Scenario: You joined a gym a few months ago. They do HIIT style workouts. It could be a boot camp, crossfit, circuit training, kickboxing, whatever. You saw results! However, you’ve run into a bit of a problem. The results are now diminished or not happening at all. You still don’t feel ‘tight’ or look leaner.
Why? Short answer: Your CORTISOL levels are f’d up!
What is cortisol? It’s a hormone released by your adrenal glands when your body is stressed, physically or mentally. Stressed from work, family, and even workouts. That’s a GOOD thing. Cortisol helps our bodies deal with stress by shutting down any functions so energy can be utilized to combat the affects of stress. Other bodily functions such as our immune system or reproductive system are ‘shut down’ in order for this to happen. This is not a bad thing if the stress is short lived. Unfortunately, many of us suffer from long term stress where our cortisol levels are always elevated causing a multitude of issues. Some of these issues include:
- Low libido
- Interrupted sleep cycle
- Weakened immune system
- Bones with less density
- Muscles are catabolized
- High blood pressure
- Lowered levels of testosterone
- Increased hunger and food cravings
I have to repeat these are GOOD things IF you are trying to swim to shore if a boat sinks or fight off an attacker in the parking lot. Not if you’re sitting in a car for an hour before getting to work where you are stressed by a project that’s due tomorrow and so on and so on. But how does this all relate to not losing fat or not building lean muscle?
Cortisol requires certain hormones and chemicals in your body to operate. In order for this action to occur your body must divert these hormones and chemicals from other sources. One of those sources is TESTOSTERONE. Testosterone is anabolic (muscle building) while cortisol is catabolic (muscle damaging). The more testosterone you produce the more lean muscle you will have and less body fat you will retain. This is great news….IF your cortisol levels are low. How do we keep it low?
Resistance workouts (weight training) instead of cardio workouts (1). Due to the nature of anaerobic (resistance training) vs. aerobic (cardio training) your testosterone (T) levels will be higher and cortisol (C) levels lower. Aerobic workouts have the exact OPPOSITE effect (2). Again, I’m not saying you should never do aerobic workouts but do not make them your priority.
Fine-tune your carbohydrate intake (3). A study showed men who ate few carbs during the day and most of their carbs at night had a greater reduction in cortisol levels than men who ate carbs throughout the day. Another study showed women who ate carbs and protein for breakfast and then fewer carbs throughout the day saw an increase in weight loss. This is where YOU have to experiment and see what works.
Reduce intake of refined sugars (4) . Sugars, along with caffeine, stimulate your nervous system into a ‘fight or flight’ mode (even if you’re happy!). This causes your body to elevate your levels of cortisol because it thinks you are stressed. So, it’s very simple: reduce sugar intake, keep cortisol levels low.
Consume carbohydrates and EAAs (essential amino acids aka PROTEIN) right after your workout (3). Your cortisol levels are the highest right after any physical training. In order to get it down you need to consume carbs and EAAs so your body has another energy source to help your body recover from the stress you created from the workout. Your carb source could be sweet potatoes, brown rice, or quinoa. Your EAAs could be eggs, fish, beef, soy, nuts, or protein shake. If your goal is to lose more body fat then focus more on EAAs after the workout and fewer carbohydrates.
Get some sleep! (5) Lack of sleep elevates cortisol levels for extended periods of time during waking hours. In order for your cortisol levels to be in check you must get at least 8 hours of sleep a night. Yes, that means turning the TV/computer/phone off and getting to bed early. If you have trouble falling asleep it means your body is deprived of Vitamin B5, B6, and Vitamin C. Get your B vitamins from fish, beef, starchy vegetables, and fruit. Get your C vitamins from various fruits (mango, pineapple, berries, kiwi, papaya, and cantaloupe).
– Josh Jarmin
(1) Skolud,N, Dettenborn, L, et al. Elevated hair cortisol concentrations in endurance athletes. Psychoneuroendocrinology May 2012 (37) 5; 611-617.
(2) Shakeri, Nader, et al. The effect of different types of exercise on the testosterone/ cortisol ratio in untrained male adults. Annals of Biological Research, 2012, 3 (3):1452-1460
(3) Das SK, Gilhooly CH, et al. Long-term effects of energy-restricted diets differing in glycemic load on metabolic adaptation and body composition. Open Nutr J. 2007 Apr 1;85(4):1023-1030.
(4) Sofer, S., Eliraz, A., Kaplan, S., et al.; Obesity 19, 2006-2014 (October 2011) doi:10.1038/oby.2011.48
(5) Patak P, Willenberg H, Bornstein S. Vitamin C is an important co-factor for both adrenal cortex and adrenal medulla. Endoc Res. 2004;30:871-875.