Hormones are incredibly complex, and it’s difficult to talk about one hormone without talking about other cascading hormones. Today, I want to break down what cortisol is, what can happen if you have too much of it and how to tell, and my recommendations on how to keep it in check.
Before we begin, remember that this is not medical advice, and to seek advice from your doctor or functional medicine practitioner if you are having severe issues. This post is for informational purposes only.
If you feel like you’re doing everything right – putting in work at the gym, you’re trying to eat less, and still not seeing results – it could be because of cortisol imbalance. Often, too much exercise and too little eating can have the reverse effects that you’re hoping for because they can mess with your cortisol and hormonal balance.
One of my goals, which I hope is evident by my content, is to encourage people to get away from the damaging “grind yourself into the ground if you want to look good” mentality. Not only do I believe this is damaging to our body image, joints, and mental health, but it doesn’t work for most people long-term, and one of those reasons is related to cortisol.
Cortisol is a stress hormone secreted by the adrenal glands.
Cortisol is secreted when there is perceived stress. This perceived word is important because two people can go through the same circumstance, and one person could view it as stressful. Another person could respond calmly and be unaffected. Our brains don’t know the difference between perceived stress and a physical event.
This is why people with anxiety who are picturing bad things happen to them can manifest with physical symptoms even though no physical event has occurred.
To illustrate how two brains can differently interpret the same circumstance, I’ll use the example of travel because we just moved from the east coast to California, so it’s fresh in my mind.
Airports don’t really stress me out. At least not to the extent that they do for some people. My husband, on the other hand, is a ball of stress in an airport. He’s gotten better, but he’s the type of person that wants to get there 3 hours early and is stressed going through TSA and is hurrying around just to sit at the gate for an hour.
We are both on the same flight, going to the same place, and one person responds with relatively low stress, and one with relatively high stress. I’m giving him a hard time, but my point with this is that you can’t always blame your circumstances for your stress.
So your brain perceives stress emotionally or mentally, or there is physical stress like exercise. It can be a big event or a subtle event. It can be eating the wrong thing, worrying, a negative thought. When you perceive stress, cortisol is triggered to release.
Stress perception occurs in our midbrain in the reticular activating system. This is the part of our brain responsible for keeping us on high alert to stay safe. This is where we initiate the signal for cortisol release.
The reticular activating system sends a signal to the locus coeruleus.
This part of the brain sends a message to the hypothalamus, which is the part of our brain responsible for regulating the connection between the nervous system and the endocrine system, or the brain/spinal cord/nerves and your hormones.
The hypothalamus sends a signal to the pituitary, which is in charge of all the hormones. Your pituitary sends a signal to your adrenal glands to secrete cortisol.
The pathway starts in the primitive part of your brain, in your brainstem, and passes through different channels of your brain, where cortisol, a stress messenger, is released to trigger another cascade of events in your body.
Cortisol travels to our liver to release blood sugar. More blood sugar will allow your tissues like your muscles to have easy, available fuel so they can be powered to either fight or flight from the perceived danger.
Cortisol should be cyclical, where it rises in the morning and falls at night. Healthy levels of cortisol will follow the sun.
Primitively – the cortisol rises in the morning so we can keep ourselves alive, find food, etc.
And at night, when we have food/shelter, and we are safe, the cortisol falls again so we can fall asleep, recover from the catabolic/stressful events during the day, and do it all again tomorrow.
Cortisol is a catabolic hormone, meaning it breaks tissues down. It’s destructive to our tissues because it pulls out glucose from our cells to power our bodies. This isn’t a bad thing if it’s followed by the balance of a build-up or an anabolic process.
At night, our anabolic hormones kick in to recover the catabolic effects of hormones like cortisol during the day. Anabolic hormones like testosterone, growth hormone, and melatonin kick in to repair tissue, recover our bodies, and allow us to be stronger and more resilient the next day hopefully.
One of the keys to health and balance in pretty much every process in your body is to balance catabolic with anabolic. Balance stress with recovery. There is so much emphasis on the stress in the fitness industry with the pressure to work out intensely seven days/week, and not enough people questioning if that’s maybe too much stress and if that is setting you back.
When your cortisol levels are not healthy, people will often see high levels at night. When you have elevated cortisol in the evening, you will inhibit your body’s natural process from repairing at night and put out growth hormone. This will disrupt sleep, and therefore brain and body recovery.
Suppose you can’t recover at night because your cortisol is so elevated. In that case, you aren’t going to see muscle growth and results from your workouts, potentially gain weight, be tired, and generally not able to recover from your stressors or your training during the day.
What’s happened over time is that we have changed cortisol from an acute hormone to a chronic hormone. We’ve disconnected our sense of natural living with the sun. We are on our screens at all hours of the day, and after the sun has set, messaging to our brains that they should be awake and alert. On top of that, we add excessive amounts of exercise, adding another considerable stress to our system, and the issue can compound.
