Cortisol is a response steroid hormone in your body that is produced by the adrenal glands, excreted into the blood, and picked up by receptors all throughout your body. Having a healthy balance of cortisol in your body is extremely important because it controls glucose metabolism, blood pressure, salt and water balance, memory formation, and inflammation. Cortisol is also needed when your body goes into the “fight or flight” response when put in stressful or dangerous situations.
The amount of cortisol that you have in your body throughout the day will dramatically differ because it’s something that your body is constantly balancing, but generally are high in the morning when we wake up, and then fall throughout the day. This is called a diurnal rhythm. If you have an irregular sleep pattern, this rhythm will vary and be regulated around your body’s sleep schedule. Cortisol is released accordingly to help your body respond to stress.
Cortisol is released through the body with the communication of three different regions: the hypothalamus in the brain, the pituitary gland and the adrenal gland. This system is called the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis. When cortisol levels in the blood are too low, a natural response in the hypothalamus releases corticotropin hormones, which causes the pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormones into the bloodstream. High levels of the adrenocorticotropic hormone are detected by the adrenal glands and stimulate the secretion of cortisol, causing blood levels of cortisol to rise. As the cortisol levels rise, they start to block the release of corticotropin-releasing hormone from the hypothalamus and adrenocorticotropic hormone from the pituitary. As a result the adrenocorticotropic hormone levels start to drop, which then leads to a drop in cortisol levels. This is called a negative feedback loop.
If your body is exposed to high levels of cortisol for an extended period of time, you can get a thing called Cushing’s Syndrome. Symptoms of this can include:
Having too low of cortisol levels in the body can result in Addison’s disease. It has a number of causes, all rare, including damage to the adrenal glands by autoimmune disease. The onset of symptoms to Addison’s disease can often be very gradual and not extremely noticeable at first. Symptoms may include:
Suspecting any sort of cortisol imbalance should be brought to a physician’s attention immediately for blood work and monitoring of blood hormone levels.
A lot of people in the fitness industry see cortisol as an extremely negative hormone that will make you gain fat and lose muscle. When the reality is, it’s required for optimal health and actually burns fat, if you truly understand how it works for your body. There’s no question it can become destructive in certain situations, like when it’s chronically elevated or continuously suppressed (like mentioned above).
Hormones will typically react differently depending on their environment. You want cortisol high while exercising and low when at rest. During exercise, cortisol works with your other fat burning hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline) and growth hormone, to increase fat release. However, having high cortisol levels when you aren’t exercising can have a negative impact when the cortisol is communicating with insulin.
Understanding the interactions between cortisol and insulin can be important for those trying to get a grasp on how their hormones affect their diet and training plans. Cortisol can be tricky because it’s technically a fat burning and fat storing hormone because of the fact that it is part of a negative feedback loop. Cortisol increases the activity of lipoprotein lipase (LPL), the body’s fat storing enzyme. But it also increases the activity of hormone sensitive lipase (HSL), the body’s fat releasing enzyme.
To break down how insulin can have a different effect on cortisol: Growth hormone, adrenaline and noradrenaline, which are higher during exercise and fasting periods, increase cortisol’s fat burning potential while suppressing its fat storing potential. In opposed to being in a fed state where insulin is spiked, HSL activity is turned way down while LPL activity is cranked up. During this time, insulin increases fat storing properties of cortisol while blocking its fat burning activity.
So, cortisol is actually NOT a fat-storing belly-fat hormone like you’ve probably been told in the past. The truth is, insulin and cortisol working together with a high-calorie diet, are the real cause of this fat gain.
If fat loss is the overall goal, two things are necessary: a caloric deficit and hormonal balance. Cortisol impacts several hormones responsible for hunger and cravings. These include leptin, insulin, and neuropeptide Y (NPY).
