Cortisol is a very important hormone in the body that is often times neglected by the fitness community. To understand cortisol's impact on your goals as a fitness enthusiast, it is important to understand the hormone, how it is made, what effects it, how it impacts your body and how to regulate your levels to ensure you are giving yourself the best chance to succeed in your goals.
Many of us involved fitness are quick to buy a supplement to help us lose weight or gain muscle. We spend $40-$80 on a fat burner or a testosterone booster and see no results. Why? Well, it could be because your cortisol levels are being regulated appropriately. If you have elevated or too low of cortisol levels, those supplements won't be able to help you (unless they have ingredients that specifically address cortisol levels).
What Is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands of your body. It works with certain parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation and fear.
Often times people refer to cortisol as the "stress hormone" because stress levels directly impact the cortisol levels in your body. Cortisol is seen as the "fight or flight" response hormone in the body however it has a much larger impact than that. Cortisol has been shown to:
- Manages how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins (digestive system/metabolism)
- Keeps inflammation down
- Regulates your blood pressure
- Increases your blood sugar (glucose)
- Controls your sleep/wake cycle
- Boosts energy so you can handle stress and restores balance afterward
As you can see, Cortisol plays a major roll in many of our important functions.
How Does Cortisol Work?
Your brain consists of the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. These can sense when your blood cortisol levels are correct. If your cortisol levels are too low the hypothalamus and pituitary gland sense this and send signals to your adrenal glands to produce more. This is called the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis. The cortisol is received cortisol receptors, which are in most of the cells in your body. How your body uses cortisol differs in each situation.
If cortisol levels are too high, your body will shut down functions that get in the way of the process. These functions include your digestive system, immune system and reproductive system. If your cortisol levels are too low, it could mean that you may have an uncommon disease called Addison's Disease.What Impacts Cortisol Levels?
The main external factor that impacts your body's cortisol levels is stress. Elevated stress levels cause your body to product more cortisol. When you perceive a threat, such as a wild animal, your hypothalamus sets off an alarm system in your body, essentially telling your adrenal glands to produce a surge of cortisol to help deal with the elevated stress and anxiety levels. When cortisol levels are too high, your body will stop functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation.
Stress does not only occur when there is a perceived threat. Elevated stress levels can come from a variety of places including your job, finances, relationship status, parenthood and more.
Prolonged periods of elevated stress levels (chronic stress) will keep your body's "fight or flight" response activated. The long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all your body's processes.
What Happens When Cortisol Is Too High?
Chronic stress can lead to constant elevated cortisol levels in the body. This is the most common cortisol issue with people. Constant exposure to stress will elevate cortisol levels that can lead to:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Muscle weakness
- Memory and concentration impairment
- Irregular mensural cycle in women
- Decreased sex drive
Many of these symptoms can lead to other implications to your fitness journey. For example, sleep issues that cause sleep deprivation can also attribute to muscle weakness since your body is not able to recover the way it is supposed too with a healthy sleep pattern.
Prolonged elevated stress levels can also lead to a condition called Cushing's syndrome. Cushing's syndrome is a condition that occurs from exposure to high cortisol levels for a long time. This can lead to weight gain in the midsection and fatty deposits around the neck and back.
If you suffer from elevated stress levels, you most like have elevated cortisol levels that are impacting your goals in a negative way. Controlling your cortisol levels will be key to your overall fitness goals and success rate.
What Happens When Cortisol Is Too Low?
Low cortisol levels are generally corrected when your hypothalamus and pituitary gland recognize it, thus sending signals to your adrenal glands to produce more cortisol. However, if your body does not react to low cortisol levels, you may have issues with your pituitary or adrenal glands. This could lead to Addison's disease, a condition where your adrenal glads do not produce enough cortisol. Symptoms include:
- Dizziness (especially upon standing)
- Weight loss
- Muscle weakness
- Mood changes
- Darkening of regions of the skin
If you suffer from these symptoms, you should consult with your doctor right away. Without proper treatment, this can be life-threatening.
Urgent assessment by an endocrinologist is required when a diagnosis of Cushing's syndrome or Addison's disease is suspected.
How To Naturally Regulate Cortisol Levels
You can regulate your cortisol levels naturally by learning how to manage stress in healthy ways. A prescription or pill may not be required if you can control your external stressors on your own. Common techniques to help control and reduce stress levels are:
- Healthy diet and exercise
- Adequate levels of sleep (6-8 hours minimum)
- Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing and massage
- Participating in hobbies
- Seek out healthy relationships
- Professional counseling
If none of these techniques work for you, then you can look into a dietary supplement to help with stress levels and regulating cortisol levels.
Supplements That Regulate Cortisol Levels
If you cannot naturally help reduce stress levels and manage cortisol levels, there are dietary supplements that can aid in reducing stress and anxiety, and regulating cortisol levels. Most ingredients that have been proven to provide a "calming" effect by reducing stress and anxiety can help regulate cortisol levels.
To find supplements containing those ingredients, you can click on each ingredient to learn more and find supplements that contain those ingredients.
Regulation of cortisol levels can go a long way in helping you achieve your fitness goals. If you want to lose that stubborn fat, it may be as simple as eating right, exercise and stress-management. You can accomplish this through natural techniques or supplementation.
Cortisol levels are often-times forgotten, but it should be the center of your attention as it impacts so much of our daily lives. No fat burner (unless it contains stress management ingredients like KSM-66 Ashwagandha) or muscle-builder can combat elevated cortisol levels. Ensure your cortisol levels are in the healthy range.
You can get your cortisol levels checked via blood work, similar to your other hormone panel. We recommend you do this if you feel you are suffering from the symptoms listed above.