So you work out regularly. You punish yourself in the gym with consistent workouts and you have your nutrition in line with your goals. No matter how hard you seem to work and no matter how many tweaks you make to your nutrition plan you just can’t seem to take a step closer to reaching your end goal. What gives? You are in a calorie deficit, you burn more than you consume, and yet you’re stuck. Why?
The truth is that people seldom take into account the highly complex system that is their body. Unfortunately weight loss and body composition goals are not solely reached just by making sure that you burn more than you take in. There is a myriad of processes that take place within each living cell of the human body every second of the day, for your entire life. It’s not fair to assume that since your calorie balance seems to be in line that you will just magically lose weight. There is no finite “on” and “off” switch for fat loss. Sure, energy expenditure and caloric balance plays a huge role in reaching your goal, but there are several other factors that come into play such as hormones, stress levels, hours of sleep you get, the macronutrient (fat, carbs, and proteins) and micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) balance that you are consuming, and even the type of training that you are doing all play a vital roll. The most complex of all of these may be the endocrine (hormonal) system. The more I research about it and the more I learn, I find out more and more about what I actually don’t know. Which, in it’s own right, can be frustrating not only from a coaching perspective, but for my clients as well who deal with plateaus in their goals regularly.
One of the major hormones that has grabbed my attention lately is cortisol. One of my clients brought it to my attention a few weeks ago when she came back from the doc and her blood results showed an elevated level of cortisol in her blood. From what I knew about cortisol it made sense. She had plateaued on her fat loss goals, she was chronically fatigued, and most of all she was frustrated. As a coach, so was I. I thought I had tweaked everything correctly. We tweaked her training volume and recovery to account for her chronic fatigue. We tweaked her nutrition to aid in our cause. We even incorporated some different training modalities to try to get over the hump. Nothing worked. It was time for me to do some digging and find out more about the finer aspects of cortisol.
So what the heck is it?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is secreted from the adrenal glands on the kidneys. Its secretion is controlled by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain. Cortisol plays several very important functions within our bodies. It is a “stress” hormone which means that it aids in our fight or flight response. It responds to acute stressors such as waking in the morning, exercise, and when we become frightened by something in our environment. It plays several key roles in regulating blood sugar, driving metabolism, reducing inflammation, aiding healing, streamlining cognitive processes, and returning our bodies to homeostasis after a stressor is introduced to us. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone, which means it breaks things down. It breaks down proteins into glucose so we have energy in our blood to burn, which comes in handy when you have to respond quickly to a stressor like running away from a bear or rescuing someone from a burning house. This catabolic process is then opposed by testosterone and insulin, which counteracts the effects of cortisol and puts the body back into a more anabolic state.
So why the heck does it get a bad reputation?
Cortisol, as good as it is in the short term, can have disastrous consequences if it’s chronically elevated. Chronic stress is one of the major things that leads our cortisol levels being too high for long periods of time. Keep in mind that it is a catabolic hormone. This means that it causes things to constantly break down. Remember how it converts proteins into sugars and then dumps it into your blood? That’s awesome if you need a short term fuel source, but if you stretch that out over long periods of time all of that extra sugar in your blood leads to it having to be stored somewhere. It’s usually dumped right around your midsection in the form of abdominal fat. Your insulin levels then have to increase to counteract all of the sugar in the blood. This can lead to insulin insensitivity, sugar crashes, and even those annoying cravings that you feel. The catabolic effects of cortisol can also have strong effects on the immune system by lowering its function. Your natural repair processes can be delayed and you can even be more susceptible to getting sick. Cortisol, in normal levels, should play nicely with your body’s circadian rhythms. If it’s chronically elevated you may experience sleep disturbances where you find it hard to fall asleep, and stay asleep even though you may feel chronically fatigued during the day. It can also make you feel anxious and jittery.
Aside from chronic stress, depression and overtraining can also have effects on cortisol levels over the long term.
So how do you know if you may have elevated cortisol levels?
Some symptoms can include irritability, weight gain, trouble sleeping, high blood pressure, getting sick often, and chronic fatigue. If you think you may have elevated levels make sure you ask your doctor to run a test.
Take a chill pill.
One of the best ways to get your cortisol levels under control is to control your stress and anxiety levels. Stress management activities such as meditation and deep breathing can lower your cortisol levels immediately. Getting outside in nature can have positive effects, and indulging in hobbies that enjoy can get your levels moving in the right direction. It has also been shown that limiting caffeine and alcohol can have positive effects. As far as nutrition goes, try to stick with whole food sources and avoid processed foods. Exercise, in the right amounts of intensity and frequency can also have positive effects on cortisol levels.
Make sure you periodize your training to ensure that you allowing proper recovery time between exercise sessions. Higher intensity sessions should be followed by proper rest, and programming should also take lifestyle and stress levels into account.
Be sure to eat properly around training sessions as well. A meal with a blend of carbs and protein after exercise sessions can aid the body in switching back into an anabolic state.
If you are putting long hours into endurance training, consider switching your training modality. Excessive hours endurance training can keep your cortisol levels through the roof. Unless you are training specifically for an endurance event, don’t waste your energy. Talk to a trainer about determining the proper training mode that matches your goals.
Josh Soper, BS, CSCS