Remember how we mentioned that the hypothalamus plays a role in cortisol production? Well it’s also responsible for metabolism. The hypothalamus will receive and distinguish the signals being sent by peripheral hormones like leptin and insulin, both of which shut down hunger. Chronically elevated cortisol levels cause irritation in the hypothalamus leading to downregulation of hormone receptors inducing hormone resistance. Cortisol muffles the satiety sensing mechanism in your brain. Without having a proper sense of satiety, you have high chances of eating more during current and future meals. This also plays a role in why cortisol is involved in cravings. Along with other stress hormones, it increases desire for more palatable, calorie dense foods. This is a bad combo if you want to stick to your diet since you’ll be more likely to steer towards comfort foods.
Most people (especially in the fitness industry) think of cortisol when they think of stress. But there’s another hormone that is produced when stress levels are high that people tend to overlook: NPY. NPY is involved with hunger in the brain, as mentioned above. But cortisol doesn’t just impact brain NPY, it also impacts body NPY. When NPY is released in large amounts it causes immature fat cells to grow into mature fat cells. Chronically high cortisol makes the body more responsive to this fat storing action. In other words: Cortisol combined with catecholamines, like it is in short-term stress (like exercise), helps us burn fat. Cortisol combined with NPY, as it is in chronic stress, equals increased fat storage.
We’ve discussed how cortisol is produced through the adrenal glands but there’s another place it can be made… belly fat. The deepest, inner layer fat of the belly, called visceral belly fat, contains an enzyme called 11-beta hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11-HSD). This is an enzyme that converts inactive cortisone into active cortisol. This means that the enzyme within belly fat and actually make that fat produce cortisol. Insulin increases 11-HSD activity, which increases cortisol levels, which then causes increased insulin resistance. In this case, belly fat almost acts as a parasite, growing and thriving off of itself and the host. This is something that could be happening if someone is struggling to get rid of excess belly fat and can’t seem to see results no matter how hard they try. In that case, taking steps to manage cortisol may be more beneficial than enduring that dreadful extra cardio session.
After examining all of the different factors of cortisol and the things is communicates with, let’s examine some things you can do to manage it.
Insomnia and sleep deprivation can cause high levels of stress and increase cortisol levels. Keep a consistent sleep schedule, avoid caffeine in the evening, avoid sleep interruptions and get seven to eight hours of sleep daily to keep cortisol in a normal rhythm.
Nutrition can influence your cortisol levels in positive and negative ways. It’s important to used food as fuel to nourish your body to help it run efficiently instead of just eating junk food on a daily basis. Small amounts of comfort foods can help your body feel less stressed in certain situations but it’s important to consume those in moderation so you can focus on giving your body the proper nutrients it needs to run in optimal condition. Tea with small amounts of caffeine, high fiber foods, pre and probiotics, fish oil, and water (hydration is extremely important) can all help manage cortisol levels.
Remember, cortisol is an alarm hormone. This means that overeating and under-eating can cause cortisol to be released. Skipping meals can raise cortisol because the brain requires a constant supply of glucose. Excessively eating can raise cortisol too, along with a spike in insulin (damaging effects of this combination were also mentioned above).
Short intense exercise or exercise that’s weight training dominant, and slow relaxing exercise are best for cortisol. In the case of short intense exercise, cortisol is elevated along with growth hormone and the catecholamines. We discussed earlier how then can be good for fat burning. Plus the shorter duration may mean less compensatory hunger later and less chance of going catabolic. With longer-duration moderate and intense exercise, cortisol can easily dominate over the growth promoting hormones and be associated with more post-workout hunger and cravings and less anabolic potential. Another great way to lower cortisol is finishing workouts with slow relaxing movements like leisure walking to let your body relax and wind down after implying stress onto it.
If you really want to beat cortisol, overthinking your lifestyle is something you want to avoid. Find as many opportunities as possible to prioritize things you enjoy. These could include naps, time spent with loved ones, maintain healthy relationships, hobbies, spiritual outlets, massages, time with pets, leisure walking, hot baths, meditation, etc. Basically it’s important to make sure your life is devoted to being the best version of yourself, staying grounded, and not letting small and stressful things get to you.
To keep it short and sweet…
The three best ways to control cortisol are to stay mindful about diet, exercise, and lifestyle. And the three easiest ways to assess if cortisol is balanced is by paying attention to your hunger, energy, and cravings.