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The Cortisol Conundrum

Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone” and often gets a bad rap. Regular levels of cortisol are actually essential in the body’s attempt for homeostasis. Cortisol, which is released by the adrenal glands is the body’s primary catabolic hormone. It is catabolic meaning it breaks down tissue, as opposed to testosterone, insulin, and growth hormone.

As an athlete, you should be training in a way that includes some structured recovery. This is not only when your body adapts to the training stimulus, but also helps with managing cortisol levels. Being in tune with your body is essential in order to be aware of, and prevent overtraining, which is often a result of high cortisol levels. Symptoms of overtraining can include feeling ill or rundown, losing muscle mass, gaining fat, constant exhaustion. Sound familiar? Herein lies the conundrum. As an endurance athlete, how can you train with the volume and intensity that is essential for your race, without becoming victim to the effects of chronically high levels of cortisol? Understanding the function of cortisol and what you can do to manage cortisol release is the first step, and can be a game changer for your training and racing.

Cortisol influences or regulates many of the changes that occur in the body as a result of stress:

  • Blood sugar (glucose) levels

  • Fat, protein, and carbohydrate metabolism

  • Immune responses

  • Anti-inflammatory action

  • Blood Pressure

  • Central Nervous System activation

Effects of higher and prolonged levels of circulating cortisol (chronic stress)

  • Impaired cognitive function

  • Disrupted sleep

  • Elevated blood pressure

  • Lowered immune function

  • Slow wound healing

  • Increased abdominal fat

Effects of chronically low levels of circulating cortisol (adrenal fatigue)

  • Brain fog, mild depression

  • Fatigue, especially morning and mid-afternoon

  • Sleep disruption

  • Low blood pressure

  • Inflammation

  • Hypoglycemia

As a society that measures worth in busyness and accomplishing, we end up being sleep deprived, over scheduled, chronically fatigued, and living from one caffeine shot to the next. Our adrenals scream at us to slow down, sleep, recover, meditate, but “ain’t nobody got time for that.” The truth is, you can’t afford to keep living such a stressful life and hope to avoid the effects of it. The solution isn’t rocket science. It’s actually common sense that isn’t so common anymore.

Ways to decrease cortisol levels

  • Consume whole foods

  • Avoid inflammatory foods

  • Reduce and manage stress

  • Sleep 7-9 hours per night

  • Exercise regularly

  • Learn to relax

  • Include strength training in your regime (this helps increase testosterone and growth hormone levels)

  • Eat when you wake up, especially before exercising. Exercising on an empty stomach can intensify cortisol’s negative effects.

It is important to note that symptoms of high cortisol levels (as seen with chronic stress) and low cortisol levels (as in adrenal fatigue) can also be symptoms of other health issues. It is a good idea to get a hormone panel done yearly with a professional who specializes in balancing hormones. The endocrine system is extremely complex and there are a myriad of factors that can affect and alter it. Regardless of your cortisol levels, following the suggestions above will no doubt positively affect your training and racing objectives.


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