It’s important to note that it’s not about eliminating cortisol altogether; it’s about getting the rhythm right. Disease and pathology occur when these loops are disrupted and out of balance.
Cortisol and our Body Composition
So let’s talk a bit about cortisol’s relationship to body composition.
First, I always like to say that I’m not a “weight loss” program. I believe in building your body up by dosing exercise in a way that will improve your metabolic system, muscular system, and hopefully even your body image, all while keeping your joints healthy and preserved. Many times weight loss is a side effect if someone is eating correctly for their body. I tend to think body composition improves when you focus on the right things, like building muscle, stressing your system appropriately, and of course, fueling properly for your body with healthy, balanced meals.
But cortisol is an essential player in your ability to gain muscle and improve your body composition.
Cortisol is a stimulating hormone. Its job is to key you up to be ready to fight or flight from danger. Cortisol will increase blood sugar, allowing you an easy fuel source to power your muscles so you can run away or fight your way to safety.
In chronic elevation of cortisol, you see negative consequences. Cortisol signals to your body to pull glucose out of muscles and liver to give you energy, which is why you can see muscle loss with chronically elevated cortisol. This is why elevated cortisol is so damaging to your body composition. Because as I’ve said over and over, muscle is critical to keep your metabolism high, and with less muscle, you will more easily gain fat.
So your body has more circulating glucose because it is sensing you need available fuel sources since you may have to fight or flight at any given moment.
Because you have more circulating glucose, you have to secrete more of another hormone called insulin to help deal with the blood sugar increase.
Let’s talk quickly about insulin, which is another important hormone in this cascade.
When you eat, your food is broken down by your digestive system to take the nutrients and fuel your body.
Glucose is a molecule broken down from your food and travels via the bloodstream to different cells in your body to fuel them. This causes your blood sugar levels to rise.
Your pancreas responds by secreting insulin. Insulin is what signals to the muscle cells to bring in glucose for energy to power your movement. Without insulin, your cells wouldn’t be able to use glucose to power their processes like exercising.
So when you have increased levels of cortisol, you produce more blood sugar, then more insulin. The more insulin you secrete, the less sensitive your receptors get, and you can start to get insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is when your body has elevated insulin levels, which puts you in fat storage mode.
The less sensitive your receptors, you secrete even MORE insulin and circulating blood sugar. It becomes a chronic spiral, and the circulating blood sugar is often turned into fat, typically around your waistline.
Insulin resistance is not just for overweight people. Some people can look great on the outside, but their insulin sensitivity is not good on the inside, which will lead to health issues because your body can often compensate for insulin resistance for years. So it’s essential to consider these things and not wait until you have symptoms to do it.
So insulin resistance is not good, and insulin sensitivity is desirable. The more insulin sensitive you are, the easier it is to improve body composition. This is because cells like your muscle cells can more easily use the sugar in your blood to power your movements than shuttling that same sugar to fat cells.
Exercise is key to improving your insulin sensitivity, and I’m hoping to bring more guests in the future to talk about how to eat to improve insulin sensitivity as well.
In addition to messing with insulin levels, chronically elevated cortisol can also make you feel malnourished, which will make you hungrier. When cortisol signals to your body to pull out the glucose reserves in your cells to use in that emergency, you’ve emptied those reserves. This will trigger you to re-fill those reserves by craving carbs like candy and cake to fill those reserves quickly.
I recently had an Evlo member who has type 1 diabetes post on our private Facebook group about the improvements in her blood sugar. And I like this story because it objectively shows how a more gentle workout CAN improve these things and that more intensity and/or frequency is not always better.
She had come from a background of intense and frequent exercise. She said this:
“I have lost 11 pounds since starting Evlo 7 weeks ago! I’m a type 1 diabetic, and my blood sugar control is the best it’s ever been. I attached a couple of pics of my glucose monitor weekly reports so you can see “before” and “after.” Thank you, Shannon!”
Her blood glucose had improved by about 15% from mid-Jan of 2021 to mid-April of 2021.
When I reached out to her to ask if I could use this message on the podcast, she sent me another message adding that she has more energy than ever, and she finally was able to re-landscape her backyard with the newfound energy levels. She also mentioned that her hunger cues were more stable.
This is someone that is on what I call the upward spiral. This woman is slowly improving her hormonal responses by dosing exercise correctly, which enhances her energy and blood sugar levels, allows her more available energy to be more active and do the things she loves without feeling exhausted, improves hunger cues, and probably even eat more intuitively.
All this because she changed her exercise frequency, thereby improving her stress response and thus her blood sugar levels.
Again, I need to emphasize that cortisol is not a bad thing if it’s balanced. And exercise can improve your response to stress and balance your hormones. Check back on Thursday to learn more about the connection between exercise and cortisol, and how you can use this information to your advantage!