Cortisol is a glucocorticoid, a type of steroid hormone, produced by the adrenal cortex in response to stress. It is primarily a catabolic agent, which causes a breakdown of proteins, fats and carbohydrates for energy during acute periods stress. However, continued responses due to chronic stress can elicit elevated blood sugar, increased appetite and greater storage of fat, particularly in the abdomen. Subsequently, elevated levels of cortisol for a long period lead to muscle breakdown, bone loss, suppression of the immune system and insulin resistance.
Cortisol also functions to effectively reduce inflammation in the body. In an ideal world, cortisol metabolism would follow a simple path: stress transpires, body responds through the endocrine system, stress is dealt with (flight or fight), and the stress response ends. However, we face many external stimuli each day in this modern, stressed out and fast paced society.
These stressors, in conjunction with a poor diet, contribute to a state of chronic inflammation. The increased level of cortisol caused by prolonged efforts to correct this condition, eventually suppresses the immune system and wreaks havoc on our general health and well being.
All this makes cortisol an interesting subject. On one hand, it can breakdown fat and help you get lean, but, on the other, it can also cause you to store fat in the worst areas! Therefore, the management of cortisol secretion is vital for general health and well being, and improving body composition. The way to achieve this is simple; manipulate cortisol through diet and training.
Proper nutrition plays an essential part in combating the effects of cortisol. Therefore, follow four basic guidelines to begin the process of managing cortisol levels:
As previously mentioned, inflammation causes elevated cortisol levels. A “good” diet can facilitate natural reduction of inflammation in the body whilst also promoting tissue repair. This will reduce cortisol, resulting in decreased risk of chronic disease and improved well being. A good diet consists of a balanced intake of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fats in a defined ratio) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients).
When choosing fruit and vegetables it is important to note that darker coloured varieties (dark green, dark blue/purple, bright orange, bright red etc.) tend to be better sources of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.
Dehydration is an easily avoided stress on the body, so ensure proper hydration by drinking approximately one litre of water per 25kg of bodyweight, and more on workout days.
Avoid or reduce alcohol and caffeine. Caffeine elevates cortisol so can be taken in the morning or pre workout. However, avoid it post-workout to reduce catabolism and fat storage. Alcohol acts as a diuretic, often leaving a person in a dehydrated state, and can increase the likelihood of night time awakenings which may negate the restorative benefits of sleep.
In the pursuit of better health or body composition, cortisol must not be ignored. Failure to adequately manage cortisol can have devastating consequences, so get moving with these simple adjustments and start shedding that spare tyre.