Lets try to give a little background as to what cortisol is, how it helps us, and then identify how it can sabotage your weight loss goals.
In the most basic terms, cortisol is a hormone that is released in response to stress – whether that stress is typical day-to-day stuff, or that induced by exercise (weight training or cardio exercise). In the case of exercise, your body interprets strenuous exercise as “stress”, so it will release cortisol to increase the amount of “fuel” your body has available by stimulating more glucose, glycogen stores, and promote protein breakdown. This process makes more fuel available to your body and depletes your energy stores. It is also an anti-inflammatory that works by slowing or stopping the molecules responsible for swelling, reddening and pain. So far these are good things that your body needs. Well done Cortisol.
Unfortunately, when cortisol promotes the breakdown of protein for its recovery process, this is a bad thing for a weight training athlete looking to encourage muscle growth and fat loss. Protein and amino acids are the building blocks of muscle so anything that causes a decrease in protein and amino acid availability is not a positive thing. When cortisol is released in reaction to the stress of exercise it wants to lower muscle pain by breaking down the amino acids that you so desperately need for recovery and muscle growth. The reaction of cortisol to reduce ‘exercise induced inflammation’ is necessary but taking away the valuable amino acids it can lead to an over-training effect. Overtraining in turn is perceived as “stress” and therefore leads to the release of even more cortisol in response. Shame on you Cortisol.
Excessive amounts of cortisol also leads to lower testosterone levels – the ratio of cortisol-to-testosterone is one of the indicators of your body’s ability to recover from the stress of exercise. More cortisol and less testosterone translate to a weakened ability to recover and build muscle. This is one reason why I encourage protein shakes to be consumed within 30-40 minutes of exercise (before exercise is a good idea too) and to be done so with carbohydrates. If carbohydrates are available the muscle recovery is enhanced because cortisol can use the carbs (glycogen) for fuel and hopefully spare the protein and its amino acids for muscle growth.
The cortisol story can get worse. When cortisol levels are high in reaction to a particular stress, the storage of fat in the abdomen is also heightened. Add to that stress-related eating (usually carbohydrates) and food binges, then it gets a whole lot worse, and fast. So we accumulated abdominal fat, then go on a diet by creating a caloric deficit (reducing calories below maintenance level), and what happens in reaction to the new “stress” of fewer calories? Yeah, got that right, cortisol levels increase! And another beauty to throw in, your immune system is suppressed when cortisol levels are too high so you are more susceptible to becoming ill. Oh boy.
There is obviously no avoiding cortisol, and you wouldn’t want to, but there are a few tricks we can use to mitigate the negative effects while still benefiting from all it does to help us.
First off, if you are exercising with weights (and I sincerely hope that you are) consume carbohydrates before your workout and then again immediately afterwards. Exercising without carbohydrates is not fun, the energy they provide during and afterwards is necessary to perform with intensity and then recuperate properly. Otherwise your stored glycogen will become depleted, causing more stress and thus more cortisol to be released. I subscribe to a 33% Fat, 33% Carbohydrate and 33% Protein diet right now with my last carb consumption coming no later than 2 hours after my workout. Almost all my carbohydrates are sandwiched around my workout and most of my fats come from eggs, flaxseed oil, almonds, walnuts and avocado plus the trace amounts found in fish, beef and chicken.
The second thing to consider in terms of combating the negative effects of cortisol is to change your angle of attack. Cortisol is necessary and trying to lower your natural levels seems like a bad idea, but by focusing on lowering the tissue inflammation (stress) caused by exercise can be highly useful. Doing exercise with lower intensity is not a desirable option because you in turn diminish your potential muscle growth or fat loss – but by taking 500g vitamin C and anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen right before your workout you can reduce the inflammation before it even happens.
In summary, avoid the negative effects of cortisol by providing your body with the energy it needs to power through workouts by consuming carbs and protein before exercise and immediately afterward to restore glycogen to the muscles and stimulate repair. Eat enough protein so that you have sufficient amino acids to build new muscle. And use basic, safe, over-the-counter pain medicine and vitamin C to minimize the tissue inflammation caused by excise. This formula will help maintain your body’s ability to gain muscle and burn fat.