“Antioxidants for Bodybuilding”: Do you need them?
“Tricks to Lose Belly Fat”… that are starting to annoy me

“Reduce Cortisol Levels” to Gain Muscle and Lose Fat

It’s an understatement to say that to “reduce cortisol levels” would be in the best interest of anyone wanting to get into better shape.  Cortisol is a ‘catabolic’ hormone; it breaks down the amino acids of which muscle tissue consists. Muscle is the long-term engine block of the body’s basal metabolic rate; increased amounts of it burn more calories even while we sleep. Thus, to ‘reduce cortisol levels’ is to provide an endogenous environment that helps build muscle and burn fat.

But we want to merely ‘reduce cortisol levels’ – not eliminate cortisol altogether. That’s because cortisol is a hormone that’s released by the adrenal glands for a Seated_Dumbbell_Curlspurpose. It aids the immune system and helps fight inflammation when the body is under stress. At times of acute stress (‘fight-or-flight’), it works with the body’s adrenaline by converting amino acids and lipids into glucose so that immediate energy is available for the body to avert a perceived threat. In simple terms, it’s the body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ fuel-producing hormone.

That sounds really useful if being chased through the wilderness by a four-legged animal; it’s nothing less than a self-preservation mechanism. But modern-day mankind finds itself more often pumped full of stress hormones while running late in the traffic jams of a concrete jungle than by running from saber-toothed tigers in a Taro-greened jungle. This makes high cortisol levels likely to occur unnecessarily and too often, which can lead to a problem of chronically high levels of this potentially damaging hormone.

Therefore, in contemporary life, our biggest challenge is to ‘reduce cortisol levels’, both for health reasons and for improving our muscle-to-fat ratio.

‘Reduce Cortisol Levels’ to Preserve Muscle Tissue

Whether you’re an athlete wanting to gain strength, a bodybuilder wanting to build muscle, or a person desiring to just improve your body shape, you’ll need to create an ‘anabolic state’ within your body most of the time in order to reach your goals. Notice I said “most of the time.” That’s because when we subject our bodies to workouts, we’re intentionally creating the opposite – a ‘catabolic state’; one of tissue breakdown. I find it a bit amusing when people say things like “get in and out of the gym fast” so that you “won’t go into a catabolic state.” That’s funny because the only way muscles will be stimulated to grow is by first being subjected to catabolism. In fact, if the muscles are “under-catabolized” (not adequately challenged during workouts), they’ll no more have a reason to get bigger and stronger than if they’re exposed to excessive catabolism.

This raises a relevant point in our topic on how to ‘reduce cortisol levels.’ Yes, cortisol release is increased by exercise. But why should this matter? The whole purpose of muscle building workouts is to tear down the tissue so it will be stimulated into compensatory size and strength growth. Thus, if a product or workout technique is touted as being a reducer of workout-induced cortisol levels, your critical reasoning skills should be naturally skeptical of even the idea behind such a notion.

But right after your workout, it’s a different story. Your inter-workout rest time should be accompanied by measures to reduce cortisol levels as much as possible. That’s because high levels of this potentially destructive hormone can wreak havoc on the speed at which your muscles recuperate and whether they’ll be ready for additional stress once your workout day rolls around again.

‘Reduce Cortisol Levels’: “Okay, just don’t get stressed out… right?”

The simple answer on how to reduce cortisol levels is to substantially reduce psychological stress. Of course, that’s easier said than done; telling a chronically stressed person to “stop stressing” is akin to telling an insomniac to “relax and go to sleep.” As soon as we think about how much we need to reduce stress, we’re apt to begin stressing about the realization that it’s not working and we’re still stressed.

This makes reducing cortisol through lowered stress response something that needs to be accomplished indirectly and at a largely subconscious level. It’s very doable, but requires the highly stressed person to begin shifting his or her ‘internal representations’ from ones of worry about ‘what could go wrong’ to ‘expectations of what will go right.’ After all, people with relatively low levels of internal stress – even while taking on high degrees of external demand – typically hold thoughts and beliefs that everything will favorably fall into place for them.

If you don’t find yourself there yet, that’s okay. And if you’re not quite ready to take up meditation or a hardcore yoga class, there are ways for you to reduce cortisol levels or at least defend your hard-earned strength and muscle gains against the frontal attacks of high cortisol.

 

Woman_punching_Heavy_Bag
'Reducing Cortisol Levels': Can 'gross impact' exercise such as hitting a heavy bag help release chronic stress that causes cortisol levels to rise?

 

‘Reduce Cortisol Levels’: Simple Steps to Defend Your Body

Here are some steps you can take to reduce cortisol levels and, thus, help keep your body in an anabolic state during rest days between workouts:

