At its core, stress is what your body experiences, mentally and/or physically, when faced with adverse/demanding circumstances. Stress is commonly viewed as being a wholly negative form of tension; however, it’s important to note that not all stress is necessarily “bad” (which would be more appropriately called distress).
In fact, some stress is absolutely needed for health, longevity, and everyday activities. In many ways, stress is how you know you’re alive and doing things that you’re passionate about. For example, the adrenaline rush you get after acing an exam is a form of “good” stress (eustress).
Physiology of Stress & Cortisol
What’s particularly interesting about stress is that there is a well-understood physiological basis to it. You may often hear people say that cortisol is “the stress hormone,” which is somewhat correct. However, your body technically produces several stress hormones besides just cortisol, including adrenaline and glucagon.
It’s important to note that cortisol is just one of many glucocorticoids, which are a class of corticosteroids (steroid hormones synthesized by the adrenal glands). Corticosteroids, especially cortisol and cortisone, are strong immunosuppressants. This is why doctors often prescribe cortisone after a serious injury or to treat pain caused by inflammation, since corticosteroids prevent the release of proinflammatory substances in the body.
Moreover, when fasting or periods of energy deprivation, cortisol helps increase blood glucose by promoting gluconeogenesis in the liver. Metabolically speaking, cortisol is a catabolic hormone that helps break down fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.
Naturally, this is why many bodybuilders and gym-goers “fear” cortisol, because they think it will eat away all their hard-earned muscle tissue. Chronically elevated cortisol can indeed cause muscle wasting and muscular atrophy, but not all cortisol is inherently “bad” like many people seem to believe. In fact, you need cortisol to lose body fat, as is has permissive actions on lipolysis.
As such, your body needs to maintain cortisol rhythms for optimal muscle building and fat loss (among other physiological roles). But how can you tell if your cortisol rhythms are out of whack?
Read on for some of the most common telltale signs of cortisol dysfunction (dysrhythmia).
Signs of Cortisol Dysfunction
In healthy individuals, cortisol is secreted in a diurnal rhythm, with levels peaking in the early morning (circa 7 AM) and reaching their nadir around 2 AM (or about four hours after falling asleep).
When stress becomes chronic, circulating cortisol levels increase and this can start to interfere with your body’s normal cortisol rhythms.
This begs the question, “How can I tell if my cortisol rhythms are out of whack?” Many signs and symptoms may indicate cortisol dysrhythmia, with the following being the most common:
- Morning Fatigue and Restlessness at Night: The most patent symptom suggesting that you have cortisol dysrhythmia is that you struggle to get out bed in the morning (no matter how much you sleep) and you feel restless when you lay down at night. Some people might refer to this feeling as being “wired but tired”.
- Unexpected Weight Gain (or a Hard Time Losing Weight): Even though cortisol is catabolic and necessary for fat loss, research shows that having too much cortisol floating around in your system actually blunts lipolysis. It can also increase appetite, causing you to overeat.
- Anxiety and/or Panic Attacks: Acute spikes in cortisol are in part responsible for the debilitating feelings of anxiety and panic attacks (cold sweats, hard time breathing, racing mind, etc.). If these issues become chronic, cortisol dysfunction may indeed be the culprit.
- Decreased Sex Hormones: If cortisol and other stress hormones (like adrenaline) are in “high demand”, then your adrenal glands are forced to divert more pregnenolone to the production of cortisol. This results in less production of androgens and ultimately makes building muscle much harder. .
5 Keys to Balancing Cortisol
If you fear your cortisol rhythms are in fact out of whack, don’t stress (surely, that won’t make things any better). Here are five actionable and fast-acting tips you can start following right now to help your adrenal function get back on track:
- TAKE CARE OF YOUR GUT MICROBIOME: Your gut is responsible for close to 95% of the production of your serotonin. Serotonin is a calming neurotransmitter and is released when you do fun stuff or are happy. More serotonin means less stress and anxiety so your gut health can help break the cycle.
- MEDITATE (RELAX YOUR MIND): Is a wonderful way to calm your mind and body so you are not over producing excitatory neurotransmitters. If you are constantly producing stress hormones your body can become less sensitive to them. It’s like type-II diabetes where one becomes insulin resistant from over producing insulin. You can become adrenaline resistant from over producing due to a combination of stress and stimulants.
- CYCLE YOUR STIMULANTS: For the same reason, as above. You can become desensitized to the stimulants you use so they no longer provide the benefits in energy, focus and fat loss they once did. Having 2 days off a week or 2 on and 1 off is a great way to maintain the benefits without overwhelming your body.
- SUPPLEMENT WITH PHOSPHATIDYLSERINE: A growing body of research demonstrates the efficacy of phosphatidylserine supplementation for blunting chronic stress-induced cortisol secretion by providing modulating the HPTA axis. Unfortunately, the vast majority of phosphatidylserine supplements out there are grossly underdosed, considering that the effective dose in most studies is no less than 500 mg per day.
- EAT SUFFICIENT PROTEIN (& SUPPLEMENT WITH EAAs): You absolutely do not want to skimp on protein intake if you are dealing with chronic cortisol elevations. Even if you’re not hitting the gym regularly, you should be eating at least one gram of protein per pound you weigh (if not more).
Feeling Burned Out? Take Time Away from the Gym
Being “burned out is one of the most dreadful feelings, especially for gym-goers and dedicated bodybuilders. Your driven and motivated side wants to hit the gym, but your body is feeling weak and you’re just generally fatigued.
Your intuition might tell you to just slam more coffee or scoop of pre-workout and push through it, but is that really the best solution?
Many bodybuilders and gym-goers push themselves too hard, too often and don’t take the time for a brief respite, leading to rapid burnout (which is physiologically underpinned by chronic cortisol dysfunction). While it is great to be highly motivated and antsy to crush the iron, forcing yourself to train when burnout is imminent is generally not the best choice.
Reason being is that you’re essentially fighting an uphill battle. Your body is telling you it’s exhausted and stressed, so if you keep pushing it, your function and efficiency in and out of the gym will only continue to suffer.
If you’ve reached a point of feeling burned out, you’re better off taking time to rest and recharge your mind and body so you can come back a few days or a week later and hit the gym at 100%. Keep the long-term in mind; short-term rest will help you go the distance.