Tuesday, April 21, 2009 by Daniel

CrossKitchen: Spotlight on Cortisol

Crossposted at CrossFit East Bay

As a breed, I've noticed that CrossFitters have trouble with moderation. I expect it's just another manifestation of the same attraction to extremity that brought us to the sport in the first place. Regardless of the reasoning, it tends to lead all of us to the same mental trap sooner or later: the "more is better" trap.

You know how it goes. That little voice that pipes up and whispers in your ear, "hey, if one workout a day is good, then two would be even better!" Or, "if dropping 500 calories a day from my meal plan loses a pound a week, why don't I just drop 1000 calories a day so I can lose weight twice as fast?" And so on. Humorous slogans notwithstanding, we tend to have an extremely high tolerance for discomfort, allowing us to push ourselves ever further in pursuit of our goals. You think you're so smart. Well, say hello to the check to your unbalance.

Cortisol, the stress hormone.

Although Insulin gets all the bad press, cortisol is a major player in your fitness, and is well worth your attention. Like just about everything, it does great stuff in moderation, but too much will hurt you.

What does it do?

Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands, and is responsible for a number of general-housekeeping duties in the body (glucose metabolism, blood pressure, insulin release, immune system, etc), but these are not the things that make it famous. It got its reputation as "the stress hormone" due to its elevated levels during moments of high stress, when the body goes into "fight or flight" mode, causing:

  • A quick burst of energy
  • Heightened memory functions
  • A burst of increased immunity
  • Lower sensitivity to pain
All good things. You know what else acts a stimulus for cortisol release? Exercise. However, if the body doesn't go back into relaxation mode for too long, or if cortisol is released too frequently, then the body reaches a state of chronic stress. This is where things get ugly.

  • Impaired cognitive performance. It actually makes you stupid.
  • Lowered immunity and inflammatory response. Meaning you're much more likely to get sick or to have a wound/injury that takes much longer to heal than it should.
  • Decreased bone density and muscle tissue. So now you're stupid, sick AND weak.
  • Make that stupid, sick, weak and chubby. Turns out that cortisol increases abdominal fat (particularly fat around the umbilicus). Yes, it is possible for exercise to make you fat. Have you ever known any chronic cardiofanatics who somehow keep a little bit of belly despite hours and hours slogging away at the bike/treadmill/elliptical? Bingo.
Excess cortisol is your body's way of telling you to slow the **** down. Remember: "Plan your rests or nature will provide them for you."

So what can I do?

All is not lost, exercise fans. With proper care and attention, you can beat the crap out of yourself in the gym an awful lot and still keep chronic stress at bay. Here are some tips:

  • REST. Numero uno primo importante. This can take a number of forms.
    • Sleep. Eight hours is the MINIMUM. If you're knocking out two-a-days or training particularly hard, kick that up to nine and a nap. If you have trouble sleeping, try to get your room as dark as possible (blackout shades or a facemask), try a white noise machine and supplement with Zinc/Magnesium just before bed. Going to bed earlier (before 10) is better than later.
    • Plan rest periods. Half-volume weeks every now and then are a fantastic way of taking a break and letting your body perform minor repairs without totally losing your training. The most common recommendation I see is 3 weeks on, 1 week half, 3 weeks on, 1 week OFF, but you can experiment to see what works for you.
    • Meditate. This does not necessarily mean chanting mantras in a dark hall thick with incense (though that works, too). Basically, I mean just sitting and breathing and being still. My favorite technique involves some grass, a tree, a sunny day and a cool drink.
    • Light activity. Sometimes called "lifestyle exercise," this is mostly just a form of moving meditation. Borrow a dog and walk it. Ride Inspiration Point in Tilden. Grab a friend and head out to Point Reyes for the day. Play frisbee. Just play.
  • EAT. In the immortal wisdom of Gita: "There is no such thing as overtraining, just undereating." Food - QUALITY food - provides your body with the building blocks it needs to repair itself. The more you're working, the more you should be eating to support that work. Don't be shy. If you're dieting with caloric restriction, then you are necessarily walking a thin line between healthy and overtrained, and it becomes critical that your food is of the highest quality.
  • Keep your exercise BRIEF and INTENSE. The body begins serious cortisol production at about half an hour into a workout, but it doesn't really outweigh the benefits until you approach an hour. Over an hour and you're just damaging yourself. Twenty minutes is the sweet spot (this is the reason many CrossFit metcons are aimed squarely at tweny minutes in length). If you want to run or bike, that's fine, but train hard sprints or intervals. (Note: If you're specifically training for endurance, then necessarily you'll have to violate this rule. Just be careful.)
  • Avoid other sources of stress. Exercise isn't the only source of cortisol production. If you have a job, class or relationship that's stressing you out, recognize that and take what steps you can to counter the anxiety and achieve more balance.
  • Get busy. Orgasms are a great way to reduce stress.
  • Make sure you're getting your C. Vitamin C is shown to help reduce cortisol. It's probably in your daily multi, but check the label.
Basically, it all boils down to supporting your body's recovery. The harder you're working, the more diligently you need to help your body repair itself with quality rest and nutrition. Nobody is superman - if you try to CrossFit at a high volume with too little sleep and food, you will quickly find yourself on your ass. If you recognize signs of overtraining, then back off for a bit and try a different approach - eventually you'll learn your limits and the best way of pushing them without going too far.

I am not a dietician. CrossKitchen articles come from my
personal experience, observations and research, and should not be
construed as professional medical advice.


Brad said...


Ev said...

This got posted on FB w/ Google Reader, btw. Nice, D. I say you consider submittinge articles to CrossFit journal.

Melissa Byers said...

NICE, Daniel! Thanks to Rebecca for throwing this up on my blog today. What an excellent reference.

I do a little bit disagree with Gita, though... there IS a point in over-training where no amount of food is going to be able to refuel your energy stores. If someone is at that point, then I'll try to get their activity levels back in line to a reasonable degree first, THEN start playing around with their diet to support that new, more reasonable, level.

Thanks again, guys!

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