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I was inspired to write this post on cortisol after listening to Episode 980: Five Steps to Your Best Body by Summer by Mind Pump. The episode goes in-depth on the five big lifestyle factors that contribute to weight loss (Movement, Calories, Exercise, Stress, and Sleep) and just a healthy lifestyle, but it was the discussion led Adam starting at 61:15 on cortisol that caught my attention. They describe what they call a “cortisol junkie”, i.e. someone who chronically and habitually engages in cortisol producing activities such as cardio, resistance training, high stress situations, gets poor sleep (by being overly active, the hustle and grind mentality), and heavily restricts their diet. A “cortisol junkie” typically does this in an effort to get into the best shape of their life, lose the extra weight they might be holding onto, and to show everyone how much they hustle.
Having been consistently going to the gym and engaged in the fitness community for 9 years now, I've definitely met many of the people they describe as "cortisol junkies". It’s crazy to see in person too, as these individuals workout hard and eat healthy (but restrict calories too much), but always seem to have 30+ pounds to lose. So what gives? First, we need to understand what cortisol is, and how it affects the body.
Cortisol - The Stress Hormone
Cortisol is the bodies main stress hormone, and when engaging in stressful activities such as hard training, excessive cardio, low sleep, and stimulating environments, cortisol is released from the adrenal glands, providing a surge of energy, reducing inflammation, raising blood pressure, and more. In fact, cortisol levels are increased by over 50% soon after waking up in anticipation of dealing with future stress. For a short duration scenario such as a high stakes business meeting or a sweat-inducing workout, the release of cortisol is beneficial and positively contributes to success. When cortisol levels stay elevated chronically over time though, the bodies repair and healing mechanisms are compromised, eventually leading to a "breakdown" of the body. For example, you can run a car on nitro for an extra boost, but without proper maintanence in-between racing sessions, the car will eventually break down. The more you push your body, the more rest and recovery it needs in order for you to stay healthy.
The “Cortisol Junkie”
A cortisol junkie is someone who has learned to lean on that cortisol lever too much, enjoying the energy and drive cortisol provides without balancing that out later by providing their body rest. This person often engages in 1-2 hours of chronic cardio a day, might also strength train, restricts their diet heavily, and always seems to have excess body fat to lose. In the process of abusing cortisol, they've compromised their bodies metabolism and healing mechanisms, making it impossible to achieve the fat loss or muscle building results they want. It's easy to get into this position given modern society and western culture, and to fix this issue requires taking a HUGE step back. In the short term, as they cut back on the cardio and reverse diet, they might even add some body fat, but after 3-12 months of restoring proper hormonal function, the progress towards achieving a healthier physical and mental state will be MUCH easier and require 1/2 the work.
If this sounds like you, the question you have to ask yourself is, "what do you truly value more, the short terms benefits of cortisol or a sustainable healthy lifestyle?"
If your answer is that you desire a sustainable healthy lifestyle, read below for a short list of ways to help solve the excess cortisol issue.
Solving the Cortisol Issue
I personally figured out the cortisol equation for myself about 1.5 years ago, and since then I've made great progress in all the fitness activities I pursue, such as increasing strength, muscle hypertrophy, weight-training endurance, and fat loss. When you push your body to the limit over and over again, it can be difficult to come back to homeostasis; It's a complex situation. The best strategy to start is to grab the “low hanging fruits” of rest and recovery to start. Once some of the main systems of rest and recovery are being properly utilized, it's then much easier to diagnose and fix the root issues.
SLEEP - I prioritize sleep and aim to get 8 hours of quality sleep per night. That's not always possible, so I also keep in mind the overall number of 56 hours. Catching up on sleep isn't 100% effective, but it does work to some degree.
REST - I make sure I give myself time to decompress every day. I take a short 15-minute nap or a longer 20-30 minute walk in the afternoon, and I relax with a calmer TV show or book at night after working on my projects and the gym. Yoga is another great way to decompress, especially if you are big into lifting weights. Practice being mindful, spend time in nature, and free yourself from distractions every now and then. You’ll be amazed by how much less general fatigue you feel day to day by doing so!
CALORIES - On high energy, high output days, I feed my body the calories it requires, but on low energy days I reduce my calories significantly, letting the bodies natural healing systems reign supreme. I definitely can tell providing my gut a break digestion wise helps tremendously with overall inflammation throughout the body, brain fog, and more.
FASTING - More a function of overall caloric, I use fasting to help keep my bodies hunger systems in check when I do reduce my calories as mentioned above, and the body ramps up cellular autophagy during this process. Autophagy is the detox process your body undergoes to clean out damaged cells and regenerate new ones, and the proper amount of autophagy over time has been shown to improved human lifespan. Fasting is also a fantastic tool to help you learn the differences between hunger and cravings.
FOOD QUALITY - I've learned that making sure 95% of your calories come from whole, unprocessed, organic, micronutrient dense foods is a game changer when it comes to my mood, energy, emotional stability, and more. For the regular person, the Whole 30 Diet is a great month-long experiment which they can use to learn the importance of food quality and its impact on everyday life, both on short and long time scales.
SUPPLEMENTS - Sometimes you need a bit of help to ramp down from an active, sympathetic state to a more relaxed parasympathetic state. Collagen protein from Great Lakes Gelatin at night releases the amino acid glycine, which helps to calm the body. 200-400mg of magnesium glycinate at night likewise helps the body to relax. Sulforaphane is a potent anti-inflammatory, and helps to repair damage induced by excess stress. Cannabis flower, ranging from CBD-dominant to 1:1 CBD:THC, delivered via vaporization is fantastic if you need a fast-acting relaxer, and is something I'll use more commonly during the day and early-evening to reduce "the edge".
SAUNA - Heat therapy via the sauna has been my worst kept secret for how I am able to maintain a very high workload in and out of the gym without burning out. Still no one does it! 20-30 minutes 3-5x a week helps to clear the mind, flush the body of toxins, promote a parasympathetic calm state, improve cardiovascular health, burn calories, release growth hormone, stimulate testosterone production, and activate heat shock proteins which help the body heal from stress and damage. Learn more about the amazing benefits of the Sauna!
Work Hard, Play Hard, Recover…Hard?
Learn to break the viscous cortisol-energy cycle and take back control of your energy, well-being, health, and wellness! The strategies above are a great place to start for learning how to properly rest and recover, a facet of life often neglected due to the go go go culture and society we live in.
Stefan Burns is the creator and main author of Wild Free Organic. A swimmer in high school, soon afterwards he discovered a passion for the health, wellness, and fitness fields. Stefan is a jack of all trades, expertly knowing how to use all the different wellness “tools” available to radically and permanently transform one’s health, from fasting and sauna usage to calisthenics and powerlifting.