We all deal with stress.
Some of us more than others.
From work stress, home-life stress, training stress, relationship to personal stress, we all deal with some kind of physical & mental stress in our lives.
Although stress, to some degree, is a good thing, constantly elevated cortisol is NOT a good thing. Detrimental to progress, happiness, & overall well-being even.
Constantly elevated cortisol can lead to heightened hunger & cravings, low thyroid activity, a constantly elevated heart rate, low melatonin production making it harder to sleep, & restricted blood flow to your gut.
With all that being said, being chronically stressed can make fat loss, muscle gain, & overall health that much harder.
Now you might be wondering, what exactly is cortisol anyway?
Cortisol is a stress hormone that’s released from our adrenal glands. It’s not something that’s meant to be constantly be released, but more so for short-term releases in high stress situations (like if you were being chased by a bear). It’s the hormone that helps us wake up in the morning to get ready to tackle the day ahead, it increases our blood sugar, reduces inflammation, aids in our nutrient metabolism, all to help our body prepare for high-stress situations.
Cortisol is also responsible for energy mobilization. Meaning, when cortisol increases, your sympathetic nervous system starts firing, your body starts producing adrenaline, thus creating the optimal environment for fat or glycogen (stored energy) to be utilized.
So if you’re getting chased by a bear, your body’s survival mechanism is turning up your cortisol production so you can run faster to get away from said bear.
We also see this response in the gym when we’re about to perform a heavy lift or just exercising in general, meaning cortisol can help us perform more explosively during training.
Now, a lot of you might be thinking… “I’ve never been chased by a bear, so how does this apply to me?”
Well, people in modern day society deal with a lot of the chronic stress to the point that it’s like their body constantly thinks they’re being chased by a bear 24/7. Unfortunately, our bodies don’t know the difference between work project stress & being chased by a bear stress.
Take this chart for example:
The blue line represents normal cortisol production being higher in the morning when we wake up & then coming down as the day goes on to prepare our bodies for rest.
The orange line represents the cortisol production of most people in today’s world. There is no “come down” period & stress is always high. Because we live in stress-inducing environments, our bodies have no way of coming down from said stress thus, creating a lot of the issues high cortisol produces.
And some people are just so “used” to dealing with the stress that they don’t know how much better they could feel if their body had the opportunity to come down from stress at certain points during the day.
If you’re learning how to navigate a high-stress lifestyle, know you’re not alone.
Today’s blog post is going to teach all you cortisol junkies out there HOW to combat your constantly elevated cortisol levels to make getting after your goals that much easier.
Your cortisol checklist:
Audit what’s within your control
Because there are so many factors that play into what’s causing our constantly elevated cortisol levels, it’s important to look at your reality to determine what you can take off your plate to mitigate your stress.
For me, I had to look at the fact that I’m working 3 jobs, I have a family & social life, & I was training 2-3 hours per day leaving no time for my body to recover. I barely had time to eat & sleep.
I can’t stop working because I need to make a living, I’m not willing to sacrifice time with my friends & family, so I chose to reduce my training stress. It was a tough pill to swallow for me, but something had to change. Otherwise, something was going to eventually give. Reducing my training days & hours was something within my control that I changed to make me feel so much better & to help manage my stress & cortisol production throughout the day.
It’s difficult & even stressful to address the stressors in your life. But until we can come to terms with what we need to do to change, the less likely it is we will achieve our goals.
This is veryyyy hard for cortisol junkies. We like to constantly be doing something in order to feel productive.
But it’s important to remember it’s OKAY to sit down & just be. It’s okay to chill out & find activities you enjoy doing that relax you.
For some this may look like reading, meditating, stretching, sitting & watching Netflix, but for some relaxing might look like organizing, cleaning, or going on a walk/being active.
Whatever your “you time” looks like, carve out time to do it daily. You can even change up your “you time” activity daily. Your “you time” doesn’t have to be an hour long morning routine or a two hour long wind down routine. It can be as quick as 5 to 10 minutes out of your day to do something for yourself.
Just take the time to MAKE it happen.
Quality sleep is the number 1 way to bring cortisol production down. When we sleep, melatonin production increases which will give your body the opportunity to repair & recovery from the day you had while also bringing cortisol down.
Getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night is veryyyy beneficial for fat loss, muscle growth, improving bone density, & stress management.
However, getting enough quality sleep can be difficult for those with high cortisol as they might feel “tired but wired” at night.
Having some kind of pre-sleep ritual can help get your body ready for sleep more optimally. I typically recommend turning all electronics off about an hour or so before bed. The blue light in electronics elicits a higher cortisol response, in turn, making it even more difficult for cortisol junkies to fall asleep.
If you can, read a book, do a “brain dump” on paper, journal, stretch, or meditate, about 30 mins to 1 hour before bed to help you wind down.
Your pre-sleep ritual will be unique to you, so play around with different activities you can do before bed to create YOUR most optimal pre-sleep ritual to prepare your mind & body for sleep.
Balance your training intensity
Exercise induces “good” stress. BUT you can have too much of a good thing.
When we train 6-7 days a week at a high-intensity for 3-4 hours a day, your body will be hard pressed for recovery. Unless you’re a professional athlete or have limited home/work life responsibilities & have the time to dedicate to your recovery, you’re probably doing your body more harm than good by over-exercising.
I tell clients all the time, movement is movement. I don’t want them to get wrapped up in the idea that exercise has to be an hour long CrossFit or Orange Theory class or an hour & a half long lifting session, or a 7 mile run. It can simply be a 20-30 minute walk or even them dancing around their house for 10 minutes.
If you are doing high-intensity exercise daily, vary the intensity you bring each day. You don’t have to go balls to the wall every single workout in order to gain some fitness.
Take the pressure off yourself. You don’t have to be rolling on the ground after a workout or be super sweaty for it to be effective. Because chances are, if you are feeling like you’re dying after every single workout, your workout routine isn’t that effective to begin with.
Also, instead of just immediately moving on to the next task on your do-to list post-workout, take a cool down walk or practice deep breathing for a few minutes. This will help bring cortisol levels down post-workout & perhaps even give you more mental clarity to move on to the next thing on your list.
This is a big one for cortisol junkies. We know training is good stress on the body & stress drives adaptation. However, your body can only adapt to what you can recover from.
To reduce the stress induced by training, we have to take rest days & include active recovery protocols. Rest days are super hard for people who love to train, but they are absolutely ESSENTIAL for reducing cortisol. I typically recommend 1-3 rest days per week.
And I don’t mean a 5 mile “active recovery” run day, I mean a true REST day. This doesn’t mean you can’t move at all. Some people feel better performing low-intensity exercise aka walking, biking, or swimming on their rest days, but the activity should be something that doesn’t elevate your heart rate too much.
Active recovery protocols might also be included on rest & training days to help reduce cortisol. This might look like foam rolling, stretching/mobilizing, or doing yoga. Anything that will stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system & again, help you relaxxxx.