Cortisol is the stress hormone. It can store fat, waste muscle and age the brain. Not good.
But there’s two sides to the thing: you need it to get you going in the morning. You want some during training or competition. And it can even burn fat, under the right circumstances. Read on…
The ‘Hormonal Response’ can be good or bad, depending on the hormone, and depending on the timing and what causes it. In sports, cortisol can be crucial!
Cortisol is basically a ‘low grade adrenalin’. Imagine being too relaxed going into a Judo match. Without a little stress -cortisol- you’d be falling half asleep! Probably not helpful…
There’s times when you can be too ‘Zen’.
Around dinner time on the other hand? Don’t stress!
What Does it Do:
A good way to think about cortisol is as the 911 hormone. It sends a message similar to first responders like firefighters and police officers. Cortisol plays both a protective role and adaptation role. It works against inflammation and also releases the body’s sugar and fat stores to meet the demands of stress. Anything that poses a potential threat to the body will result in cortisol being called in to help.
…high cortisol in a low-calorie state will produce a different outcome compared to high cortisol in a high-calorie state. Same thing with exercise – you WANT cortisol high while you’re exercising; you want it low when you’re not.
During exercise, cortisol works with your other fat burning hormones, the catecholamines (adrenaline and noradrenaline) and growth hormone, to increase fat release. High cortisol levels when you’re not exercising? That’s a different story. When cortisol is “socializing” with insulin instead, it has the exact opposite effect.
Dr. Evans has a very unique way of looking at stress management:
Fat Storage or Fat Burning?
Technically speaking, cortisol is both a fat storing and fat burning hormone. This is because it increases the activity of lipoprotein lipase (LPL), the body’s major fat storing enzyme. But it also increases the activity of hormone sensitive lipase (HSL), the body’s chief fat releasing enzyme.
Growth hormone and catecholamines, which are higher during exercise and fasting periods, accentuate cortisol’s fat burning potential while suppressing its fat storing potential. In the fed state, when insulin is around in high amounts, HSL activity is turned way down while LPL activity is cranked up. In this way, insulin magnifies cortisol’s fat storing properties while blocking its fat burning activity.
Cortisol and insulin also block the action of each other by decreasing the sensitivity of their respective receptors. This means that eating is not the only way to become insulin resistant; stress can do it too.
The command and control center of your metabolism is an area of the brain called the hypothalamus. This is the center of your metabolic sensor/thermostat. This area needs to “hear” the signals being sent by peripheral hormones like leptin and insulin, both of which shut down hunger in normal circumstances. Chronically elevated cortisol levels cause irritation in the hypothalamus leading to downregulation of hormone receptors inducing hormone resistance.
Imagine walking into a room with a strong odor and covering your nose and mouth, only to realize later you can no longer smell the odor. This is what cortisol does to the brain. It muffles its satiety sensing mechanism. This makes it far less likely you will feel satisfied from meals and far more likely you’ll eat more at current and future meals.
Cortisol is made in the adrenal glands mostly, but there’s one other place it can be made – belly fat. The deep fat of the belly, called visceral belly fat, contains an enzyme called 11-beta hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11-HSD). This is an enzyme that converts inactive cortisone into active cortisol. This means belly fat can produce its own cortisol!
Short intense exercise, or exercise that’s weight training dominant, and slow relaxing exercise are best for cortisol. In the case of short intense exercise, cortisol is elevated along with growth hormone and the catecholamines. That’s good for fat burning. Plus the shorter duration may mean less compensatory hunger later and less chance of going catabolic.
With longer-duration moderate and intense exercise, cortisol can easily dominate over the growth promoting hormones and be associated with more post-workout hunger and cravings and less anabolic potential. Is this the reason sprinters and marathoners look so different?
Yes it is.
So there ya have it. It’s all about timing. As an athlete you want some cortisol: mornings, during training and competition. Other times, especially at nights, you need to relax. Walking with your Doggie, getting a massage, yoga…these things help with that. And here’s a ‘weird’ little trick I use: essential oil of orange. Take a deep whiff of that and see if you’re not immediately calming down. No joke, it’s that powerful, you should try it!
Source: Dr Jade Teta, T Nation
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