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Cortisol and Fat Gain

We are conditioned to believe that more exercise and less calories is better, but did you know that it might be doing you more harm than good? Let’s look at the role overdoing it plays in cortisol production and fat gain.

Most people exercise to lose the weight, stay lean, build muscle and be healthy. If you want your body to look and feel better, you have to exercise and eat smarter. Exercising excessively and starving won’t do you any good because it causes adrenal fatigue and that, in turn, will keep you fat, not lean.

What role does cortisol play?

Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands. It is a crucial hormone that has wide-reaching effects on many functions of the body. It is a stress hormone that your body produces in response to physical, mental, or emotional stress; part of the “fight or flight” response giving us energy, strength, focus, motivation, and courage. But like many great things, there is a drawback. It comes with a crash, much like caffeine, that leaves the body feeling drained.

Most of our cells contain cortisol receptors; therefore, cortisol will affect varied functions in the body. Among these functions are controlling blood sugar levels, regulating metabolism, controlling salt and water balance in the body, regulating calcium absorption and bone formation, helping to control blood pressure, helping to reduce inflammation, and even helping with memory formulation. Cortisol also supports the developing fetus during pregnancy. As you can see cortisol is imperative for survival; we just aren’t meant to have high levels of it at all times.

What if your cortisol is too high?

Chronic elevation of cortisol causes muscle wasting. The process begins when the spike of cortisol, through gluconeogenesis, causes the creation of new sugar and a subsequent spike in blood sugar. The sugar is created by breaking down proteins into amino acids which are then turned into sugar by the liver. While a little cortisol helps to regulate blood sugar, chronic elevation results in muscle wasting. Loss of muscle means a slower metabolism.

This isn’t the only reason chronic elevation of cortisol creates excess bodyfat. Fat cells have four times the number of cortisol receptors making them particularly sensitive to it. That glucose that was just dumped into your bloodstream comes with a corresponding insulin response. Insulin’s job is to take your blood sugar down to a normal level. The insulin turns the excess sugar into triglycerides which is stored in your fat cells as bodyfat for later energy use. Repeated and excess production of insulin over time leads to a fat stomach, and eventually diabetes.

What causes chronic elevated cortisol?

Contributing factors for chronic elevated cortisol can include extended extremely low-calorie diets, intense training with insufficient recovery, too much high-volume training, too much cardio, lack of quality sleep, and common chronic daily stresses involving job and family. Trauma, injury, and surgery are also major stressors to the body.

Did you know that for people who are stressed out all the time, too much cardio can push their bodies to hold on to every calorie like it’s the last one it will ever see? Spending hours on the spin bike might feel great to some, but very counter-productive for those wanting fat loss. Plus, the metabolic boost you get after a session of intense weightlifting can last up to 24-hours, while the boost from a long run lasts only a couple of hours. So, while cardio can be awesome, it is important to do the right amount. Put more emphasis on your lifting to build muscle, bone, and boost your metabolism.

And when it comes to food, if you eat nothing, of course, you will lose weight initially. But who can sustain that? Remember cortisol and what effect it eventually has on your body? You will also become so tired from relying on adrenal hormones like cortisol for energy that the fatigue becomes too much and you will end up overeating.

Here are my 6 tips on eating, exercising, and keeping your cortisol levels balanced:

  1. Keep your workouts intense but take your individual fitness level into consideration. Avoid overtraining by matching your intensity, volume, and duration to your current fitness level. You can push the envelope a bit to continue to progress but be careful not to make a habit of overdoing it every workout. While a seasoned athlete can train longer and harder, for some people cortisol rises sharply after 45-60 min of strength training.  To be an elite athlete or champion, you must walk a tightrope between grueling intense training and recovery, always being mindful of not going over the edge. 

  2. Decrease your training frequency if you aren’t recovering sufficiently. After weeks of super high intensity training, it is often warranted to back off for a time.  You may find when you back off and let your body heal, that is when the strength and gains can be realized.

  3. Control cortisol levels and maximize recovery after workouts with proper nutrition. Consume a carb-protein meal or drink immediately after your workout.

  4. Get plenty of quality sleep since sleep deprivation is a stressor and can raise cortisol levels.

  5. Avoid or minimize use of stimulants like caffeine. A little caffeine in the morning, or pre-workout will generally not put you over the edge. However, we all know people that live off of stimulants to the point they are artificially animating their bodies. I’ve been there myself. There was a time when I would lie down at night and my body would practically jump off the bed just as I was about to fall asleep. I was so hyped up on caffeine, that my body would revolt when I was trying to sleep. Decades ago, when ephedrine was legal in products, many of us used it to train. It gave a person great energy. Then the crash, and adaptation came where instead of one pill, you had to take 2 to get the same effect. Pretty soon, you blow out your adrenal glands, and are swimming in cortisol.

  6. Keep hydrated. The primary liquid you consume should be water. Also, cutting out alcohol is best since large doses of alcohol elevate cortisol.

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