  • Eat Lower Glycemic Meals: Start your day off with a breakfast that’s high in lean protein, good fats, and high fiber/low glycemic carbohydrates. This will help to control cortisol levels in the morning when they tend to be higher. By contrast, starchy carbs and sugary foods will tend to exacerbate the body’s propensity for high levels of cortisol in the morning.  
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  • Get Enough Vitamin C: Studies have shown that vitamin C supplementation can lower cortisol levels and that vitamin C deficiency might result in high cortisol levels. Dosages that seem to blunt cortisol appear to be in the range of 1 to 2 grams per day. Of course, the best way to get plenty of vitamin C for cortisol reduction would be by eating foods high in ascorbic acids such as broccoli, tomatoes, oranges, grapefruit, Brussels sprouts, peppers, strawberries, etc. 
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  • Use a good Vitamin/Mineral Supplement: In addition to a well-balanced diet, a comprehensive multi-vitamin/mineral supplement can help the body deal with stress and raised cortisol levels. Of particular importance are B-complex vitamins, magnesium, and (as mentioned) vitamin C.
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  • Get Adequate Sleep: Not getting enough sleep will raise cortisol levels. Therefore a simple way to reduce cortisol is to get a restful 6 to 8 hours of slumber each night. However, similar to telling ourselves to “stop stressing”, this is sometimes easier said than done. That’s because raised adrenalin and cortisol levels can likewise cause insomnia. For this reason, many of us need to better handle stress in order for insomnia to become manageable. But the point here is simple: When you are physically capable of getting adequate sleep each night, don’t deprive yourself of doing so if you want to maximize your body’s fitness potential and improved health.
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  • Eat Green Leafy Vegetables: Besides providing a lot of other health benefits, green leafy vegetables are high in fiber and vitamin K, both of which help regulate cortisol in the body. 
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  • Use ‘Gross Impact Physical Training’: If you need to reduce chronic stress and meditation’s ineffective or not appealing to you, this could do the trick. It involves engaging in exercise that results in high impact from a burst of physical strength, but doesn’t require skill in its execution. The reason you don’t want it to involve skill is that skilled activities can raise stress levels as we tend to evaluate our performance when engaged in them. So put on some gloves and punch a heavy bag for a few rounds. Pound the dust out of some big throw rugs. Or chop a huge stack of firewood. A similar workout can be had by using big overhand strikes with a sledgehammer on an old tractor tire. The release of stress from doing this type of workout two or three times per week can definitely reduce cortisol levels. 

‘Reduce Cortisol Levels’: Supplements that can help

Unsurprisingly, stimulants tend to raise adrenalin and cortisol levels while herbs with sedative effects often lower them. Even a ubiquitous drug like caffeine can substantially raise cortisol (this hasn’t stopped me from drinking coffee, however). But the calming effect of the herb ‘valerian’ can reduce cortisol levels. (Note: Never use Valerian with alcohol or other sedative drugs)

The following are a few more noteworthy supplements that can reduce cortisol levels or help the body better deal with stress. 

  • Beta Sitosterol: This is a phytosterol that is naturally produced in the oils of plants.  It can be derived from a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts. However, if you aren’t getting your recommended dietary intake of these foods, a phytosterol supplement might help reduce cortisol levels for you. A dosage of 60 – 120 mg. of Beta Sitosterol has been shown to reduce cortisol levels in marathon runners immediately following their events.  
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  • Epimedium (‘horny goat weed’): This is an herb with a long history of medicinal use in Asian countries. It’s been shown in studies to have cortisol-controlling effects. However, this benefit has been observed primarily in the water-extracted form of the herb as opposed to the alcohol extracts containing high icariin content. A daily dosage of 250 – 500 mg. of the water-extracted preparation is recommended to reduce cortisol levels. 
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  • Phosphatidylserine (PS): This stuff is a phospholipid, which means it’s composed of fatty acids and phosphate. It’s a natural substance that’s found in relatively high concentrations within brain cells. But PS is also found within cell membranes throughout the entire body. Supplemental use of PS has been shown to reduce cortisol levels in athletes by 20% to 30% following intense workouts. Ironman Magazine has been marketing their version of this product for many years under the trademarked name Cort Bloc. I’ve personally never tried the product and would love to get feedback in the comment section from anyone who has.
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I have heard positive anecdotal feedback from a couple of athletes who’ve used a combination of PS and Beta Sitosterol after intense workouts and attributed faster post-workout recuperation to reduced cortisol levels from using this combination of supplements. The dosage was in the range of a couple hundred mg. per day of each of the supplements, taken together.

Again, always consult your personal physician or a qualified medical professional before using any of the above-mentioned supplements or training methods.

And please leave any comments or questions you have pertaining to this interesting topic; your opinions and experiences are valued.

Comments

Dai

Like you say some of this stuff does not make sense when you think of it in a logical way. Lets say you do chest on Monday then Back on Tuesday surely the cortisol levels on Tuesday would interfere with recovery from Monday's workout. The only sure way around this would be to workout three days a week with two days rest between each workout to allow for recovery. I think there is a lot the experts don't understand let alone mere mortals like me.

Scott Abbett

Hello Dai,

I appreciate your compliments on my article.

We do often hear about the cortisol/testosterone ratio and its importance. How this translates to testosterone levels in absolute terms, however, is rarely mentioned.

Incidentally, I've just run across a study finding revealing that during/post workout testosterone levels have no effect on inter-workout recuperation. It appears that women, with a fraction of the natural testosterone of men, begin recovering from weight training tissue "damage" just as quickly as their male counterparts.

I wonder if this means we'll ever stop hearing the carbon-copy fitness "experts" saying "get in and out of the gym quickly or your precious testosterone will fall through the floor."

That NEVER made sense to me as workouts are intended to create a catabolic state; we have to break down the tissue in order to stimulate anabolism. Why would high testosterone levels add up to anything meaningful during a workout?

By extension, why would high cortisol levels during weight training be important to control? By the very nature of what we're attempting during workouts, it seems we should expect this hormone's rise. In short, I'm still not convinced that it's not just the inter-workout levels that are of importance.

If switching to decaf brings those down for you Dai, then more power to ya bro. I'm not ready to give up my caffinated coffee habit - my one vice I'll live with... Haha!

Let's keep this topic going. I'm making some exciting discoveries through a few new tweaks to my workout methodology. They definitely relate to the whole 'hormone axis' thing :-)

Thanks again Dai,

Scott

Dai

Must of read my mind Scott. Only last night was I pondering how difficult it is to raise testosterone to a meaningful level without using steroids but, then it struck me maybe it would be easier or more productive to reduce other hormonal factors and influences that block our current levels of testosterone production. Bingo you come up with this article. I think I might have to start drinking more caffeine free coffee for starters. Great article Scott keep them coming.

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