I want to introduce you to my friend Dan Garner. Dan is a popular strength coach and nutrition expert out of London, Ontario. You can learn more about his training philosophies and receive a free gift (64+ Muscle Building and Training Tips) at www.QuickMuscleFormula.com.
Before we get started with the 10 major impacts cortisol has on our health and appearance I think it’s important to first cover what cortisol actually is for all of the new readers out there and why it is the #1 hormone I look at first when taking on any new client or athlete.
Cortisol, as many people know is a stress hormone. It is created from the adrenal cortex in the HPA axis and is considered a primary hormone in the body. Primary hormones are hormones that are necessary for survival. For example, if you see a silverback gorilla coming at you full speed that just broke out of his cage, you’re not going to be thinking “Hey I hope I can sleep with my girlfriend tonight”. You’re going to be thinking “AAAHHH!”
This is the difference between primary and secondary. When you see a gorilla coming at you full speed your body is going to secrete huge amounts of stress hormone like epinephrine (adrenaline), nor-epinephrine and cortisol to put you into fight or flight mode to save your life because that is your bodies main job, to keep you alive in any stressful scenario. Whereas when you’re thinking about your girlfriend, libido hormones come second. Why? Because libido hormones like testosterone, follicle stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormones don’t save your life. Reproduction can come later, for right now, your body needs to create stress hormones. This is the major problem with today’s society. We are subjected to too much stress that our bodies are constantly creating this “2nd grade” adrenaline hormone called cortisol. Things like Wi-Fi, radiation, e-mail alerts, text alerts, scheduling, forgetting something, heavy traffic, awkward conversations, stressful work environments and the list goes on and on about certain scenarios that cause our bodies to create this stress hormone cortisol. All forms of stress create this same type of hormone whether it be mental, physical, environmental or emotional. Cortisol being a primary hormone in the body; then down regulates the production of many other hormones so it can do its job.
The problem is, too low of cortisol, or too high of cortisol is a very bad thing. Complications for increased cortisol levels include: osteopenia, sarcopenia, syndrome X, cognitive decline, immunological compromise, fractures, frailty, cardiovascular disease, memory loss, infections complications and many more.
Here are 10 reasons why you NEED to manage your cortisol.
#1. It lowers immune system function
One thing we do know, is that your ability to build muscle mass is a function of how strong your immune system is. If you have a
good immune system, your ability to put on lean muscle mass is much better. If you have a poor immune system, so if you’re always getting colds or getting sick, your ability to put on muscle mass is much weaker.
Cortisol effects immune system function through multiple pathways that will be discussed in this article but most appropriately for this section I will discuss cortisol’s direct effects on immune function by suppressing your white blood cells ability to effectively work in your system. It can actually act as a signal to stop immune system cells in their track. In short bouts of stress cortisol can actually stimulate immune system activity, which is good. But long term, prolonged exposure to stress does the opposite and wreaks havoc on your immune system by increasing overall inflammation and decreasing immune system activity. Good examples of prolonged exposure to mental or physical stress and its effects on immune system function are college / university kids around exam time and professional athletes. College and University students are always getting sick around exam time because this is a very stressful time in their life, with that stress comes increased cortisol and with increased cortisol comes decreased immune system function. Same with professional athletes. UFC fighters in particular always seem to catch a bug prior to a big fight simply because they have been so hard on their body for so long during training camp that their immune system simply can’t keep up.
#2. It lowers your testosterone
Cortisol runs quite antagonistic with testosterone. Meaning when testosterone levels are high, cortisol levels are normally low, and when cortisol levels are high, testosterone is normally low. This is especially true during the later minutes of your training session and post-workout. Improving the ratio at which testosterone is with cortisol is vital to performance, muscle building, fat loss and optimal health. The way in which cortisol lowers your testosterone is through various different mechanisms involving decreasing your quality of sleep, increasing inflammation and decreasing the absorption of vital nutrients in the GI tract from leaky gut issues. But at a cellular level, when you’re subjected to too much stress your body opts to make cortisol instead of testosterone because testosterone is a secondary hormone and cortisol is a primary hormone. Why your body doesn’t just create both is because they both use the same raw material; cholesterol and pregnenolone. Through a variety of biochemical processes cholesterol precedes and is converted eventually into pregnenolone. From here your body has two choices, it can use the pregnenolone to create testosterone, or it can use it to make cortisol. Your body is very biased in using the pregnenolone to make more cortisol if you are subjected to any type of stress and which you learned above, can come in the form of pretty much all of life’s problems.
