What doesn’t kill you doesn’t always make you stronger.
It can be your friend or your enemy. And it can do you good and it can do you harm. It is one of the hormones that is produced when we feel we may be in danger and have to make that fight or flight decision.
Cortisol, a steroid hormone also known as the stress hormone. Like a lot of things, we need Cortisol at appropriate times as it does benefit us. But, like a lot of things, too much of it, and also produced at the wrong times can do us harm.
I want to use this post to talk about both the good and the bad of Cortisol. I think it’s important to understand how this hormone is used by our body and how we can reduce the negative impact of Cortisol.
As mentioned earlier, it is one of the hormones (the other 2 are Adrenaline and Norepinephrine) released during the classic fight for flight syndrome. We have all been there at some point in our life. Feeling physically threatened, or you are called into your boss’s office and you know it’s not for a good reason. And it isn’t always a negative situation. It can be right before an event such as an exam, or grading. Or something competitive like a race, or sparring.
It’s like there’s a lion on the loose in the room. Our heart rate jumps significantly, our senses become acute, we get that taste of copper in our mouth. Our muscles are ready to react quickly if needed. You are breathing faster and you might even be sweating. You are focused on the situation and ready to react.
Specifically Cortisol is responsible for:
- allocating available glucose for the brain
- creating energy from reserves
- diverting energy from lower-priority activities (such as the immune system)
- Blood pressure management
All this is done by Cortisol in order to survive immediate threats or prepare for exertion. Something that should happen over a short duration, not an extended period of time.
As mentioned earlier, too much Cortisol, or producing Cortisol for a prolonged period can be detrimental to our health.
Cortisol is produced when we have a stressful situation, and most times we deal with that situation in a short time and get on with things. The body returns to a normal, balanced state. The problems start happening when we bring on situations that cause stress and that stress remains for a long period of time. Our bodies Cortisol levels are now elevated longer than they should be. Our body is now out of balance.
Cortisol has an immunosuppressive effect meaning if you constantly have high levels of Cortisol you are more susceptible to illness or infection. Cuts could end up taking much longer to heal. Cortisol also reduces the calcium absorption in our intestines making our bones weaker. Other effects of too much Cortisol are increased blood pressure and obesity.
I wish I could provide an easy answer to deal with stress but there really isn’t one. There are things we can do to lessen the amount of Cortisol our body produces due to stress and I will go over each one:
- Exercise – You are probably already doing this because you are aware of the many benefits of exercise. The more intensely we work out the better. When exercising we increase the amount of Cortisol our body makes. Remember, Cortisol is produced when we are stressed. Exercise is a form of stress. Highly intense training compared to endurance training produces less Cortisol and also produces Human Growth Hormone which has many benefits. Let’s quickly compare high intensity interval training to endurance training. We know Cortisol is produced during both types of exercise. But right off we know that HIIT training is much less in duration then endurance. So if your body produces Cortisol for anywhere from 5 minutes to 30 minutes for HIIT training, that is much less than the 1,2,3,4 or more hours with endurance training. Also, during endurance training, Cortisol is produced the whole time because our body is responding to a perceived threat. It’s our fight or flight syndrome and we are flying! In a sense your body is reacting as if it’s being hunted, and it wants to survive! When endurance training and you run out of glucose to fuel your activity, your body releases Cortisol which then will metabolize muscle tissue for the energy needed. Ideally if properly fueled through the foods you eat and when you eat them, your body will also use fat for fuel. But it will always use some muscle. This is generally why endurance athletes tend to have lower amount of muscle and will also appear older than they are.
On the HIIT side of things, if we look at Tabata as an example, we are in the intense range for 20 seconds than we are back to a 10 second rest. During that 10 second rest your body reacts in a way that there no longer a threat, and stops producing Cortisol. If eating properly and at the correct times, you should have an adequate supply of glycogen to fuel your activity and prevent your body from metabolizing muscle for energy.
Resistance training will also result in less Cortisol being produced. It will also increase the amount of Testosterone your body produces. All things that aid in the creation and maintenance of muscle.
- Food – Another way to reduce the amount of Cortisol is by choosing the correct foods to eat.
- Spinach – The magnesium in spinach will help balance the amount of Cortisol your body produces.
- Beans – Contains Phosphatidylserine which may counteract the effects of Cortisol.
- Citrus fruits – Try replacing carb rich snacks with citrus fruits. Vitamin C rich foods help slow the production of Cortisol.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Along with reducing inflammation, they also help reduce levels of Cortisol. You can supplement, or you can eat foods such as flaxseeds or walnuts. If you are vegan and looking for an Omega-3 supplement you can by an Omega-3 DHA that is made from algae instead of fish oil.
- Avocado – Great source of B vitamins and also reduces inflammation.
- Cashews – Provides you with a great source of fat and protein and Zinc. Studies have shown low levels of Zinc attribute to anxiety and depression.
- Garlic – So many benefits come with eating garlic. Neutralizing free radicals (free radicals damage our cells) and strengthening our immune system. And really, who doesn’t agree that garlic is awesome!
- Oatmeal – A great source of complex carbs (try not to load it up with simple carbs such as sugar) oatmeal will cause your brain to produce serotonin. Serotonin has antioxidant properties but also helps create a soothing feeling that can help overcome stress.
- Meditating – Meditating is a great way to deal with the stress in your life. It’s also a great way to relax, improve concentration, and slow aging. There are other benefits to meditation which you can find in this post.
There’s a lot in this post to consider. Should you stop endurance training because of the effects of Cortisol? That’s up to you. If you are going to be a miserable SOB because you didn’t get in your long run then maybe not. If you find your fitness needs are met by switching to interval type training, and resistance training (everyone should be doing resistance training, even endurance athletes) than I would recommend doing that.
I think it’s good for us to be aware and educated on the things we do, from eating to working out. Is stress bad for us? Yes and no. We now have a better understanding why. Use this information and try to see where you fit. Then decide.
Something else I want to say. There are things in our life that we cannot control. Absolutely cannot. I am going through this at my place of work right now. A major takeover that could impact me. Can I control this? Absolutely not. So I tell myself that this is something that I cannot control so don’t waste any time on it. Are there things I can do to prepare for these changes if they happen? Yes, and those are the things I focus on, put my energy into. In a sense, that helps to mitigate the stress.
It sounds easy when written down but it isn’t always easy. Eat well, sleep well, exercise and if you can, meditate. Those are four things you can do that will help tremendously.
Yours in health,