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Putting A Cap On Catabolic Cortisol

Don’t Let Cortisol Crush Your Gains!

Posted by Gavindrum - March 14th, 2019

Cortisol has become quite the interesting topic of late. Scientific research has been pumping out each year for decades now. Inch by inch the biochemical curtain is being pulled back to reveal the secrets of this intriguing hormone. Though it has become abundantly clear that too much is certainly not a good thing (it is catabolic by nature and therefore breaks down muscle tissue!), many burned-out and exhausted people are starting to fall into a low-cortisol category, which could be even worse.

What Is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a stress hormone which is released in response to anything that stimulates a fight-or-flight response. This system was designed through the lengthy process of evolution to help us respond to threats, like a long-toothed furry beast called a sabre tooth tiger. Fight-or-flight and the cortisol that comes from this response, is our body’s way of priming us to deal with this stress. Today, thankfully, we don’t have to deal with too many of these ferocious predators. Though mental stressors, like heated arguments or car accidents, do still stimulate this response, as does strenuous exercise. This sometimes leads to unwanted high levels of cortisol, which can literally steal our gains!  

Just like most chemicals in the human body, we don’t want too much, but we certainly don’t want too little. There is a sweet spot. And in the case of cortisol, we can encourage our cortisol levels into this “sweet spot”. High cortisol levels have been linked to common health conditions, such as high blood pressure, immune suppression, blood sugar irregularities and more, not to mention muscle wasting. If levels drop too low, then we may fall victim to bad moods, low energy levels and lose the sensation of being alert, awake and motivated [1 & 2]. Low cortisol can also present as an inability to handle even the slightest bit of stress, which is certainly no good in a stressed out world. Needless to say, the effects of cortisol are broad. It can actually shape the way we feel and how we experience our lives. So it’s good to consider, every now and then, what we are doing to keep this hormone in check.

Many of the common methods people use to lower cortisol levels actually have a regulatory effect. This is important, because remember we need to balance this hormone, not suppress it at all costs. And cortisol levels can be hard to judge based simply on signs and symptoms alone. It’s not like we can switch a smart app on our new tech-savvy phone and check our levels. Not yet, anyway. The following article offers you some option for balancing this hormone. However, if you think your levels could be low, it would be a good idea to keep clear of HMB, Betaine and phosphatidylserine until we have a clearer understanding of their mechanism of action.

Exercise – How Much Is Too Much?

Most people realise that doing more in the gym does not necessarily mean better results. A January 2019 paper published by Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise demonstrated similar results for 1 set versus 5 sets per exercise in healthy resistance-trained men. Of course, if you are a particularly experienced, you may want to shoot for the higher end of this rang. But the article certainly proved a point. If our goal is to build muscle tissue, then hammering yourself through set after set for hours and hours may just exhaust you. In fact, muscular adaptation to the training may even be stunted due to the sheer amount of stress, and the depletion of important nutritional resources, not to mention the massive hit of catabolic hormones. Ideally, we have to find a training volume that suits us, as individuals. Emulating Ronnie Coleman’s training back when he was competing is likely not suited to most people. Though it’s great to watch for tips and motivation!

A fascinating piece of research was published in 2008 by the Journal of Endocrinological Investigation on the effects of exercise on cortisol levels. The researchers showed that low intensity exercise – 40% VO2 or less – actually decreased cortisol levels. However, high intensity exercise – 60% VO2 and above – increased cortisol levels [3]. VO2 refers to the maximal rate at which our body can uptake oxygen.

To get some idea of your VO2, simply subtract your age from 220. If you are 35, then your VO2 is 185. If you want to exercise at 50% VO2, then you need to monitor your heart rate whilst training. Obviously, wearing a heart-rate monitor is helpful, or you can check your pulse, count for 15 seconds, and multiply by 4. If you are 35 and you want to exercise at 50% VO2, then aim for 90-95 beats per minute, which is not very intense, depending on your fitness level.

But there are other tips and tricks to keeping our cortisol levels in balance (there are supplements than can assist) and gaining an understanding of the impact of caffeine and coffee on human physiology is also a massive plus. Though some of this might be on the tediously technical side, the more we learn, the easier it is to make informed decisions about what we put in our body, and how much lean muscle we can build!  

The Coffee, Caffeine & Cortisol Debacle

Our dependence on caffeine is not exactly slowing down. After all, it’s far too easy to guzzle stimulants by the gallon, especially when we’re tired, bored or otherwise feeling out of sorts. Coffee is one of the most consumed beverages in the world, after only water and tea. Worldwide consumption has hit 10 million tons per year, which is 10 billion kilograms! Oh no, we certainly aren’t slowing down.

