One hormone that has been in the fitness spotlight lately is cortisol, a steroid hor-mone manufactured by the adrenal glands. Although its overall function is to help the body deal with stress, cortisol has a wide variety of actions, all of which help to regulate overall metabolism. For example: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 concentra-tion 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 accu-mulation 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). Typically, they also develop obese abdo-mens . Cortisol is not anabolic like testosterone; to the contrary, cortisol is primarily catabolic. Too much of it and you will risk obesity, and not enough can lead to medical prob-lems . Fortunately, as long as your adrenal glands are functioning properly, you’ll never have to worry about cortisol deprivation or ex-cess. Your adrenal glands, in concert with other glands (and nature), automatically regulate cortisol and keep it in the appro-priate range . So why am I bothering to write about this subject?
It turns out that exercise increases cortisol levels – and this has important implications that needs to be taken into account by anyone who practices high in-tensity weight training. Exercise stimulates muscle growth and paradoxically also trig-gers the release of cortisol. When cortisol is suddenly dumped into the bloodstream, it creates a potentially catabolic situation. So we need to understand how cortisol works and how it is regulated so we can design a training and nutrition strategy which will allow for optimal growth – while minimizing cortisol’s catabolic 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 mini-mize body stress and maximize recovery time. For starters, 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 be-tween 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 tem-per 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. Another cortisol-related factor is training. Over-training, literally doing too much training, while being under nourished and not getting enough rest results in decreased testosterone production and increased cor-tisol levels. This tips the balance rapidly from anabolism to catabolism. People who are chronically over-trained are continu-ally tired, fatigued, weak and often de-pressed . They lose muscle, strength plum-mets 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 one 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 such as our Vi-tamin Formula™ and Mineral Electrolyte Formula™ to increase your nutrient lev-els. 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 (vol-ume) while being under nourished. Do not confuse volume with intensity. Successful bodybuilding is about intensity, not vol-ume. Endurance exercise is about volume, not intensity . You should train intensely and workout for 60 to 90 minutes. Remember, the longer and harder you train the higher your calorie and nutrient levels must be. There are certain nutrition and supplemen-tation strategies you can use to minimize the catabolic effects of cortisol. The single most important and effective of the corti-sol-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, as the Parrillo Nutrition Program recommends. Caloric deprivation has been shown to cause a sig-nificant 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 carbo-hydrates and provides a constant supply of amino acids to facilitate muscle growth. Most people find it difficult to eat six com-plete 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 product supplies 17 grams of quality carbo-hydrates and 20 grams of high BV protein. Another excellent meal alternative is the Parrillo Bar™, Parrillo Protein Bar™ or the Parrillo Energy Bar™. 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 al-lows you to customize and adjust your ratio of protein-to-carbohydrates to suit your per-sonal goals . In addition, vitamin supplementation may be helpful. In particular, the antioxidant vitamins E and C seem to reduce the oxida-tive stress of exercise and therefore reduce catabolism.
Most bodybuilders who follow our nutritional guidelines don’t eat fruit (since fruit sugar is preferentially converted into fat) and therefore vitamin supplementa-tion becomes an even better idea. Glutamine and the branched chain amino acids – leu-cine, isoleucine, and valine – may not affect cortisol levels directly, but are very effective at shifting the anabolism-catabolism bal-ance 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 stor-age as well as increase growth hormone lev-els (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 make sure your caloric and nutrient lev-els match your training load . You should eat small, frequent meals, containing both carbohydrates and protein. Your protein choices should contain high levels of glu-tamine and the BCAAs. Try to eat every three hours if possible. Three conventional meals per day, combined with three serv-ings of 50-50 Plus™ or your own Pro Carb™/Hi-Protein™ or Optimized Whey ™ concoction will assure that you are ob-taining adequate protein intake and obtain-ing high levels of glutamine and BCAAs. 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 col-lected the next time the boss or your kids do something that makes you angry. By subduing stress, getting plenty of rest, ad-equate nutrients and exercising hard and in-tensely, cortisol-related muscle wasting can be a non-event in your bodybuilding career.
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 over-weight women. Nutrition Research 18: 159-169, 1998 .
3. Varnier M et al. Stimulatory effect of glutamine on glycogen accumu-lation 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.
5. Monteleone P, Maj M, Beinat L, Natale M, and Kemali D. Blunting by chronic phosphatidylserine ad-ministration of the stress-induced activation of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis in healthy men. European Journal of Clini-cal Pharmacology. 42: 385-388, 1992 .
6. Monteleone P, Beinat L, Tanzillo C, Maj M, and Kemali D. Effects of phosphatidylserine on the neu-roendocrine response to physical stress in humans. Neuroendocri-nology 52: 243-248, 1990 .