Cortisol is often called the “stress hormone” because of its connection to the stress response. However, cortisol is much more than just a hormone released during stress.
Understanding cortisol and its effect on the body will help you balance your hormones and achieve good health. Cortisol can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help reduce inflammation, and assist with memory formulation. All these functions make cortisol a crucial hormone to protect overall health and well-being.
As we know, too much of anything can be a bad thing and in the case of cortisol, when elevated for too long, your ability to lose fat can be greatly reduced.
Cortisol is used to breakdown stored energy in the form of carbohydrates, proteins and fat to help the body respond to stressful situations. In an ideal world, within the context of training, the process would go as follows:
- The body feels stress
- Cortisol is released to help with the response and inflammation
- The stress is dealt with
- The body adapts positively to the stress
- The body returns to normal
However, due to our modern-day busy lifestyles, stress is elevated consistently and as a result, so too is our response.
The subsequent elevated amount of cortisol beyond optimal levels causes the body to have an increased appetite, elevated blood sugar, increased storage of fat, muscle breakdown, cognitive impairment, immune suppressant and insulin resistance. Essentially you are forgetful, prone to sickness, find it difficult to lose weight, and have hunger cravings for carbohydrates.
The main thing to note is that the body doesn’t differentiate between different stressors; work, life, exercise are all interpreted the same way.
Knowing that cortisol can be your best friend but also your worst enemy when considering body composition and health, how do you go about controlling it?
What You Eat
Nutrition can play a huge role in manipulating cortisol. A healthy balanced diet can facilitate a natural reduction of inflammation in the body whilst also promoting tissue repair. A varied balanced diet consisting of nutritionally dense food (micronutrients – vitamins, minerals) and good quality macro nutrients (carbs fats, proteins) will create an optimal environment for your body.
Examples of quality food sources would be dark coloured fruits and vegetables which are the best options as they brilliantly balance the micronutrients and are often lowest in sugar.
What You Drink
Adequate hydration will be key in managing your bodies stress response and this is probably the easiest one to control. As a rule of thumb, aim for 1 litre of water per 20-25kg of bodyweight and more on training days. An easy way to achieve this is to simply buy a 1ltr – 1.5ltr reusable bottle to prompt you to drink throughout the day.
Before you reach for your second, third, fourth cup of coffee be aware that consuming caffeine can increase cortisol levels, so be smart with your consumption. Aim for early mornings or just before you train but avoid taking it after your workout. When you finish training, you want to gradually start reducing your stress response and promote recovery.
Consuming more caffeine will impair your ability to start the recovery process and could limit your progress!
Alcohol will act as a diuretic and could affect the quality of sleep you get each night if you consume too much. Limit your intake and balance the volume with water so you can maximise your rest! Sleep is the number one recovery method we have and your actions throughout the day will dictate the quality you get each night. So, let’s be more mindful of how you approach your bed time.
How You Move
Exercise should be a component of everyone’s week and recent studies show that it is very effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and at enhancing overall cognitive function. This can be especially helpful when stress has depleted your energy or ability to concentrate.
Regular participation in aerobic exercise, strength training, playing sport etc has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilise mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. Even five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects so with this in mind try and get out and move every day. Walk, lift weights, play games, stretch, join a group activity and have fun!