Cortisol May be Necessary for Muscle Growth

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    The Good, the Bad, and the Truth about Cortisol

    by Joe Palumbo by IFBB Pro Joe Palumbo

    Twenty years ago, the average person did not know what cortisol was. Today, cortisol is known as a “stress hormone” that is bad for the body. Cortisol is a key hormone involved in the body’s response to stress, both physical and emotional. It is the body’s chief hormone that controls how your body processes carbs, fats and protein and it also helps to reduce inflammation. This hormone is responsible for “protecting” you. Cortisol is a necessary hormone that is responsible for fuel regulation and is released while exercising, eating, awakening, and psychosocial stress. What is protecting you can also harm you. Cortisol effects on the body are fundamentally beneficial except when we are subjected to too much stress. When the body senses immediate danger a screaming person or a hungry tiger —the part of your brain that controls fear doesn’t know the difference. Cortisol -along with its partner epinephrine kicks in and unfortunately at the expense of a process that is not required for immediate survival. Chronic stress causes both an increase in cortisol and a decrease in testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone.

    tired muscle athlete
    Cortisol may also be linked to insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, thyroid disorders, dementia, and depression.

    Stress elevated levels of the hormone, cortisol, are very detrimental to your health as well as to your body composition. If there is too much cortisol in circulation, abdominal obesity develops.  During periods of chronic stress levels, cortisol and insulin rise and together they send a signal to fat cells to store as much fat as possible. At the same time they also signal fat cells to hold on to their fat storage…simply put stress can actually reduce the ability for the body to release fat for energy use.

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    The link between cortisol and obesity and an unbalanced metabolism causing weight gain is seen in many ways. Another connection is cortisol effect on appetite and cravings for high-calorie foods. Studies have demonstrated a direct association between cortisol levels and calorie intake in populations of women. Cortisol may directly influence appetite and cravings by binding to hypothalamus receptors in the brain. Cortisol also indirectly influences appetite by modulating other hormones and stress responsive factors known to stimulate appetite. Cortisol may also be linked to insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, thyroid disorders, dementia, and depression.

    Muscular Man Lifting Barbells
    Supplying adequate carbohydrates during training protects against elevated cortisol levels for athletes. Elevated cortisol levels are often associated with overtraining.

    Cortisol has become a ‘prime’ hormone of fascination, discussion and confusion within the consumer and fitness industry. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol have a number of undesirable effects for athletes.  Elevated cortisol levels lead to a catabolic state where muscle is broken down and fat is stored.  These effects are exacerbated when an athlete is depleted of carbohydrates. Supplying adequate carbohydrates during training protects against elevated cortisol levels for athletes. Elevated cortisol levels are often associated with overtraining. Knowing the effects of cortisol is critical for all athletes. Simple facts…Fasting, food intake, exercising, awakening, and psychosocial stressors cause the body to release cortisol. The amount of cortisol released is mainly determined by your fitness level.

    Why do we need it? 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.

    Exercise and circulating cortisol levels: the intensity threshold effect;

    Body Building In Progress
    High intensity exercise provokes increases in circulating cortisol levels.

    This study examined the influence of exercise intensity upon the cortisol response of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Specifically, we examined exercise at intensities of 40, 60, and 80% maximal oxygen uptake. Collectively, the cortisol findings support the view that moderate to high intensity exercise provokes increases in circulating cortisol levels. In contrast, low intensity exercise (40%) does not result in significant increases in cortisol levels, but, once corrections for plasma volume reduction occurred and circadian factors were examined, low intensity exercise actually resulted in a reduction in circulating cortisol levels. Does this mean Cardio is bad for you….NO; different types of training will bring out a different cortisol response.  Also the intensity of the exercise will determine the amount of cortisol released. Cortisol levels are increased as a result of obesity; therefore performing long durations of cardio will increases cortisol higher which leads to increased hunger, and cravings. For some increasing cardio is not favorable. Exercise more, and you’ll probably end up eating more too. When a goal of exercise is to lose weight or improve energy, overtraining can clearly be a major barrier to achieving those goals

    How to Control Your Cortisol Levels

    RELAX; this is a simple one in theory, as I’ve mentioned Cortisol levels are proven to rise dramatically due to the body reacting to stress.

    When beginning an exercise program start off slow and steady and chose a program that’s enjoyable and decreases stress such as comfortable walks, yoga or swimming, when the body becomes more adapted to the stress of exercise and the body becomes comfortable, the amount of cortisol released will decrease.

    Try to eat at least 5-6 small meals each day as it has been found that eating more frequently helps to control Cortisol levels keeping them lower than if you were eating larger meals less frequently. The most important meals are breakfast and your Post Workout meal. Make sure you eat in the morning as Cortisol levels are shown to be higher at this time and maintaining a proper diet including protein, carbs and essential fats help to control cortisol levels.

    Relax; this is a simple one in theory, as I’ve mentioned cortisol levels are proven to rise dramatically due to the body reacting to stress. Try to remember what stress is really doing to your body and change your reaction with a relaxing breathing technique…. take a nice walk… have a bath… read a book, whatever helps you to relax and relieve the stress.

    In short, the theory is that with our ever-stressed, fast-paced lifestyle, our bodies are pumping out cortisol almost constantly, which can wreak havoc on our health. Fortunately, there is much we can do for ourselves to reverse the path of destruction. The best approach to keeping cortisol levels at bay is mastering stress management and optimizing diet…..Train safe, Train smart.

    Joseph Palumbo


    IFBB Professional Bodybuilder

    Certified Trainer (SMART)

    Advance Sports Nutrition Specialist (ASNS)

    Certified Navy Seal Fitness Instructor

    [email protected]

    The premier source of training, nutrition, supplements, fat loss and health for men.