Cortisol Effect on Our Body
Cortisol Effect - Cortisol, Stress & Body Fat: Answers Top 20 Questions About The Stress HormoneBy Tom Venuto, NSCA-CPT, CSCSwww.burnthefat.com
Every time modern science uncovers some kind of connection between body fat and anything, opportunistic entrepreneurs emerge that create a product and a marketing campaign around it.
They ride the opportunity wave into millions of dollars, until the buzz completely dies down or until the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sues them and/or puts a lock on their doors.
Then, they move on to the “next big thing in weight loss,” because there is always a gullible crowd that eagerly awaits the next quick fix.
The most recent example of the latest "discovery" is when researchers found a connection between cortisol and abdominal body fat.
Cortisol was then found to be the latest culprit contributing to the problem of obesity and cortisol-blocking pills emerged on the market and were touted as the "miracle solution".
Cortisol Effect - Big Claims With Little Proof
After a web wide search on the subject of cortisol, here are the claims you may find:
- Stress will make you fat
- Cortisol effect is what makes people fat
- Cortisol reducing supplements can control and reduce stress
- Cortisol reducing supplements can reduce your belly fat
- Cortisol reducing supplements can get rid of “stress fat”
- Cortisol reducing supplements will balance your hormone levels that cause stress
- Cortisol reducing supplements will increase muscle growth
- Cortisol supplements can suppress your appetite
- Cortisol supplements will speed up metabolism and burn fat
The advertising claims have just enough scientific evidence to convince even the savviest consumers and make them say: “That makes sense, I think I will try (and buy) that". They also push emotional hot buttons such as stress (who isn’t stressed in this day and age?). Brilliant and convincing marketing I have to say. Unfortunately, most claims are completely false and contain only a tiny bit of truth.
Cortisol is a key hormone that you need to understand if you want to get the most from your training and nutrition program. If you don’t educate yourself, you will become one of the victims that fall for this latest fad. The answers to the most frequently asked questions about the cortisol effect in this article will give you the science-based facts and help you distinguish and stay away from hyped scams.
Cortisol Effect - What's cortisol?
Cortisol is a naturally occuring hormone produced by our adrenal glands. It falls into the category of hormones that are known as "glucocorticoids", which refers to their ability to increase blood glucose levels. Hence, cortisol is the primary glucocorticoid.
Cortisol Effect - Why does the body produce cortisol?
Cortisol is a stress hormone. Our body produces cortisol as a response to physical, mental or emotional stress. This can include low calorie diets, intense training, high volume training, lack of sleep as well as common daily-life types of stress such as job pressure, arguments with a spouse or being stuck in traffic. Major trauma, injury and surgery are additional stressors to the body.
Cortisol Effect - What does cortisol really do?
Cortisol is part of the fight or flight response mechanisms within our body. Namely, when faced with a "life or death" situation, cortisol increases the flow of glucose (protein and fat also) out of your tissues and into your bloodstream so that it can provide your body with an increase energy and physical readiness that you need to handle the stressful situation.
Cortisol Effect - How does one know whether his/her cortisol levels are high?
Cortisol levels can be tested if you want to do this. The most common testing methid is via a blood test (blood cortisol level test). Saliva and 24-hour urine tests are also common and available methods to test your cortisol levels.
Cortisol Effect - What's a normal cortisol level?
Cortisol levels are higher in adults than they are in children and said levels fluctuate throughout a 24 hour period. Therefore, tests must account for the time of day at which they are taken. Cortisol concentrations are usually highest in the early morning around 6 – 8 a.m. and are also elevated after physical exercise (this is a normal response to exercise). The lowest levels are around midnight. Normal levels of cortisol in the bloodstream at 8:00 a.m. are 6-23 mcg/dl.
Cortisol Effect - Should you get your cortisol levels tested?
For serious athletes, it may be worthwhile to do cortisol tests on a regular basis. In fact, some strength and conditioning coaches will insist on this. For the average trainee, as long as you are aware what factors produce excessive cortisol and take certain steps to minimize such causes, then testing is not necessary.
Cortisol Effect - Is cortisol really related to abdominal fat?
Yes it is. There is a direct link between high cortisol levels and body fat storage, particularly "visceral" abdominal fat (also called intra-abdominal fat). Visceral fat is stored much deeper within the abdominal cavity and surounds internal organs, whereas "regular" fat is stored right under the skin (this is called subcutaneous fat). Visceral fat is very unhealthy because it's a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes.
Cortisol Effect - Does cortisol make you fat?
No, cortisol is not the single "one thing" that makes you fat. In fact, one of cortisol's effects is to increase the breakdown of stored adipose tissue into glycerol and fatty acids whereby it can enter into the bloodstream and be used as energy. High levels of cortisol are only one of the contributing factors to abdominal fat storage, but not the primary cause. Excessive calories from food and not enough exercise is what makes people fat.
Cortisol Effect - If cortisol is related to abdominal fat, will taking a cortisol blocking pill get rid of abdominal fat?
