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Hormones & Stress: Cortisol

Cortisol is what we call the Jekyll & Hyde Hormone. To understand how hormones and stress effect cortisol you need to understand the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. For those who are not 100% familiar with the story I will review it here briefly.

Dr. Jekyll was a good natured kind man and an upstanding citizen. But he was bothered with dark thoughts of a “lustful and naughty nature”. This worried him so much that he concocted a medical serum to attempt to separate himself from these dark impulses. The serum worked but only partially, and brought forth Jekyll’s alter ego, the evil Mr. Hyde. The story is about the struggle between the good balanced side, Dr. Jekyll, and the bad extreme side, Mr. Hyde. For more on the Jekyll and Hyde story you can read it on Wikipedia HERE.

Understanding this story is instructive in understanding cortisol. Many people see cortisol as an “evil” fat storing muscle wasting hormone. In fact, it is not and is required for optimal health, fitness, and fat loss. It CAN become destructive under certain circumstances specifically when it is chronically elevated or continuously suppressed. When it is too high or too low, it turns into Mr Hyde. When it is balanced, cortisol is more like Dr. Jekyll.

So let’s go through some facts about cortisol to help you understand it further.

1) Cortisol is both fat storing and fat releasing.

  • It is fat storing because like insulin it increases the activity of the major fat storing enzyme lipoprotein lipase (LPL).
  • It is fat burning because it increases the activity of the major fat burning enzyme hormone sensitive lipase (HSL).
  • I always like to point out that the major fat burning enzyme in our body is called HORMONE sensitive lipase and not CALORIE sensitive lipase. This sort of gives a hint that both calories and hormones are important in fat loss.
  • HSL is more accurately described as a fat releasing enzyme rather than a fat burning enzyme. This is because the fat it releases still needs to be burned elsewhere in the body otherwise it risks being “re-stored”.
  • Acute elevations in cortisol help burn fat.
  • Excess prolonged elevations in cortisol may cause changes in sympathetic neurons leading to increased NPY production. NPY released from peripheral sympathetic neurons stimulate fat cell growth. (Want more details on this? See this BLOG & this STUDY.)
  • Chronic elevations in cortisol, especially in absence of the muscle building or maintaining hormones, can lead to muscle loss.

2) Hormones are like people and behave differently depending on who they are socializing with. When cortisol is socializing with insulin, it is more likely to turn into Mr. Hyde and cause fat storage.

  • This is because insulin and cortisol are antagonists of each other.
  • Insulin and cortisol together increase LPL far greater than either alone, and insulin suppresses cortisol’s action on HSL.
  • This means insulin accentuates cortisol’s LPL effect and dampens its HSL effect increasing the storage of fat while at the same time decreasing its release.
  • Insulin also negatively impacts fat burning directly, slowing fat burning down through its indirect suppression of a major fat burning enzyme called CPT-1.
  • Cortisol also makes the body more insulin resistant. This means the body will need to release more insulin to get the job done. This can lead to greater fat storage, and the slowed release of fat will also be worsened.
  • Cortisol does not cause belly fat, but when it is hanging around with insulin it plays a huge role.

3) When cortisol is socializing with HGH, catecholamines (adrenaline and noradrenaline), and lower levels of insulin, it is more like Dr. Jekyll and enhances fat loss.

  • This is because these hormones in combination both speed fat release and elevate fat burning.
  • This state of elevated cortisol with HGH and catecholamines, along with lower insulin, is extremely beneficial for fat loss.
  • This state occurs in short-term fasting and short duration high intensity exercise.
  • This is why short, overnight fasts or day fasts (i.e. 12-24hours), and short duration very high intensity workouts (i.e. 20 minutes of sprint training) are very beneficial for many in their fat loss goals.
  • Lowering cortisol during exercise is not wise, but suppressing it post exercise can aid the anabolic catabolic balance in the body.
  • Eating soon after exercise, doing relaxing activity following intense movement, and the use of performance supplements like BCAA and/or whey protein work great to help this effect along.

4) Cortisol contributes to, and may directly cause cravings.

  • Stress hormones are associated with what neuroscientists refer to as the craving brain. This is a state that is often activated under stress, where the brain’s short term reward centers are activated and the motivation centers are turned down.
  • Cortisol interacts directly or indirectly with neuropeptide Y (NPY), stimulating appetite. (Further reading HERE and HERE.)
  • Cortisol is associated with the desire for sweet, salty and fatty foods.