Fortunately, scientific research is indicating that 3 – 5 cups of coffee per day protects against a wide range of chronic diseases, likely due to its high content of polyphenol antioxidants [4]. However, important questions remain: is it good for us if we are trying to keep our cortisol levels down? And what effect will this have on us if our cortisol levels are low?

There is actually quite a bit of conflicting research on this topic. This is not too surprising though, as many studies do not consider the differences in coffee or caffeine intake before the clinical trials begin. How much coffee and caffeine we have consumed prior to a clinical trial influences how we respond during the study. For instance, someone who drinks 3 cups of regular strength coffee daily for many months will have a blunted cortisol response to caffeine, while the next person who never has any caffeine will obviously have a stronger cortisol response [5]. This effect was reported in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2005. Research has even demonstrated that other effects also wear off, to some degree, such as the elevations in blood pressure and the negative effects on sleep [6 & 7]. Everyone seems to know someone who can have a strong cup of coffee before bed, then enjoy a long and restful sleep.

For those who are chronically tired with low cortisol, it simply may not be an option to cut out all coffee or caffeine. We can’t fall in a heap when a busy day lies ahead. In this case, keeping a regular daily intake of the smallest amount of these products possible in order to keep you going is best. Cutting out these stimulants and getting some much needed time out would be the ideal solution, though that’s not always possible. Certainly, this is something that is hard for many westerners living a fast-paced lifestyle to wrap their minds around. In doing so, and with proper nutrition and supplementation, this allows the body and adrenal glands time to recoup, and should eventually bring cortisol levels back up again and into a normal range.

For those that are in short-term stress, or have robust constitutions with moderate-term stress, this is the high cortisol scenario. You manage stress well, you are sharp of mind and clear of thought. If you drink coffee at the recommended 3 – 5 cups per day mark for general health over a long period of time, this will still lead to increased cortisol output, even though your responses may well be blunted. Using other methods to keep your cortisol down might be the best idea, as it’s probably not wise to cut something out of the diet with so many benefits attributed to its use.

A Secluded Beach In The Bahamas

One method people use to keep stress-free are relaxation practices, like going fishing, meditation or going for a nature walk. This stuff doesn’t sound very bad-ass, right? But being relaxed can feel pretty damn good, and help to keep you feeling fresh for training and even reduce a mind that is so active we have difficulty focusing on one single task, like a repetition in the gym. These relaxation practices also help to reduce cortisol levels when they are high, and help to renew our health when we are exhausted, thus preventing burnout.

We can take all the supplements in the world and eat all the good food, yet without periods of relaxation we tend to lose ourselves in the madness of day-to-day living, and our cortisol levels can reach daily peaks that are catabolic to our hard-earned muscle mass. It’s all about finding what we like to do to unwind, as what is relaxing to one person can be downright boring to another. And if you think video games, drinking booze or long runs at the beach might be the way to go, think again. It’s not that we shouldn’t play video games, drink moderately (especially red wine) or run. But they’re not ideal relaxation practices. You don’t have to crochet either, or play chess. Simply find something (preferably not involving technology) which naturally helps you breathe slow, full breaths and makes you feel more calm and balanced. Then say goodbye to high cortisol, and hello to new gains. Bad-ass gains.

Nutritional Supplements

This is the fun part. Pop a pill, and boom, results. There actually aren’t that many supplements that have been put to the test and passed when it comes to cortisol reductions. However, Vitamin C is one of the lucky nutrients, found in appreciable amounts in citrus, broccoli and red capsicum. A study published in 2001 showed that 1.5 grams of vitamin C taken after exercise reduces cortisol levels and inflammation, which is a win-win [8]. Interestingly, Vitamin C has an affinity for the adrenal glands, where it may influence the synthesis of cortisol. Another paper demonstrated that 3 grams given to children helps to blunt the cortisol response [9]. Pre-workout is the best to time to load up on this supplement. For more potent effects, try a liposomal vitamin C. You could get away with using a smaller dosage of this, even just 0.5 – 1.0 gram.

Another fascinating nutrient that tends to be underutilized is phosphatidylserine. This nutrient is found in egg yolk and is a natural constituent of the cell membranes in our body. This phospholipid has been shown to blunt the cortisol response to exercise by an average of 35% [10]. It has also been reported at an 800mg dosage to reduce the cortisol response from heavy weight lifting and alleviate muscle soreness and improve perception of well-being [11]. Not bad, hey? Hopefully clinical trials will soon emerge at lower dosages, with equally beneficial effects on cortisol, as this product can be pricey at these dosages. Vitamin C, however, can be quite cost-effective.

