The Cortisol Controversy

December 1, 2009 by  

Most of you know that testosterone is one of the principle hormones responsible for muscle growth and I’m sure you have also heard of cortisol. You might have some vague idea that cortisol is bad in so far as muscle growth; but do you know exactly what cortisol is or how to control it? This month, I thought I would explain what cortisol is and what we can do to favorably manipulate it.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone manufactured by the adrenal glands. It is not anabolic like testosterone; to the contrary, cortisol is primarily catabolic, meaning it can eat away muscle. Before you rush off to the doctor to have your adrenal glands removed, realize that cortisol (despite the negativity attached to catabolism) is essential for human

One way to understand cortisol is to look at a couple of diseases related to cortisol production. When someone is afflicted with Addison’s Disease, the body is unable to produce cortisol (1). This promptly results in hypotension (low blood pressure), shock, and eventual death. There are a variety of substances the body produces to control blood pressure and some of them work by binding to receptors on the blood vessel walls. Without cortisol, these receptors become insensitive to the substances that normally bind and hypotension and death can develop. By injecting the sufferer with a shot of cortisol (or a synthetic version), this potentially deadly situation can be quickly brought under control. Without any cortisol in your system, you would die within a day or two.

At the other extreme is Cushing’s Disease, a condition caused by excess cortisol (1). Cushing’s sufferers become obese and develop diabetes (cortisol causes insulin resistance) and osteoporosis. They also experience severe muscle wasting and may become so weak they are barely able to walk. Sufferers develop very tender skin and bruise easily and profusely. These unfortunate people develop a characteristic body shape called the “Cushingoid habitus,” characterized by very thin arms and legs (from the muscle wasting), coupled with a large, obese abdomen and a round, puffy face. The bottom line on cortisol is simple: too much and you will risk muscle wasting and obesity. Not enough cortisol can also give you massive medical problems.

We need to strike a happy medium. Fortunately, as long as your adrenal glands are functioning properly, you’ll never have to worry about cortisol deprivation or excess. Your adrenal glands, in concert with other glands (and nature), automatically regulate cortisol and keep it in the appropriate range. So why am I bothering to write about this obscure subject? It turns out that you can help regulate cortisol with diet, supplements, exercise, and other lifestyle changes, including stress management.

Cortisol, Stress, and Metabolism

Cortisol helps your body deal with stress. Cortisol has a wide variety of actions, all of which help to regulate overall metabolism. This is why any extreme cortisol deficiency will result in metabolic and physiologic collapse and eventual death. What is cortisol’s defining actions? Cortisol has a direct effect in regulating carbohydrate, fat, and protein metabolism (1). Cortisol mobilizes the body’s energy reserves during times of stress. Cortisol acts to increase blood glucose concentration in two ways: first, through a decrease in insulin sensitivity (thus reducing storage of glucose inside cells) and second, by stimulating gluconeogenesis.

Gluconeogenesis is the production of new glucose from amino acids. Unfortunately, these particular amino acids are derived from the breakdown (catabolism) of body proteins – including muscle tissue. Cortisol stimulates muscle catabolism to free up the amino acids so they are available to be converted into glucose to use for energy. This is why excess cortisol causes muscle wasting. Cortisol’s effect on body fat varies somewhat according to the specific body region. Fat depots exist in different parts of the body and these different regions have different hormone receptors. Cortisol tends to cause depletion of peripheral fat in the arms and legs, but increased accumulation of fat in the abdomen, back and face. Patients with excessive cortisol levels (or those on high dosages of prednisone) develop thin arms and legs due to both muscle and fat loss (through catabolism).

Cortisol helps control metabolism and cortisol also works to modulate the activity of the immune system. Cortisol also helps control fluid and water balance (1). The general effect is to cause more water to accumulate in the interstitial space. This is the space outside of the individual cells: the space between cells. When water accumulates between cells it is called edema: an extreme form of the puffiness and water retention – exactly what a competitive bodybuilder strives to avoid before competition.

Now that we have some background on what cortisol is, where it comes from, how it is regulated, and what it does – we can talk about what we can do to minimize its undesirable effects. For bodybuilding purposes we want to minimize cortisol because it promotes muscle loss, fat accumulation and water retention. Cortisol is secreted in response to stress of almost any kind. It should then come as no surprise that the first thing we should do to control cortisol is minimize body stress and maximize recovery time.


