Our lives are stressful, but long-term stress can be damaging for our physical, as well as mental health. Cortisol is a hormone often associated with stress, so let’s find out why that’s the case.
Cortisol and Stress
Cortisol is a hormone produced to ensure our survival. When we are in a stressful situation our body produces cortisol to allow our body to perform efficiently, so we use our energy to overcome the situation we’re faced with. When we’re stressed our body produces more cortisol and this can have a negative impact on our body if this occurs at the wrong time.
For example, if we subject ourselves to bright light before bed then our body will presume it’s ‘daytime’ and that we need to stay awake. This leads to the production of cortisol, which will keep us awake and prevent quality sleep.
How To Destress
More than likely we all know how to de-stress, but with our busy lives, it’s never easy to dedicate a part of every single day to de-stress. Everybody’s situation will be quite different meaning when it comes to your work/life balance, it will be up to you to find out the best way to relax and lower your cortisol levels. But when it comes to common practices in the fitness industry that I’ve mentioned a few times before: your diet, sleep patterns and exercise routine, most don’t realize how much stress they are putting on their body in these areas of their lives.
Your diet can be perfect for losing half a pound a week with adequate protein, fat, carbs and vitamins, but if your training routine and sleep patterns are inconsistent/lacking, your diet won’t do much for decreasing stress. The biggest mistake I see is individuals increasing weight training volume as well as cardio when they start to diet, which is the opposite of what your body wants you to do. When starting a diet, it is very easy to prioritize fat loss with no cardio (yes you heard right). For anywhere around a month to two (or sometimes more), if you can comfortably eat in a 500 calorie deficit, then you will lose weight. No questions asked. And most of that weight will be fat if you continue to lift weights and eat enough protein as I will talk about.
Stress & Weight Loss
We aren’t perfect, and neither are calorie counters/restaurant menus. What this means is that unless we are very punctual with counting our calories, it is easy to overeat without knowing it. Cardio should only be used as a buffer when either we cannot get by with a 500 calorie deficit (which allows us to eat slightly more), about two times a week in the form of HIIT. By limiting cardio to at the most two times a week in the form of interval training (alternating periods of high and low intensity running, rowing, burpees etc.), this will minimize unnecessary stress put on your body and can burn the most calories in the smallest amount of time. But of course, if you are able to keep a deficit of 500 calories a day without any cardio, this is the ideal situation to limit stress on the body as well as hold onto muscle mass while burning fat.
Weight training is in the same boat. When we are dieting we won’t have the same amount of energy as we did when we were bulking or eating at maintenance. But it is easy to make the mistake of adding 30 minutes to sometimes an hour to your routine to “prevent catabolism (muscle breakdown) and burn more calories”. All this will do is elevate your cortisol and burn barely any more calories. Instead of lowering the weight and doubling the number of workouts you do per muscle group, focus on heavy compound lifting which will be much more effective at preserving muscle. There is nothing wrong with doing isolation movements, but your workout should not last more than an hour (with the exception of 20-30 minutes of the occasional HIIT as mentioned).
Diet & Cortisol
On the other end of the spectrum, if your training is ideal, but your diet is full of simple carbs and unhealthy fats, you are doing your body no favors. While you can lose weight on an IIFYM (if it fits your macros) diet style, it will make you considerably more susceptible to muscle catabolism (from a lack of complete protein sources) as well as increased cortisol.
Without sufficient antioxidants in your diet, inflammation will run wild and besides issues such as an impaired immune system, your body will have issues rebuilding the muscles you broke down in your last workout meaning a slowed recovery time as well as more chance of injury. To efficiently optimize your stress levels and lose fat, you must count calories, no matter how accurate you think you are at doing it in your head.
To get the right amount of macro and micronutrients this will make your life much easier and while it might be stressful to count every calorie at first, it will become increasingly simple and second nature and will eventually benefit your stress levels. Eating healthily is a whole other article and I won’t spend much time on it here. But what I will say is: try to eat 1 g of protein per pound of bodyweight (or per pound of fat free mass if you are at a higher body fat %), dietary fat should make up anywhere from 25% to 35% of your daily calories from preferably unsaturated sources (olive oil, fish oil, avocado, nuts, etc.), and the rest should be complex carbohydrates full of nutrients (whole grains, fruits, legumes, vegetables, etc.).
Cortisol and Sleep
The last variable that most have trouble controlling is their sleep. While most of us have issues getting 8 hours of solid sleep every day of the year, it’s when we reach the point of chronically getting less than 6 hours a night that our cortisol will skyrocket. Relating back to a previous section, when we get less than a full night of sleep our body believes we are running from a predator or chasing prey, and releases cortisol, slowing our metabolism and holding onto fat stores.
Most of the advice I can give about getting proper sleep you’ve most likely heard before and include limiting unnatural light after sundown, limiting caffeine in the afternoon/evening and going to bed 8 hours before you have to wake up. This last step is different for everybody though, as some of us take 10 minutes to fall asleep, while others take an hour. You need to know your body and give yourself time to fall asleep.
Take Home Message
The point of this article has been to teach you a little history about your body and how stress and other elements of your daily life affect your body’s production of cortisol. You need to pay attention to the details of your daily life to minimize cortisol production and this will help you to keep control of your stress levels.