What Raises and Lowers Cortisol, and Why Care?

What Raises and Lowers Cortisol


If you work out, this is for you.

Under stress conditions, including exercise, we release the steroid hormone cortisol. It regulates a variety of body processes, including metabolism and glucose levels. It also reduces inflammation and blocks immune functions.

Associated with a feeling of well-being, cortisol also brings on fatigue if we have too little. In excess, though, cortisol can increase weight and blood pressure and lead to heart disease – or even depression due to brain chemical changes it induces.

Cortisol fluctuates with circadian rhythms. Highest levels occur in the morning, lowest levels in the evening.

Meanwhile, the immune response is the reverse. This is one reason it’s been suggested that endurance workouts be done in the morning and high-intensity training in the afternoon or evening. The immune system manages recovery from training, and the thinking seems to be that endurance workouts won’t require much recovery, as compared with high-intensity work.

Acute Stress and Cortisol

High levels of cortisol during and after an athletic event are anti-inflammatory. They reduce various functions of the immune system so we can keep training.

After the workout or event, turning off cortisol allows the immune system to function and facilitate recovery from the workout.

But What If Cortisol Stays High?

If it stays high, cortisol starts to break muscle down through a process called gluconeogenesis, “making new glucose/sugar”. Obtaining glucose from muscle is more efficient than from fat.

While this is going on, cortisol is also preventing the uptake of amino acids (building blocks of protein) into muscle tissue, so no muscle growth occurs.

Chronically high cortisol can lead to fat storage, inhibited thyroid function, sodium and water retention, poor calcium absorption, further loss of muscle mass, and insulin resistance.

Insulin resistance underlies such metabolic conditions as diabetes, hypertension, high blood fats (triglycerides), cholesterol problems, heart disease, even some cancers. It can cause obesity, too.

Over time, high cortisol inhibits immune function and recovery from exercise. Eventually, it may interfere with endocrine function and lower testosterone levels, which leads to poor athletic performance and recovery for both women and men.

What Raises Cortisol?

• High-intensity training without adequate recovery

• Overtraining

• Sleep deprivation

• Glycogen deficiency, possibly due to a low-carbohydrate diet, especially if you train

• Repeated doses of caffeine over the course of the day

Somewhat surprisingly, alcohol raises cortisol, whether it’s consumed for relaxation after an athletic event or – as many people use it – before bed to bring on relaxation and sleep.

What Lowers Cortisol?

1. Sleep. Starches are excellent for bringing on sleep. A small portion of starch will trigger insulin, which allows the brain to make serotonin. That’s the precursor to melatonin, the sleep hormone.

You can consume starch alone (left-over quinoa or rice), with saturated fat (baked potato and butter), or with a slice of turkey.

2. Consuming starches before and during a long or tough athletic training or event.

3. Refueling within 30 minutes after the training ends. To stop cortisol, a post-training combination of starch and protein in a 3-to-1 ratio is ideal. Avoid fat; it slows carb absorption.

4. Specific supplements that facilitate recovery from training can help, as well, but that’s a topic for a different post.

If you’d like assistance with nutrition to enhance your fitness performance and/or recovery, I’d love to help. Just visit and grab your free Last Resort Nutrition consult. Find out how small, easy changes can make a big difference in your workouts, your energy, and your health.

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One Thought to “What Raises and Lowers Cortisol, and Why Care?”

  1. Thanks for sharing this exercise..

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