No it will not. Just because there's a relation between high cortisol levels and abdominal fat that doesn’t mean taking a cortisol-suppressing pill will help you get rid of abdominal fat. The studies which showed a relationship between the cortisol effect and body fat didn't test whether suppressing cortisol can actually remove fat that is already on your body.
Cortisol Effect - Does stress make people fat?
No it doesn't. If it did, then everyone who is even remotely stressed would be gaining fat. In fact, there are many people who lose weight while under stress. Some studies have shown test subjects with high cortisol levels that actually lost the most weight. Stress, in and of itself, doesn't increase body fat. However, if stress stimulates your appetite and leads you to overeat, then the excess calories from "stress eating" can make you fat (or fatter).
Cortisol Effect - Is cortisol bad for you?
Cortisol is not "bad" because it's a hormone that's essential for life and is part of our natural stress response. There are many hormones in our bodies. When they are in the proper amounts, they help us maintain good health. On the other hand, when they are in excess or in deficiency, they have negative effects and even contribute to health problems or diseases. Cortisol is no different from this.
Chronically elevated cortisol levels have a variety of negative effects on the body. Cortisol is catabolic agent and elevated cortisol levels may cause the loss of muscle tissue by facilitating the process of converting lean muscle tissue into glucose (which in turn may get converted in to fat). An excess of cortisol can lead to a decrease in insulin sensitivity, increased insulin resistance, poor kidney function, hypertension, poor immune function, reduced growth hormone levels and reduced connective tissue strength.
Cortisol Effect - Can suppressing cortisol improve muscle growth and increase strength?
High cortisol levels can increase the breakdown of muscle protein and inhibit protein synthesis (building of muscle protein). Thus, chronically elevated cortisol levels are counterproductive for building muscle. Getting elevated cortisol levels back to normal will improve recovery, strength, hypertrophy and performance. However, there is no conclusive scientific evidence which suggests that reducing your cortisol levels to normal will have any effect on increasing strength or improving muscle growth.
Cortisol Effect - Should you take cortisol-suppressing supplements to lose weight?
In my opinion - absolutely not. Cortisol blocking supplements are not a solution for losing weight. The FTC filed lawsuits against the makers of Cortislim and Cortistress, charging them with making false unsubstantiated claims which say that their products can cause weight loss. Lydia Parnes, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection says: "The defendant’s claims defy reality. No pill can replace a program of sensible diet and exercise".
Reducing high cortisol levels by taking supplements may be beneficial only for hard training athletes in some ways. However, pills alone will not make you lose fat. Body fat is lost by creating a calorie deficit through proper exercise and nutrition.
Cortisol Effect - Should you take cortisol-suppressing supplements to control stress levels?
There are a number of supplements, mostly herbal, that are reputed to have calming, relaxing, tranquilizing, stress-relieving or anti-anxiety effects. These herbs include Magnolia bark, kava kava, valerian, L-theanine and too many others to mention. However, the fact is that very few studies have directly tested the actuall effects of these herbs on cortisol levels. Eventhough some people find value in these products, the most ideal solution is to reduce stress or change your perception of stress to lessen the effects it will have on your body. Treating symptoms alone will not remove the causes.
Cortisol Effect - What should one do if he or she has a lot of stress in life?
It makes sense to to reduce stress and lessen the impact of the various stressors that can't be avoided. Trying to avoid stress is perhaps not realistic and not completely possible, nor is it desirable. Stress is sometimes a vital part of life because we can’t always achieve positive growth without stress to trigger such changes and adaptations. The thing that you want to aviod is persistent and prolonged stress periods. It’s okay to expose yourself to some stress if there is a sufficient period of rest to fully recover.
One of the best and easiest ways to keep cortisol levels normal is to reduce stress and allow enough time for recovery. There are many effective and natural ways of reducing stress that won’t cost you a single penny, including getting out in the nature, deep breathing, improving sleep quality, relaxation and exercise, meditation and so on. It's important to develop a calm mind and and foster a sense of tranquility within yourself.
Cortisol Effect - What’s in cortisol pills?
The ingredients vary in type and quantity from one brand name to the other. Some ingredients have a relaxing or stress-reducing effect, some reduce cortisol levels, while others are there to control insulin and for blood sugar stabilization. Cortislim, for example, contains Magnolia bark, beta sitosoterol, theanine, green tea extract, bitter orange peel extract, banaba leaf extract, vanadium, vitamin C, calcium and Chromium.
Other ingredients used in various product formulations include Epidemium, phytosterols, tyrosine, Branched chain amino acids, ginseng, ashwaganda, astragalus, kava kava, St. John’s wort, Melatonin, SAM-e, Valerian, Gingko Biloba, Phosphatidyl Serine (PS), Acetyl L-carnitine and Glutamine. We cannot reviewing all of these here because it's beyond the scope of this article.
Cortisol Effect - If one decides to take cortisol suppressing supplements what should he or she look for?
