By Chad Nicholls, Executive Editor
“Cortisol is BAD!” — The message has been emblazoned in our minds for years, leading us to believe that cortisol is the devil – that we must rid our bodies of it! You read it in articles, see it on television, and hear it on the radio. Over and over again we’re told that cortisol makes you fat, tired, and that it destroys lean muscle mass in the body; a virtual nightmare for the competitive bodybuilder!
But, before embarking on a crusade to eliminate cortisol from your life – let’s take a closer look at what cortisol is, why it can sabotage your muscle building efforts, and why we must have cortisol in our bodies to survive!
Cortisol is a “stress” hormone (a corticosteroid) and is also called a glucocorticoid. Cortisol is produced by the zona fasciculata of the adrenal cortex in the adrenal gland. Though it seems like an insignificant hormone when it comes to bodybuilding and athletic efforts, in the grand scheme of our bodily functions, cortisol plays a substantial role. Cortisol is crucial to how our bodies respond to and handle stress – both mental and physical stresses – and as a product of the adrenal system, it is involved in raising our blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar levels, and energy expenditure to endure such stresses. Additionally, slight increases in our cortisol levels can be helpful when we are brought face to face with a stressful situation or a crisis as it can help increase your tolerance for pain if you’ve been injured, give you a sudden burst of energy to react to a situation, heighten your senses and intellect to deal with a crisis, and it can give your immune system a surge if you’ve been injured. These are just a few of the positive effects of what cortisol can do for your body when elevated for brief periods of time.
But, problems can arise when the body produces too much cortisol and the body experiences elevated cortisol levels for extended periods of time. When cortisol levels are constantly elevated, rather than help the body deal with stress, this puts the body into a state of constant, chronic stress. And, when the body is constantly under stress, cortisol levels increase even more, making the problem worse. There are numerous things that can go wrong when the body’s cortisol levels are raised for long periods of time; high blood pressure, high blood sugar, insomnia, hypothyroidism, and protein catabolism are only a few of the bad side effects the body can experience when cortisol levels are heightened for an extended period of time.
On the flip side, one can also experience adverse effects from producing too little cortisol in the body. When the body does not have sufficient amounts of cortisol it can wreak havoc on the body’s metabolism – slowing it – as well as lowering blood pressure, decreasing cardiac output, and causing low blood sugar. Insufficient amounts of cortisol can also lead to a compromised immune system and the inability to fight off infections, muscle weakness, lethargy, thyroid issues and insomnia, to name a few of the negative issues from not enough cortisol production. Just as with all hormones, too much or too little cortisol is not a good thing.
The best way to keep your body functioning properly is to insure that your cortisol levels are at “optimum” levels. Knowing what level is best for your body is as simple as taking a salivary sample. Your physician can do this for you and put you on the right path to balancing cortisol levels within the body.
EFFECTS OF HIGH CORTISOL LEVELS IN BODYBUILDING
During my career as a nutritionist I have run across a couple of cases of athletes whose performances were afflicted by elevated cortisol levels. These athletes possessed exemplary amounts of muscle and a couple of weeks prior to a show, looked incredible. The only things left to perfect their physiques were the usual carb load and elimination of excess water from the body and they would look unbelievable. Unfortunately, the week of the show stress would kick in. I know everyone gets a bit nervous and uptight before a show and usually the cortisol is briefly raised the day of the show putting an athlete into “survival” mode and getting you through this stressful time. However, for these athletes, the cortisol kicked into overdrive and remained elevated the entire week prior to the show and stayed there until after the show. By the time they made it to the stage, they didn’t look like the same athletes I had seen 2 weeks prior to the show – or even 24 hours prior to the show. The elevated cortisol took its toll – flattened them out, softened them up and made them look unrecognizable. After pinpointing the problem, both sought treatment for their cortisol issues. Getting a handle on “stress” issues was the key in both instances. There are many ways to “self” eliminate stress from your body, but sometimes stronger measures are needed and medicinal help may be necessary. Though a doctor’s visit may be needed to identify what type of de-stressing therapy or medicine can help, sometimes it’s as easy as taking an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication to cure the problem.
BALANCE IS THE KEY
When healthy levels of cortisol are maintained in the body, they can help the adrenal system transform proteins into energy. Additionally, when the body is under stress whether it be physical or environmental (toxin build up within the body); healthy, balanced cortisol levels can serve as a natural anti-inflammatory. Furthermore, to these positive aspects, an evenly balanced cortisol level in the body can help regulate functions with your digestion, metabolism, organs, heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar, etc.
HOW DO YOU BALANCE CORTISOL LEVELS?
First and foremost, if you feel you have a cortisol issue, it’s always best to see your doctor to determine the cause of your cortisol issues and to rule out serious illness as the cause. Though in extreme cases of cortisol elevation your doctor may prescribe cortisol blockers, most of the time, you will find that cortisol issues are brought on by unnecessary stress and can be treated through diet, natural supplementation, physical exercise and mental exercise. If your doctor tells you that you are in need of eliminating stress from your life there are several ways of doing so prior to taking medication.
Removing ALL negative influences from your life is a great start! When it comes to being a competitive bodybuilder, this industry is full of negative influences – whether it is jealous people, internet trolls, or unsupportive people in your life – you must clean house! When it comes to covetous people – you need to know that jealousy of others is the root of most of the negativity individuals grapple with in their lives! Actually, jealousy is a great form of flattery – just let the jealous party up their cortisol levels – not yours! Obviously if someone is envious of you, you have something good to offer – feed off the positive energy that you have great qualities and let that be your release!
