Cortisol is bad news for muscle. It is a catabolic hormone, exerting the opposite effect of the principal anabolic hormone testosterone. We do however need cortisol for a few important functions, but we don’t want too much of it. As with most aspects of the human endocrine and metabolic system, it’s just another juggling act.
There are things we can do to control our levels of cortisol, which we will cover later, but first it’s best to know your enemy.
Tipping the Scales
When it really comes down to it, muscle growth and fat loss are about balance. Energy in versus energy out via our nutritional intake is a huge balancing factor in both. Training versus rest and recovery is another. If you could zoom into the body on a more microscopic bio-chemical scale, you’d see a maelstrom of reactions too numerous to count.
Every hormone is released by a chain of processes and then controlled and maintained by others. The fates of two of our principal anabolic hormones – testosterone and growth hormone – start out in the brain’s pituitary gland, with the hypothalamus acting as the master controller.
Insulin is another vital growth hormone as it transports sugar from the bloodstream into the muscle tissue for energy, along with amino acids for use as both a source of direct energy and protein synthesis.
The convoluted series of reactions that occur just for these three hormones to do their job doesn’t make us appear to be the evolved specimens we think we are. Nonetheless, those three are the anabolic hormones and are thus a bodybuilder’s best friends.
Equally important to bodybuilders is the hormone Cortisol, aka the stress hormone, aka the catabolic hormone.
You can see Cortisol has a bad review straight out the box, but what does it do that’s so evil?
The adrenal glands release cortisol during times of:
- high physical stress
- high mental stress
- high body temperature
On its release it goes about reducing protein synthesis, it converts protein to glucose and arrests the growth of tissue. In essence, it is the opposite of the three anabolic hormones described above, in that it actually breaks tissue down, including muscle tissue.
So, why for pity’s sake do we have a stupid hormone like that kicking around our system?
The answer is – we need cortisol; it balances blood sugar levels during stressful times, and it manages our body’s inflammatory responses to physical stimuli. It’s called the stress hormone for a reason: because it’s important to have a certain level of Cortisol during times of stress.
What we don’t want is too much of it.
Doesn’t Exercise Cause All of That Stress?
Physical stress, check. Mental stress, check. High temperature, erm, check. Yeah, doesn’t exercise cause a massive release of cortisol? And if I exercise in the morning, it looks like I’m totally screwed!!
Hold on, it’s not that simple, obviously, otherwise there wouldn’t be any muscle-bound tanks walking around the gym. Sure, exercise causes a cortisol response, but in the long term it actually negates its effect.
Provided the exercise sessions of both aerobic and weight training are kept to 30 to 45 minutes (for the hard working part of the session), the endorphin release will counter the cortisol release. Yes, endorphin – endogenous morphine basically. It helps de-stress, elevate mood and manage pain. So, even though a catabolic state is achieved immediately following exercise, good nutrition and our natural (endogenous) response will mitigate it.
Also, resistance weight training stimulates the release of the anabolic hormones, which further offset the cortisol release. Nutrition and rest on top of this will in fact put the body back into an anabolic state – and voila! Muscle growth.
How Can You Limit Cortisol Release?
Like we said, it’s excess cortisol that’s the issue, and there are things we can do to offset that – or prevent it to a degree. We’ve covered exercise, and sort of mentioned nutrition but we can expand a bit.
This isn’t just for the guys. You need to listen up too ladies (er…read up), because you are the worst for this. Excess cortisol is not only bad for business in the muscle growth department but it will slow fat loss as well. Shock horror, right!
So, all you gals thinking it’s good to get out of bed, skip breakfast, and exercise like a demon “because it’ll just burn pure fat” are wrong wrong wrong. You need a breakfast with both carbs and protein involved in order to get insulin to work as quickly as possible, and stop the early-bird cortisol release that’s kicking the crud out of your muscle growth, and even turning it to belly-wobbling sugar.
Plus – as if you need a plus – the food will give you all the more energy to give ‘em hell in the gym or wherever you do your thing.
Easier said than done, but it’s one of the prime suspects in the case of cortisol release. Physical and/or mental stress will do it. The two together – pfff, forget it!!!
There’s things you can do though:
- DO NOT OVERTRAIN: Your heart’s in the right place but it’s not thinking straight. Engage brain and take time off. Training is only the stimulus, it’s not the growth and improvement; that happens at night when you are asleep, or when you’re flicking through TV channels trying to avoid re-runs of Friends, or when you’re eating a whopping chicken salad with tomato juice on the side. Train, adapt, grow, improve. NOT train, train, train train…
- DO NOT FLIP-OUT: each time you get mad or worry or overreact to something, it chips away at you with a little squirt of cortisol. It’s a whole different skill to relax during really high pressure or seriously bad events but it’s the little things you can learn to control. Like, does it really matter if the dog chewed your Kanye album? (blessing in disguise if you ask us but whatever).
This sort of goes hand in hand with stress management and even the next topic – sleep. More than one cup a day can elevate your cortisol levels. It can also interrupt sleep, which is possibly the more serious knock-on effect, as sleep is when we really become physical champions.
Paradoxically, caffeine can trigger cyclic Adenosine Monophosphate (cAMP) activity, which may further stimulate both fat-burning and anabolic hormone release. It’s a head-scratcher basically, so don’t get too stressed if you’re dragging knuckles and need a second cup.
Get it? don’t get too stressed…
At the risk of sounding repetitive, growing muscle, getting stronger and becoming fitter, all really happens at night, especially when you are in a deep sleep. This is not REM sleep, where your eyes are fluttering, you’re dreaming of flying, and mumbling gibberish.
No, we’re talking deep, slow-wave sleep. The more you get at night, the less you’ll get stung by cortisol in the morning.
There’s a few different supplements which help restrict excess cortisol release. Most of the Growth Hormone Boosters have some sort of natural cortisol reducer, as well as being packed with other compounds which encourage the natural release of anabolic hormones. There’s more:
- Glutamine supplementation is supposed to provide cortisol with plasma glutamine so it doesn’t have to strip muscle to get at it.
- Vitamin C on a daily basis has been shown to reduce cortisol levels
- GH Boosters of course. We’d be remiss if we didn’t tout the benefits of natural Growth Hormone Boosting supplements. Click here to read about the best ones.
As you can see, Cortisol is a classic case of more is not necessarily better. You can also see there are some simple things you can do every day to limit the release of this catabolic hormone.