Cortisol, Stress And Body
By Tom Venuto -
Burn The Fat, Feed The
Straight Answers To Top 20 Questions About "The Stress Hormone"
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, its 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
Big Claims, Little
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
- 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
- Cortisol supplements speed up
The advertising claims
include just enough scientific fact to make even the savviest consumers say,
That makes sense, I think Ill try that. They also hit home
emotionally by focusing on common hot buttons such as stress (who isnt 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 dont 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
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
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
What is a normal level of
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 bodys 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
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
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.
If cortisol is related to
abdominal obesity, then will taking a cortisol suppressing pill get rid of
abdominal (belly) fat?
No. Just because there is an
association between high cortisol levels and abdominal body fat doesnt
mean that a taking a cortisol-suppressing pill will remove abdominal body fat.
The studies which showed a relationship between cortisol and body fat did not
test whether suppressing cortisol removes fat that is already deposited on your
Does stress make you
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
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.
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, Cushings syndrome is a disease of
high cortisol levels, while Addisons is a disease of low cortisol
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.
Should you take a
cortisol-suppressing supplement to help you lose weight?
In my opinion, no,
absolutely not. Cortisol suppressing supplements are not a valid solution for
losing weight. The FTC has filed lawsuits against the makers of Cortislim and
Cortistress, charging them with making false and unsubstantiated claims that
their products can cause weight loss. Lydia Parnes, acting director of the
FTCs bureau of consumer protection says, The defendants
claims fly in the face of reality. No pill can replace a healthy program of
diet and exercise. Reducing excessively high cortisol levels through
supplement use may prove beneficial in some ways for hard training athletes.
However, pills do not make you lose fat. Body fat is lost by creating a caloric
deficit through exercise and nutrition.
Should you take a
cortisol-suppressing supplement to help control your stress levels?
There are quite a few
supplements, mostly herbs, which are reputed to have calming,
relaxing, tranquilizing, stress-relieving
or anti-anxiety effects. These include Magnolia bark, kava kava,
valerian, L-theanine and too many others to mention. However, very few studies
exist which have directly tested the effects of these herbs on cortisol levels.
Although some people may find value in these types of products, the ideal
solution is to reduce the stress or change your perception of the stress to
lessen its physical effects. Treating symptoms does not remove causes. It can
be dangerous to band-aid the effects of stress while the stress
remains in place.
What should you do if you
have a lot of stress in your life?
It makes sense to take steps
to reduce stress in your life and lessen the impact of stressors that cannot be
avoided. Trying to avoid stress completely is not possible, nor is it
desirable. Stress is an important part of life because you cant achieve
positive adaptations and growth without stress to trigger them. Its
continuous stress you want to avoid. Its okay to expose yourself to
stress, provided there is a period of rest afterwards so you can fully recover.
One of the best ways to keep
cortisol in the normal range is to reduce stress and allow time for recovery
and renewal. There are effective and natural means of reducing stress that
dont cost a penny, including getting out in nature, deep breathing,
enhancing sleep quality, relaxation exercises, meditation and
visualization-guided imagery. It's important to develop a calm mind and sense
Whats in those
cortisol pills anyway?
The ingredients can vary in
type and quantity from one brand to the next. Some ingredients are included in
the formulations to have a relaxing or stress reducing effect, some are
included to reduce cortisol levels, while others are aimed at insulin and blood
sugar stabilization. Cortislim, for example, contains Magnolia bark, beta
sitosoterol, theanine, green tea extract, bitter orange peel extract (source of
synephrine), banaba leaf extract, vanadium, vitamin C, calcium and Chromium.
Other ingredients that are
often used in the various product formulations include Epidemium, phytosterols,
tyrosine, Branched chain amino acids, ginseng, ashwaganda, astragalus, kava
kava, St. Johns wort, Melatonin, SAM-e, Valerian, Gingko Biloba,
Phosphatidyl Serine (PS), Acetyl L-carnitine and Glutamine. Reviewing all of
these is beyond the scope of this article.
If you decide to take a
cortisol suppressing supplement what should you look for?
Before you even think about
supplements (or drugs), keep in mind that unnatural suppression of cortisol may
not be wise or necessary, especially if you havent used all the natural
cortisol and stress management strategies at your disposal first. Once your
nutrition, training and recovery bases are covered, there is some solid
research showing that certain supplements may be beneficial, especially for
athletes engaged in extremely hard training.