Before you even think about supplements, be advised that unnatural cortisol suppression may not be wise or necessary, especially if you haven’t tried natural stress management strategies. Once your nutrition, training and recovery bases are covered well, there's some research that shows how certain supplements can be beneficial, especially for athletes engaged in hard training.
Carbohydrates consumed with lean proteins immediately after training has a cortisol suppressing effect. High glycemic index (GI) carbs in particular, cause an insulin spike, which helps restore muscle glycogen, stimulates protein synthesis and helps the recovery process. It also helps lower exercise-induced cortisol rise. The research supporting this is substantial. Rather than eating solid food, many athletes prefer a liquid meal in the form of a post-workout whey protein drink containing whey protein plus dextrose or glucose (fast acting protein and high GI carbs) because the rapid absorption speeds recovery.
Vitamin C may decrease cortisol levels as well. A study by Marsit, et al showed a reduction in cortisol levels in elite weight lifters who took 1000 mg of vitamin C per day. Other studies have reported similar findings as well.
Phosphatidyl serine (PS) is a phospholipid, which seems to have cortisol suppressing properties. Studies by Fahey and Monteleone have shown that daily doses of 800 mg can reduce cortisol levels. However, these studies didn't conclude that PS helps an individual lose weight or gain more muscle mass.
Glutamine is an amino acid, which in some studies, has been shown to decrease cortisol levels and prevent a decreased protein synthesis. Many athletes swear by glutamine for improved recovery, but research is still not conclusive about the efficacy of glutamine nor the proper dosages for athletes or bodybuilders. Most research on Glutamine was performed on patients recovering from surgery or traumas (severe stress to the body).
It’s important to say that research on these substances is often conflicting and inconclusive. It's also important to note that many of the cortisol suppressing supplements marketed to athletes or to people seeking weight loss don't contain doses anywhere near the amounts that were used in the research. This is yet one more way that supplement companies deceive consumers.
Cortisol Effect - How can you lower your cortisol levels naturally?
You can lower cortisol in a naturall way. If you are overtrained, unnatural cortisol suppression may be nothing more than a "band aid" and continued overtraining can lead to adrenal exhaustion, which can take months to remedy.
Therefore, the best thing you can do is take a rest and decrease your training volume and intensity instead of artificially trying to suppress cortisol.
Symptoms of overtraining are: elevated resting pulse, sleep disturbances, fatigue, decreased strength and decreased physical performance.
Cortisol Effect - How to keep cortisol levels in check?
- Avoid low calorie diets, especially for long periods of time. Low calorie diets are a major stressor to the body. Low calorie diets increase cortisol while at the same time decreasing testosterone levels.
- Use stress reduction techniques (anger, anxiety and fear can raise cortisol levels and in turn strengthen the cortisol effect on our body.
- Avoid continuous and prolonged stress. Stress is an important part of growth. When you remain under constant stress without enough time for recovery you begin breaking down.
- Avoid overtraining by keeping your workouts intense, but brief (cortisol rises sharply after 45 to 60 min)
- Avoid overtraining by matching your intensity, volume and duration to your ability to recover. Decrease training frequency and or take time off if necessary.
- Suppress cortisol and maximize recovery after workouts with proper nutrition: consume a carb-protein meal or drink immediately after your workout (within 30 minutes after you are done working out).
- Get plenty of quality sleep (sleep deprivation is a stressor and raises cortisol).
- Avoid or minimize the use of stimulants such as: caffeine, ephedrine, synephrine etc.
- Limit your alcohol inatake (large amounts of alcohol elevate cortisol and enhance the cortisol effect).
Cortisol Effect - How to spot a weight loss pill scam?
Cortisol pills that supposedly block the cortisol effect are just a long string of bogus weight loss products. There will always be some types of these pills on the market because weight loss supplements are big business!
So, how do YOU protect yourself? Do your homework! Don’t take anything unless you know exactly what ingredients are in the product and why said ingredients are in the product and in what quantities. Bone up on the scientific research. Don’t buy a weight loss product just because a TV or movie star says it works! Don’t just jump on the phone and order after watching a thirty-minute infomercial!
Cortisol Effect - Conclusions
Excessive cortisol is not good for your body. However, the cortisol effect itself isn't inherently bad. It's a vital and important hormone and part of our body’s natural stress response mechanism.
Cortisol alone doesn't make you fat. Stress alone doesn't make you fat. Stress may lead to an increased appetite and the increased appetite may lead to eating too much which in turn may lead to fat gain. Make sense?
Cortisol suppressing supplements may have some practical uses. However, instead of thinking about cortisol supplements as a weight loss miracle (which they are not), get on a solid exercise and nutrition program and find natural ways to enhance recovery and reduce stress. By doing this you may be surprised to find that you will lose fat and gain muscle without taking any supplements at all.
About the Author:
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilder and author of the #1 best selling e-book Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle, which teaches people how to burn fat without drugs or supplements by using secrets of the world's best bodybuilders and fitness models.
Learn how to get rid of stubborn fat and turbo-charge your metabolism by visiting: www.burnthefat.com.
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