In today’s social media society, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the internet and posting progress pics and seeing how many people will “like” you or re-tweet what you have said. This is also an added stress that is not needed! If at all possible – I tell my athletes to say as little as possible or post as little as possible during their contest preps. The more you say and the more you post – just feeds the fire of the internet troll to mock and heckle you at a time when you are at your most vulnerable! But, if for some reason you feel you absolutely MUST post and tweet, the best retaliation I witnessed against negative internet influence was with Jim Carey. At one time he was being completely hammered for statements he made and rather than get on Twitter and go off on everyone – he thanked and re-tweeted EVERYONE who was an ass to him! It was amazing and put the stress on the troll rather than Jim, himself! AWESOME!
Finally, what may be the hardest thing to do is get rid of an “entourage” of negative friends, family, significant others. The sport of bodybuilding is very demanding and it’s not for everyone, but you would at least hope your friends, family and loved ones would support you in your endeavors. If for some reason they seem to be sabotaging your prep or aren’t behind you in your endeavors, cut them lose – at least until after the show! This may sound harsh – but there is nothing worse than trying to prep for a show with someone badgering you constantly about why you can’t go out to eat, go to a party, go out for a drink, or ask why you have to train so much or why you have to shut your social life down until after a show. This is the last type of added stress you need. Yes, bodybuilding can be a “selfish” sport and though I’m not telling you to just think of yourself and disregard everyone else around you, if competing is your passion, sit down and explain to your loved ones how important it is to you and that you just want their support during your prep. If the people in your life truly care about you and love you, they will either get on board to support you or step aside until after your show. If they leave your life for good – you are better off without them.
FOCUS ON A SOLID “8” TO COMBAT HIGH CORTISOL LEVELS
We know that sleep and rest are very important for muscle recovery and muscle growth – but it is also the key to maintaining a healthy cortisol level. Though it is difficult sometimes to get good sleep during a contest prep, let alone get good sleep with everything going on in life – work, training, contest prep, family, etc. – you still need to focus on getting 8 hours of sleep a night. Many studies conclude getting 6 or less hours of sleep a night results in a 50% higher cortisol level than those individuals getting at least 8 hours of sleep a night. The sleep doesn’t have to be successive either – if you can only get in 6 hours during the night, but are able to take a 2 hour nap during the day – this still counts as your “8” – so this is the magic number to maintaining a healthy cortisol level.
Sleep is essential to many aspects of training and contest prep. Not only does sleep and rest assist with muscle recuperation and recovery after training, but when you are properly rested, you increase the speed at which your muscles mend and repair – making your body grow stronger after training. A body constantly suffering from sleep deprivation will take longer to recover and to the extreme, will be more susceptible to illness, injury, and suffer growth impairment. A good eight (8) hours of sleep daily, in any combination, is great!
DIET AND SUPPLEMENTATION FOR LOWERING HIGH CORTISOL LEVELS
Even though as a competitive bodybuilder you follow a very strict diet with good proteins, fats and carbohydrates during contest prep, it is important to maintain consistency throughout the entire year. Now, I’m not saying to follow a contest prep diet all year long, but consistency in the types of foods you eat all year long are key. Following a structured off season plan is just as important as following the structured pre contest diet. Though there needs to be a distinction between what you eat in the off season as opposed to what you eat during your contest diet to keep you from hitting plateaus and maintain forward progress, it is very important to stay on a strict eating schedule during the off season. A constant diet of 5, 6 or 7 daily off season meals consisting of good proteins, fats, and carbohydrates in addition to moderate junk foods is imperative to keep the body on an even keel.
If you are inconsistent with the off season and take in only three daily meals that consist mainly of junk, when it comes time for the contest diet you will throw your body into a complete state of shock and put it into a constant state of stress. Though it is good to temporarily shock the system when switching over from off season to pre-contest, you don’t want to throw it out of whack to the point that it cannot recover properly and throw your cortisol production in to high gear for a long period of time.
To help maintain proper cortisol levels all year round it is important to incorporate many of the following foods and natural supplements:
*BCAA’s (crystallized are my favorite!)
*B5 & B6
*Licorice (pure licorice or licorice extract at a health food store – not Twizzlers!)
*And, if you are not dieting, a bit of pure dark chocolate is good to add in!
Listening to the messages your body sends you is extremely important. Remember, more is NOT always better when training – whether it is weight training or cardiovascular training. Overtraining can put a great amount of stress not only on the muscles but on your internal system. Listen to your body – this is the key indicator of when you are ready to train again. If it’s time to train a certain body part again and it is still very sore, skip it – it’s better to come back to it later in the week than train “on schedule” stress out the body more and risk muscle injury. By keeping your body in a constant state of stress, not only will your cortisol levels be raised, but you will also risk injury (more stress) and it will take even longer for your body to heal and recuperate.
I still cannot stress how important it is to see a professional if you fear your cortisol levels are hindering your progress as an athlete or just hindering your health. Before following any of the suggestions in this article to create a “balanced” cortisol level – talk to your doctor, have your cortisol levels tested, and most importantly rule out any serious disorder first!
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