisol is not an acute response hormone, meaning you need a longer elevation for it to make much of a difference. A single short spike of cortisol is not going to do much of anything. I don’t see any reason to avoid caffeine around training to keep cortisol levels low. Really if there was ever a time of day I’d say caffeine would be wise it would be before training.

For some other good news on the caffeine front, although caffeine ingestion has been shown to impair glucose tolerance, research out of the University of Guelph showed that long term caffeine ingestion may actually lower the risk of type II diabetes. Also research has shown that cortisol responses from caffeine are reduced, though not eliminated, in people who regularly drink caffeine.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you should pound caffeine all day long. As we’ve discussed it takes long term raises in cortisol to make a big difference. So if you keep a steady stream of caffeine pumping into your system, even if it reduces the effect of cortisol, you will be steadily increasing cortisol levels. Not to mention if you drink caffeine frequently you won’t get the energy bursts from it like you would if it was occasionally. Like with most things moderation is key. You certainly need to be careful with where you are getting your caffeine from too. You don’t want to down a sugary energy drink or soda. Ideally it would be wise to get it from sources like black coffee, green tea or if taken pre-workout even a caffeine supplement.

The last thing we need to look at in terms of cortisol levels around training is the training itself. We already established training increases cortisol levels. Obviously avoiding training to keep cortisol levels low is not exactly an ideal scenario for building muscle or losing fat. Is there something we should do during training to make sure we keep cortisol levels as low as possible? If research out of McMaster University tells us anything, that probably isn’t the case. In their research during a 12-week training program subjects who had the highest cortisol levels post-workout were more likely to gain muscle over the course of the study. In fact they found that workout-induced cortisol was more positively correlated with lean body mass and hypertrophy than testosterone, IGF-1 or growth hormone. It seems higher levels of cortisol due to training is more of an indicator of how effective your workout was.

It appears much like the more anabolic hormones, the catabolic hormone cortisol is not something we should worry too much about during training. It is the long term elevations of cortisol that make a difference physiologically, while short term fluctuations mean very little. It’s becoming fairly clear to me that worrying about hormonal responses of any kind around training and from training itself is a bit of a waste of time. You are probably better served to worry about controlling your long term, overall hormone levels, and doing what you have to do to get a great workout in.

Happy Lifting!

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