5) Cortisol is intimately related to thyroid function.

  • Cortisol is required to sensitize thyroid receptors to thyroid hormone. Therefore low cortisol disrupts normal thyroid signaling leading to hypothyroid.
  • High cortisol levels decrease the conversion of thyroxine (T4) to triiodothyronine (T3) and increase levels of reverse thyroid hormone (rT3). Together this means lower thyroid function and hypothyroid.
  • For optimal thyroid function you don’t want cortisol too high or too low.

6) Things that raise cortisol (not an exhaustive list).

  • High intensity short duration exercise.
  • Moderate intensity long duration exercise.
  • Both eating food and skipping meals can raise cortisol. In the case of eating, this is believed to be a protective immune response. In the case of missing meals, it is released to aid fat and sugar release. The degree of these responses is variable from person to person.
  • Sleep deprivation, short term stress, and long-term stress.
  • Immune responses from infection or inflammation can cause high levels of cortisol.
  • Licorice root extends the half life of cortisol in the body and is often used by alternative practitioners in those with low cortisol reserves.
  • Hydrocortisone or plant derived cortisol (i.e. Isocort) are both often used for those with low cortisol.
  • Alcohol use
  • Coffee

7) Things that lower cortisol (not an exhaustive list).

  • Leisure walking NOT power walking. (especially in the woods)
  • Sleep, naps, and massage
  • Rest, relaxation, and laughter
  • Meditation, tai chi, restorative/stretching yoga (NOT power yoga)
  • Physical affection, time with loved ones and pets
  • Sauna, hot baths, and spa therapies (raises cortisol during a session, but then lowers after)
  • GABAnergic herbal teas (lemon balm, passionflower, valerian, chamomile, skullcap). ME’s favorite is Yogi brand Bedtime Tea.
  • Eating. Anything that raises insulin will suppress cortisol to some degree. Therefore starchy foods and protein rich foods. Since starchy foods also may have a greater impact on insulin and fat storage, protein may be a better option.
  • Whey protein and BCAA supplements
  • Phosphadityl serine and Relora
  • Magnesium. Orally or through bath (i.e. epsom salts)
  • Green tea (theanine)

8) Things that help balance cortisol and adrenal stress function.

  • The ginsengs: Asian Ginseng (panax), Siberian ginseng (eleutherococcus)
  • Rhodiola Rosea
  • Shizandra (aka Chinese ginseng)
  • Ashwagandha (aka Indian ginseng)
  • Maca (aka Peruvian ginseng)
  • Tulsi (Holy Basil)
  • Theobroma Cacao (cocoa powder)
  • Sodium, Vitamin C, Vitamin B5, zinc, magnesium

9) Measuring cortisol.

  • Best measured through saliva so as to capture the free hormone and to capture its natural circadian rhythm.
  • The test we use at the Metabolic Effect clinic is called the Adrenal Stress Index (ASI).
  • Best to measure DHEA along with cortisol to get an idea of the catabolic, anabolic balance in the body.
  • Cortisol’s natural response is to be elevated in the morning and fall at night.
  • A reverse cortisol curve is where the levels are highest at night. This is an early sign of over-training/over-reaching in athletes and first warnings of dysfunctional stress response in others.

10) Other interesting facts.

  • Disease of low cortisol is called Addison’s disease. Individuals tend to be sickly, have extreme fatigue, and have characteristic darkening of the pigment and skin.
  • Disease of high cortisol is called Cushing’s disease. Individuals tend to have a round face, fat accumulation on upper back, and a large round belly. They also tend to develop “purple striae” or stretch marks.
  • 11-Beta Hydroxysteroid Dehydrogenase Type 1 (11-beta HSD1) is an enzyme present in fat and other cells that converts inactive cortisone into active cortisol. This is important because this means that fat tissue can produce its own cortisol.
  • Because of the action of 11-beta HSD 1, individuals can be suffering the effects of high cortisol levels in local areas while having normal cortisol hormone profiles.
  • Curcumin is a powerful inhibitor of HSD-1 in animal models, and we use this in our clinic with obesity and clinically stubborn belly fat.

Interested in how to apply this information to your life and manage stress? It is not all about diet and exercise. When it comes to the negative impact of stress, mindset and behaviors are critical as well. At Metabolic Effect, we have a 4-week course to teach you the critical behaviors surrounding issues of stress. To learn more click the access button below.

Learn how to conquer stress and repair your metabolism CLICK HERE