Betaine, also known as trimethylglycine, is an absolute powerhouse supplement that can support adaptation to training, performance and numerous tested parameters. One more recent benefit discovered is its ability to reduce cortisol levels. This was published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, March 2013. This paper also highlighted that betaine increased growth hormone and IGF-1 levels and an AKT muscle signaling protein, indicating increased protein synthesis and muscle gains. Betaine is not to be confused with betaine HCL, which is betaine bound to hydrochloric acid, as this product offers only a small elemental betaine dosage.

The final nutrient we’re going to look at is referred to as HMB. This is a metabolite of leucine, which is an essential amino acid and also one of the branched chain amino acids or BCAAs. This product has been circulating through the sports nutrition world for 20 years or more, yet has never really been given the attention that it deserves. A paper published in 2017 by Nutrients demonstrated that 3 grams per day of the HMB Free Acid led to reductions in cortisol, and also decreases in the hormone produced in the anterior pituitary gland in the brain that regulates cortisol release: adrenocorticotropic hormone [12]. As an added advantage, HMB, whether it be free acid form of calcium bound, assists with increasing muscle mass, decreasing fat mass, and can improve anaerobic and aerobic performance [13 & 14]. Best to avoid the powder at all costs, as the taste is unbearable to most and notoriously hard to mask even with strong fruit juice. Capsules are best.

Recover With Adaptogenic Herbs

Herbal Medicines have diverse effects on the human body, with decades of clinical trials and thousands of years of traditional use to demonstrate these effects. Adaptogenic is a term referring to an herbal medicine that has been shown to increase the state of non-specific resistance (i.e., it improves our resistance to just about anything, whether it be sunburn, psychological stress or intense physical exercise).

One such herb is Withania somnifera, also known as Winter Cherry, Ashwagandha and Indian Ginseng. Evidence has demonstrated that this herb can help to reduce cortisol levels, blood pressure and pulse rate under stressful conditions, as well as support DHEA levels [15]. Another such herb is Panax Ginseng, considered one of the most potent herbs yet discovered. This has also been shown to decrease cortisol secretion in stressful situations, as has Rhodiola Rosea [16 & 17]. Rhodiola, the famous Russian herb, was tested in chronically fatigued patients, and also helped to boost mental performance.

There are other adaptogenic herbs too, like Schisandra chinensis, Astragalus membranaceus and Siberian Ginseng. These types of herbal medicines are great to have behind your belt, especially when dealing with multiple types of physical and mental stress. They help to balance our cortisol levels, and have been shown to have beneficial effects in response to exercise. In essence, they support your adaptations to training and keep stress hormones under control.

Tip Of The Spear

There’s so much interesting research out there on balancing cortisol, which for most people means reducing cortisol levels. Quality sleep is another important factor, and even doing things like eating a little bit of dark chocolate each day and laughing more can also help [18 & 19].  Keeping cortisol levels in check is a bit like balancing on the tip of a spear. But don’t despair. There is always something that can be done to reduce stress levels and general adaptation to exercise. And if you’re training for muscle size, managing your stress levels (which means reducing cortisol )and keeping cool, calm and collected, means more muscle gains for you.


It’s probably best to pick a few tactics and start there. Trying to hit all of the recommendations at once would be painfully difficult and unnecessary. Hopefully this article has demonstrated some new and interesting ways to keep stress hormones in balance and make the most out of your hard work, both in and out of the gym.

By Gavin Deguara, ND, Grad Cert Nutr Med RMIT


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12.     Asadi Abbasi., et al. Effects of B-Hydroxy-B-methylbutyrate-free acid supplementation on strength, power and hormonal adaptation following resistance training. Nutrients. 2017 Vol 9;12 p.1316

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14.Durkalec-Michalski, et al. The effect of a 12-week beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate (HMB) supplementation on highly-trained combat sports athletes: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study. Nutrients. 2017 Vol 9;7 p.753

15.     Auddy B et al. A standardized Withania somnifera extract significantly reduces stress-related parameters in chronically stressed humans: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. Journal of the American Nutraceutical Association. 2008 Vol 11;1

16.     Panax Ginseng decreased cortisol secretions in stressful situations. Choi JY et al. Red ginseng supplementation more effectively alleviates psychological than physical fatigue. Journal of Ginseng Research. 2011 Vol 35;3 p.331-338

17.     Rhodiola decreases cortisol and improves mental performance in patients with fatigue syndrome. Olssen EM et al. A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study of the standardised extract shr-5 of the roots of Rhodiola rosea in the treatment of subjects with stress-related fatigue. Planta Medica 2009 Vol 75;2 p.105-112

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19.     Berk L., et al. Humor associated laughter decreases cortisol and increases spontaneous lymphocyte blastogenesis. Clin Res. 1988;36:435A

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