To put it simply, our bodies unfortunately will produce cortisol instead of testosterone so high exposure to stressors and high levels of cortisol = low testosterone. Which is the last thing guys like us want when it comes to athletic performance, muscle building or fat loss.
#3. It will decrease your ability to have a good night’s sleep
Cortisol does one very bad thing to your brain and physiology that effects all tissues either directly or indirectly, and that’s
decreasing your neurotransmitter pools. Neurotransmitters are what your body uses to communicate from one tissue to the next and they are also very heavily involved in how you act as a person. Neurotransmitters create feelings and thoughts like happiness, motivation, focus, drive and are involved in everything from speed of thought to speed of movement. How it effects your sleep is it decreases your overall neurotransmitter pools, which, in turn, decrease your body’s ability to get into a deep REM sleep level. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA are vital to a good night’s sleep and when your overall pools are low then your sleep quality is going to be low as well.
What happens when you have low sleep quality is a whole other article in itself but just to give you a quick breakdown on how huge of an effect poor sleep quality has on your body you can expect the following:
- Decrease thyroid output
- Decrease metabolism
- Impaired glucose regulation
- Reduced fatty oxidation
- Decreased leptin (your “feel full” hormone)
- Increased ghrelin (your “hungry” hormone)
- Increased BMI
Cortisol’s effect on just your sleep alone can result in any one, or all of these issues.
#4. It causes food sensitivities, food allergies and leaky gut
Stress is a huge part of food allergies and food sensitivities. Take gluten for example, everybody has declared war on gluten. For many good reasons mind you, I’m not here to defend gluten. What my point is, is that if gluten were such a massive problem, you would see as many food allergies and food sensitivities and leaky gut issues in France as you would here. But you don’t. Many people have heard of the “French Paradox”, and for those who haven’t it is basically the fact that French people do everything that our country tells us not to do, and yet they have lower health risks over there then we do here. They have baguettes, croissants, white bread, lots of wine, low Omega-3’s, etc and still have far lower risks of disease than us. Why? Because we are part of the problem. We, as a nation are far more stressed out then the French. It is actually estimated by stress experts that we have 100x more stress then our grandfathers did.
Stress creates cortisol and cortisol works with histamine in the body to cause gut permeability. Gut permeability means your gut becomes slightly weaker and more flexible and more susceptible to the leaky gut syndrome. Leaky gut is where particles of food escape outside the gut lining and enter the bloodstream. Your immune system sees these escaped particles as invaders and attacks them with inflammation and many other things to rid them of the body. The problem here is that now your immune system sees that food as an invader, so every time you consume that food after words your body sees it and reacts to it as a stress response to get rid of it. That’s how food sensitivities and allergies start. This is why I believe gluten would be as massive of a problem as it is if we weren’t producing so much cortisol all the time. We are the reactive species. When food sensitivities, allergies and leaky gut arise, you can bet overall digestive system operations are heavily impacted which in turn will negatively impact any fat burning or muscle building goals you wished of having.
#5. Decreases thyroid output
The body has an estimated over 100 trillion cells in it. Thyroid hormones are on the very short list of things that can effect each and every single cell in the entire body. The way in which cortisol decreases thyroid hormone output is two-fold.
First, increased levels of cortisol, as mentioned above, decrease neurotransmitter pools. When you decrease neurotransmitter pools you also decrease your body’s ability to enter a deep REM level sleep. When you decrease your body’s sleep quality, you increase thyroid hormone binding globulin (THBG), when you increase THBG it binds up thyroid hormones and makes them useless. Resulting in a decreased metabolism because thyroid hormones aren’t being used to their potential in the cell to breakdown nutrients and create energy, but this also effects insulin’s (the most muscle building, anabolic hormone in the body) ability to do its job because you need thyroid hormone in order for your insulin receptor cells to fire. Just delivering nutrients to the cell is not enough, you also need that receptor cell to open up and allow nutrients in. Thyroid hormone is necessary for insulin receptor cells to fire.
Second, cortisol disrupts your body’s ability to convert T4’s into T3’s. T4’s are your relatively inactive thyroid hormones, they become active in increasing your metabolism when they are converted to T3’s. When cortisol disrupts this process, thyroid gland problems develop and overall metabolism is significantly lowered.
Vince Del Monte & Dan Garner
Gain access to numbers 6-10 (Part 2) by clicking here.
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