It seems that every time science uncovers some type of association between body fat and anything, opportunistic entrepreneurs are waiting in the shadows to create a product and a marketing campaign around it. They ride the wave into the multi millions, until the buzz dies down or until the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sues and slaps a padlock on their warehouse doors. Then, it’s on to the “next big thing in weight loss,” because they know there will always be a gullible crowd eagerly waiting for the next quick fix. The most recent example is when researchers discovered a correlation between cortisol and abdominal body fat. Cortisol was then blamed as the latest culprit in the obesity problem, and cortisol-suppressing pills were touted as the “miracle solution.”
Big Claims, Little Proof
After a web search on the subject of cortisol, here are some of the claims you may find:
- Stress makes you fat
- Cortisol is what makes you fat
- Cortisol reducing supplements control stress
- Cortisol reducing supplements reduce belly fat
- Cortisol reducing supplements get rid of “stress fat”
- Cortisol reducing supplements balance hormone levels that cause stress
- Cortisol reducing supplements increase muscle growth
- Cortisol supplements suppress appetite
- Cortisol supplements speed up metabolism
The advertising claims include just enough scientific fact to make even the savviest consumers say, “That makes sense, I think I’ll try that.” They also hit home emotionally by focusing on common hot buttons such as stress (who isn’t at least a little stressed in this day and age?) Brilliant marketing. Convincing. Unfortunately, most of the claims being made are completely false, with only a tiny thread of truth woven in.
Cortisol is a very important hormone that you must understand if you want to get maximum results from your training and nutrition programs, but if you don’t educate yourself, you may become one of the millions of victims to fall for the latest fads. The answers to the frequently asked questions in this article will arm you with the science-based facts, while helping you steer clear of the hype-based scams.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands. It falls into a category of hormones known as “glucocorticoids”, referring to their ability to increase blood glucose levels. Cortisol is the primary glucocorticoid.
Why does your body produce cortisol?
Cortisol is a stress hormone. Your body produces cortisol in response to stress, physical, mental or emotional. This can include extremely low calorie diets, intense training, high volume training, lack of quality sleep as well as common daily stresses such as job pressures, fights with your spouse or being caught in a traffic jam. Trauma, injury and surgery are also major stressors to the body (much of the research done on cortisol and stress has been done on recovering patients, and such findings may not carry over to healthy, athletic populations).
What does cortisol do?
Cortisol is part of the fight or flight response. Faced with a “life or death” situation, cortisol increases the flow of glucose (as well as protein and fat) out of your tissues and into the bloodstream in order to increase energy and physical readiness to handle the stressful situation or threat.
How do you know whether your cortisol levels are high?
You can get your cortisol levels tested if you choose to. The most common method of testing is a blood test (blood cortisol levels). Saliva and 24 hour urine tests are also available.
What is a normal level of cortisol?
Cortisol levels are higher in adults than children and levels fluctuate throughout each 24 hour period, so tests must account for the time of day. Cortisol concentrations are highest in the early morning around 6 – 8 a.m. and they are also elevated after exercise (a normal part of your body’s response to exercise). The lowest levels are usually around midnight. According to the Medline Encyclopedia, normal levels of cortisol in the bloodstream at 8:00 a.m. are 6-23 mcg/dl.
Should you get your cortisol levels tested?
For serious competitive athletes, it may be worth the time, expense and inconvenience to have cortisol tests done on a regular basis. Some strength and conditioning coaches insist on it. For the average trainee, as long as you are aware of the factors that produce excessive cortisol and take steps to keep it in the normal, healthy range, then testing is probably not necessary.
Is cortisol related to abdominal obesity?
Yes. There is a link between high cortisol levels and storage of body fat, particularly “visceral” abdominal body fat (also known as intra-abdominal fat). Visceral fat is stored deeper in the abdominal cavity and around the internal organs, whereas “regular” fat is stored below the skin (known as subcutaneous fat). Visceral fat is particularly unhealthy because it is a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes.
Does Cortisol Make you fat?
No, cortisol is not “the thing” that makes you fat. In fact, one of the effects of cortisol is to increase the breakdown of stored adipose tissue into glycerol and fatty acids where it can enter the bloodstream and then be used as energy. High levels of cortisol are merely one contributing factor to storage of abdominal fat, not the primary cause. An excess of calories from too much food and not enough exercise is what makes you fat.
Does stress make you fat?
No. If it did, then everyone who is stressed would be gaining fat. Many people lose weight while under stress. In some studies, test subjects with the highest cortisol levels lost the most weight. Stress, by itself, does not increase body fat. However, if stress stimulates appetite and leads to overeating, then the excess calories from “stress eating” can make you fatter.
Is cortisol is bad for you?
Cortisol is not “bad for you,” it is a hormone that is essential for life as part of our natural stress response. There are many hormones in our bodies, which in the proper amounts, maintain good health, but in excess or in deficiency, contribute to health problems. Cortisol is no different. You want to maintain a healthy, normal level of cortisol, not suppress your cortisol to nothing or allow it to remain elevated.
Chronically elevated cortisol levels may have a variety of negative effects. Cortisol is catabolic and elevated cortisol levels can cause the loss of muscle tissue by facilitating the process of converting lean tissue into glucose. An excess of cortisol can also lead to a decrease in insulin sensitivity, increased insulin resistance, reduced kidney function, hypertension, suppressed immune function, reduced growth hormone levels, and reduced connective tissue strength. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol can also decrease strength and performance in athletes. Incidentally, Cushing’s syndrome is a disease of high cortisol levels, while Addison’s is a disease of low cortisol levels.
Can suppressing cortisol improve your muscle growth and strength?
High cortisol levels can increase muscle protein breakdown and inhibit protein synthesis (building up muscle proteins), so a chronically elevated cortisol level is clearly counterproductive to building muscle. Bringing elevated cortisol levels back to normal may improve recovery, strength, hypertrophy and performance. However, there is no scientific evidence that reducing your cortisol levels below normal will have any effect on increasing muscle growth.
How can you lower your cortisol levels naturally?
You can lower cortisol naturally. In fact, if you are overtrained, unnatural cortisol suppression may be nothing more than a “band aid,” and continued overtraining can lead to adrenal exhaustion, which could take months to remedy. Sometimes the best thing you can do is take a rest or decrease your training volume and intensity rather than artificially attempt to suppress cortisol. Symptoms of overtraining include elevated resting pulse, sleep disturbances, fatigue, decreased strength and decreased performance.
- Avoid very low calorie diets, especially for prolonged periods of time. Low calorie dieting is a major stress to the body. Low calorie diets increase cortisol while decreasing testosterone.
- Use stress reduction techniques (stress, anger, anxiety, and fear can raise cortisol)
- Avoid continuous stress. Stress is an important part of growth. It’s when you remain under constant stress without periods of recovery that you begin breaking down.
- Avoid overtraining by keeping workouts intense, but brief (cortisol rises sharply after 45-60 min of strength training)
- Avoid overtraining by matching your intensity, volume and duration to your recovery ability. Decrease your training frequency, and or take a layoff if necessary.
- Suppress cortisol and maximize recovery after workouts with proper nutrition: Consume a carb-protein meal or drink immediately after your workout.
- Get plenty of quality sleep (sleep deprivation, as a stressor, can raise cortisol).
- Avoid or minimize use of stimulants; caffeine, ephedrine, synephrine, etc.
- Limit alcohol (large doses of alcohol elevate cortisol).
- Stay well hydrated (at least one study has suggested that dehydration may raise cortisol).