If you’re working hard to build lean body mass and lose fat and aren’t making progress, you might assume you aren’t working hard enough or that your diet is a factor. These are two possible reasons you aren’t getting the results you want – but there’s another one. You may be pumping out too much of a hormone called cortisol.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a catabolic hormone produced by your adrenal glands. Producing too much of it has undesirable consequences when it comes to body composition. For one, it makes it harder to build lean body mass. That’s because cortisol breaks down muscle tissue so it can use the amino acids as a fuel source. That’s not what you want when you’re trying to get stronger and firmer.
Cortisol causes other problems too. If you produce too much of it over a long period of time, it can lead to redistribution of fat stores so you store more fat in your waist and abdominal region. To add to the problem, cortisol opposes the action of insulin, thereby increasing insulin resistance. As a result, your body has to pump out more insulin, and you store more fat. It also wreaks havoc with your appetite, brings on carb cravings and depresses your immune system so you’re more susceptible to colds and other illnesses. Obviously, you want to keep cortisol level in check, but first you have to know what’s causing it to rise. Here are five things that can cause your cortisol level to increase.
Excessive Calorie Restriction
When you’re trying to shed body fat, it’s tempting to cut back dramatically on your calorie intake – but that can work against you. Research shows that decreasing your calorie intake below 1,200 calories a day boosts cortisol levels and makes it harder to shed fat. Plus, it makes it more difficult to build lean body mass. Not to mention the stress of monitoring your calorie intake can further boost cortisol levels. Take a sensible approach to fat loss. Don’t drop your calories so low that you place additional stress on your body.
Exercise is a healthy habit, but it’s best to do it in moderation. Spending way too much time working out, especially excessive long periods of cardio, can increase cortisol levels. Give yourself a day or two off from exercise a week to give your body a chance to recover. Not only will it help keep your cortisol level in check, it’ll reduce your risk for overuse injuries.
Skimping on Sleep
Not getting enough sleep is another factor that increases cortisol levels. To make matters worse, a high cortisol level makes it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. In fact, one sign that your cortisol level is too high is early morning awakening. This can lead to a vicious cycle of sleep problems and high cortisol levels. The way to avoid this problem is to get at least 7 hours of sleep a night.
Poor Dietary Choices
Dietary choices that cause inflammation also raise cortisol levels. Deficiencies in certain nutrients, a diet high in processed foods and high-glycemic carbs, caffeine and excess alcohol can cause circulating levels of cortisol to rise. The solution? Eat a balanced diet of whole foods, and limit processed foods to keep cortisol levels under control. It’s also the best way to control body weight and stay healthy.
Stress of any type, including psychological stress, can boost cortisol levels. That’s why cortisol is referred to as the “stress hormone.” Take steps to control stress in your life by learning to relax. Meditation and yoga are both exercises you can do to reduce stress. After you’ve done high-intensity cardio or resistance training, wrap up the session with a session of yoga. It’s one of the best mind-body medicines there is.
The Bottom Line?
Cortisol can negatively affect body composition. Take steps to reduce the amount of unnecessary stress you subject your body too by not skimping on sleep and consuming an adequate amount of calories. Exercise hard, but give yourself adequate time to recover to maximize the benefits.
Psychosom Med. 2010 May;72(4):357-64. Epub 2010 Apr 5.
Medscape Education. “The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Hormones and Metabolism”