Cortisol is a steroid hormone that falls under the glucocorticoid group. It is produced using cholesterol by the two adrenal glands located in your kidneys. This hormone is released when you experience stress, exercise and even when you wake up in the morning. It is an important hormone in your body working to maintain homeostasis by determining your energy needs. This hormone is part of the “fight-or-flight” response. It can temporarily slow processes not associated with the stressor and increases the energy produced by various metabolic pathways. When you are stressed, this hormone works by choosing the type of energy you need, whether from fats, proteins or carbohydrates, and how much you need to evade with the stressor. Over long periods of time where you are experiencing frequent high stress and chronically elevated cortisol, there can be a negative effect on immune function, weight loss/ weight gain and increased risk of chronic disease. Cortisol is needed to maintain normal physiological processes during times of stress. Without it, the body would not be able to respond effectively to stress.
Cortisol accelerates the breakdown of proteins into amino acids (except in liver cells). These amino acids move out of the tissues into the blood and to liver cells, where they are changed to glucose in a process called gluconeogenesis.
Acutely, cortisol also mobilizes fatty acids from fat cells and even helps to maintain blood pressure.
A prolonged high blood concentration of cortisol in the blood results in a net loss of tissue proteins and higher levels of blood glucose. Raising plasma glucose levels enables cortisol to provide the body with the energy it requires to combat stress from trauma, illness, fright, or infection. In the attempt to preserve carbohydrate stores, the muscle breakdown probability increases.
Chronically high cortisol levels can cause sleep problems, a depressed immune response, blood sugar abnormalities, and even abdominal weight gain. High levels of cortisol in the blood can decrease white blood cells and antibody formation, which can lower immunity.
Acute high intensity resistance exercise is associated with increased plasma cortisol concentration. In other words, after something like a sprint or a high-intensity conditioning or bodybuilding-style workout, plasma cortisol concentration increases. The response is similar to that seen of growth hormone. The most dramatic increases occur when rest periods are short and total volume is high. In relation to training bodybuilder style workouts; when muscle glycogen concentrations are low, cortisol is released and fuel use shifts toward protein or fat so that more sparing use is made of the little glucose that remains.
Aerobic endurance training, particularly running, is linked with protein loss from muscle (partially induced by cortisol). Endurance trained individuals typically have a higher cortisol response. Secretion of cortisol is elicited at exercise intensities between 80% and 90% of VO2 max.
Age matters: Cortisol levels rise rapidly in young people placed under stress, but fall back to normal within a few hours after the source of stress is removed. In contrast, cortisol levels remain high for days in older people, even after the source of stress is gone. Chronically high cortisol levels kill brain cells (neurons)… which is the chief reason for the brain shrinkage seen in patients suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of senility.
Simple ways to reduce cortisol without the obvious live a stressful life answer include:
- Post exercise re-fuel: Protein and carbohydrate consumption after exercise can offset the cortisol response.
- SLEEP: A study has been conducted indicating the difference between getting six hours of sleep instead of the suggested eight can equate to fifty percent (50%) more cortisol in the bloodstream.
- Reduce Caffeine: known ability to increase cortisol production partly due to an increase in ACTH release from the pituitary gland.
- Fish oil—four grams, including 2,400 mg of omega-3 fatty acids (1,600 mg EPA + 800 mg DHA).
(Some scientists hypothesize that omega-3s might exert anti-depression effects in part by lowering levels of certain pro-inflammatory immune-system proteins (cytokines) associated with depression.
- Taurine (amino acid) calms the nervous system by facilitating the production of the neurotransmitter GABA. Raising GABA will help the body manage anxiety. Suggested dose ranges from 1-3grams
- Vitamin C:
German researchers investigated the effects of vitamin C supplementation on participants undergoing a public speaking task, which is considered a stressor. Subjects were given 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C or a placebo before performing the task. Scientists found that those in the vitamin C group had lower levels of cortisol and blood pressure compared with those not receiving vitamin C supplementation. In addition, participants in the vitamin C group felt less stress than did the non-vitamin group.
Silva L; Silveira, P, et al. Taurine Supplementation Decreases Oxidative Stress in Skeletal Muscle After Eccentric Exercise. “Cell Biochemistry and Function.”: January 2011. 29(1),p43-49
El Idrissi, A Goukarrou, L. et al. “Effects of Taurine on Anxiety-Like Locomotor Behavior of mice.
Advances in Experimental medicines and Biology. 2009, p.207-215