Get plenty of rest. Sleep deprivation has been shown to increase cortisol levels and the reintroduction of proper sleep habits reduces cortisol levels back to normal. Everyone knows either by intuition or experience that muscle growth is much harder if you don’t get enough rest. And don’t neglect the connection between cortisol and stress. Anger and stress are often interrelated: are you a “type A” personality? If so, attempt to remain as relaxed and calm as possible. Easier said than done. Remember this: every time you have an emotional outburst, lose your temper or fly into a rage, you are most likely dumping huge amounts of muscle-eating cortisol into your bloodstream. Hopefully, that thought will give you pause if you are serious about bodybuilding but emotional by nature.
Watch Overtraining

Another cortisol-related factor is training. Over-training, literally doing too much training, while being undernourished and not getting enough rest results in decreased testosterone production and increased cortisol levels. This tips the balance rapidly from anabolism to catabolism. People who are chronically over-trained are continually tired, fatigued, weak and often depressed. They lose muscle, strength plummets and performance declines. If you look around the gym, the people who are not making progress are usually under-training – not over-training. Furthermore, if you compare the stagnant trainers to the ones making the gains, you will observe the ones making gains are invariably training harder and longer. Before you conclude that you are over-training and reduce your exercise level, try getting some additional rest, eat more clean calories and add in some basic supplements to increase your nutrient levels. Generally these changes will promote growth without having to reduce exercise activity. In many cases, failure to grow is simply the result of inadequate caloric and nutrient intake in relation to the exercise level of the bodybuilder. Over-training is a result of doing too much exercise (volume) while being undernourished. Do not confuse volume with intensity. Successful bodybuilding is about intensity, not volume. Endurance exercise is about volume, not intensity. You should train intensely and workout for 60 to 90 minutes.


There are certain nutrition strategies you can use to minimize the catabolic effects of cortisol. The single most

important and effective of the cortisol-suppressing nutritional techniques is a low-tech solution. Probably the most effective thing you can do to minimize cortisol release is to simply eat something every two to three hours. Caloric deprivation has been shown to cause a significant increase in cortisol levels (3). A small meal every two to three hours (or so) is a great way to keep cortisol excretions to a minimum. The ideal cortisol suppressing meal would contain a complex carbohydrate and some protein. Carbohydrate ingestion in particular seems to reduce cortisol levels. It is also important to eat some protein at each meal as protein slows the release of carbohydrates and provides a constant supply of amino acids to facilitate muscle growth. Most people find it difficult to eat six complete meals a day and rely on nutritional supplements for two or three of these many meals. If you are looking for a supplemental meal replacement, try our 50/50 Plus. This fantastic product supplies 17 grams of quality carbohydrates and 20 grams of high BV protein. Another excellent meal alternative is the Parrillo Bar, Parrillo Protein Bar, Parrillo Energy Bar, or the Parrillo Protein Chew Bars. These tasty bars are extremely convenient and will provide you with a balanced meal that you can carry in your pocket and eat in minutes. Some of our athletes like to combine Optimized Whey Protein or Hi-Protein Powder with Pro-Carb. This novel approach allows you to customize and adjust your ratio of protein-to-carbohydrates to suit your personal goals.

Vitamins & Other Supplements

In addition, vitamin supplementation may be helpful. In particular, the antioxidant vitamins E and C seem to reduce the oxidative stress of exercise and therefore reduce catabolism. B-vitamins are also important to regulating cortisol. So be sure to check out our Essential Vitamin Formula, Bio-C, and Natural Vitamin E Plus for help here. Glutamine and the branched chain amino acids – leucine, isoleucine, and valine – may not affect cortisol levels directly, but are very effective at shifting the anabolism-catabolism balance more towards the anabolic side. These amino acids seem to have a powerful effect in stimulating protein synthesis. Glutamine has been shown to increase glycogen storage as well as increase growth hormone levels (3,4). Our protein products (Optimized Whey, Hi-Protein, 50/50 Plus) all have high amounts of amino acids mixed into a well-balanced protein base.

In summary: to help minimize the catabolic effects of cortisol you should get plenty of rest, minimize stress in your life and avoid over-training. You should eat small, frequent meals, containing both carbohydrates and protein. Your protein choices should contain high levels of glutamine and the BCAAs. Try to eat every three hours if possible. Three conventional meals per day, combined with three servings of 50/50 Plus or your own Pro-Carb/Hi-Protein or Optimized Whey concoction will assure that you are obtaining adequate protein intake and obtaining high levels of glutamine. By applying and following a few common sense diet and exercise guidelines, we can minimize the catabolic effects of cortisol. Just remember to stay cool, calm and collected the next time the boss or your kids do something that makes you angry. By subduing stress, getting plenty of rest, adequate nutrients and exercising hard and intensely, cortisol-related muscle wasting can be a non-event in your bodybuilding endeavor.


1. Fauci et al. Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. McGraw Hill, New York, 1998.

2. Kelley DS et al. Energy restriction and immunocompetence in overweight women. Nutrition Research 18: 159-169, 1998.

3. Varnier M et al. Stimulatory effect of glutamine on glycogen accumulation in human skeletal muscle. Am. J. Physiol. 269: E309-E315, 1995.

4. Welbourne TC. Increased plasma bicarbonate and growth hormone after an oral glutamine load. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 61: 1058-1061, 1995.


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