Carbohydrate consumed with
lean protein immediately after training has a cortisol suppressing effect. High
glycemic index (GI) carbs in particular, cause an insulin spike, which not only
helps restore muscle glycogen, stimulates protein synthesis and kick starts the
recovery process, it also helps lower the exercise-induced rise in cortisol.
The research supporting this practice is substantial. (This should serve as a
warning to people on low carb diets that are so strict that they dont
even allow small amounts of carbs after workouts). Rather than solid food, many
athletes prefer a liquid meal using a commercial post workout drink
containing whey protein and maltodextrin plus dextrose or glucose (fast acting
protein and high GI carbs) because the rapid absorption time may speed
Vitamin C, known mainly for
cold or flu protection and antioxidant properties, may decrease cortisol
levels. A study by Marsit, et al showed a reduction in cortisol levels in elite
weightlifters taking 1000 mg. of vitamin C per day. Other studies have reported
Phosphatidyl serine (PS) is
a phospholipid, which appears to have cortisol suppressing properties. Studies
by Fahey and Monteleone have shown that daily doses of 800 mg can reduce
cortisol. These studies did not conclude that PS would help you lose weight or
gain more muscle.
Glutamine is an amino acid,
which in some studies, has been shown to decrease cortisol and prevent a
decrease in protein synthesis. Many strength athletes swear by glutamine for
improved recovery, but the research is still not conclusive about efficacy or
dosages for athletes or bodybuilders. Much of the research on Glutamine was
performed on patients recovering from surgery, burns or traumas (severe
stresses to the body).
Acetyl-L Carnitine (ALC) has
been studied in Alzheimers patients as a method of improving cognitive
function. One study showed that long term use of Acetyl L Carnitine lowered
cortisol in the Alzheimers patients. Research on rats and mice has shown that
ALC increases luteinizing hormone, which may in turn elevate testosterone.
Whether these findings carry over to healthy athletes has yet to be proven, but
some coaches and athletes believe that ALC lowers cortisol and elevates
Its important to note
that the research on some of these substances is often conflicting and
inconclusive. It's also important to note that many of the cortisol suppressing
supplements which are marketed to athletes or to people seeking weight loss do
not contain doses anywhere near the amounts that were used in the research.
(Yet another way that supplement companies deceive consumers).
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. Its 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
- 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).
How do you spot a weight
loss pill scam?
The cortisol pill is just
one in a long string of bogus weight loss products, and it wont be the
last! Why? Because weight loss supplements are big business! Eight or nine
figure fortunes have been made from the sales of a single product, which was
later proven to be a total farce.
How do you protect yourself?
Do your homework! Dont take anything unless you know exactly whats
in the product, why its in the product and how much is in the product.
Review the scientific research. Dont buy a weight loss product just
because a radio personality says it works! Dont jump on the phone with
your credit card in hand after watching a thirty-minute infomercial! In this
day and age, you have to be smarter than that!
The United States Federal
Trade Commission (FTC) is the government agency responsible for monitoring
deceptive advertising. Recently, the FTC published their new RED
FLAG brochure and their deception in advertising workshop, designed to
help advertising media and consumers to screen out bogus weight loss claims for
nonprescription drugs, supplements, creams, wraps, devices and patches.
You can download the FTC
Commissions Red Flag Brochure (11 pages, free download)
Deception in weight loss
advertising workshop (74 pages, free download)
For more information on the
FTC lawsuit against Cortislim and Cortistress:
FTC TARGETS PRODUCTS
CLAIMING TO AFFECT THE STRESS HORMONE CORTISOL
TARGETED BY FTC CLASS ACTION LAWSUITS
FTC: CORTISOL CLAIMS
Excessive cortisol is not
good. But cortisol is not inherently bad; its a vitally important hormone
and part of your bodys natural stress response. Cortisol does not make
you fat. Stress does not make you fat. Stress may lead to increased
Increased appetite may lead to eating too much
much makes you gain fat. Make sense?
Cortisol suppressing agents
may have some practical uses. But rather than thinking of cortisol supplements
as a weight loss miracle (which they most surely are not), get yourself on a
solid exercise and nutrition program and seek natural ways enhance recovery and
reduce stress. By doing this first, you may be pleasantly surprised to find
that youre losing fat and gaining muscle and there isnt even a need
to take a supplement at all.
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