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Caffeine & Cortisol: Should you avoid a morning cortisol spike?

Updated: Oct 17, 2023




It’s no secret that influencers/Fitspo accounts on social media are constantly pushing the next greatest “hack.” Whether this be a nutrition hack, fitness hack, or hormone hack, we’re bombarded with messaging that insinuates if you just do the ONE thing they’re telling you to do, all of your problems will be solved.


And while there’s sometimes some merit to the information these accounts are spreading, oftentimes there is no nuance provided and usually, only half of the truth is involved.


So today we’re here to provide you with some clar-e-ty on one of the more popular/recent “hacks” out on the Inter-webs.


More specifically, if it truly is most “optimal” to wait a certain amount of time between waking up and consuming coffee/caffeine to avoid a cortisol spike (sound familiar?). Usually, “experts” who recommend eating prior to consuming caffeine/coffee say you’ll wreak havoc on your hormones if you drink your coffee/caffeine first thing in the morning when this isn’t really the case.


Our opinion on the matter is, as you can probably guess, very nuanced and depends on the situation and person.


BUT before we dive into specifics here it’s important that we define what cortisol is.


Cortisol is a stress hormone that’s released from our adrenal glands. It’s not something that’s meant to be constantly released, but more so for short-term releases in high-stress situations. This may be acute, like if you were being chased by a bear or in a traffic accident, or released during stress-related situations that are repeated daily, like working out.


Cortisol is also responsible for energy mobilization. Meaning, that when cortisol increases, your sympathetic nervous system starts firing, and your body starts producing adrenaline, thus creating the optimal environment for glycogen (stored energy) to be utilized. Moreover, cortisol’s primary job is to increase blood glucose to provide energy to your brain and muscles. This way, you have readily available energy to run away from the bear, hit your rowing intervals as intensely as possible, hit the last rep of your last set of back squats with max effort, etc.


All this to say, stress aka cortisol, in the proper doses, not only drives our desired adaptations/gains in the gym but is our body’s way of dealing with “threats” and overcoming obstacles. It’s vital to our health!


We’ll also let you in on a little “secret” as it relates to morning cortisol spikes…


Your cortisol production is SUPPOSED to “spike” in the morning!


It’s the hormone that makes us feel alert, increases cognition, makes us feel energized and ready to tackle the day ahead.


Here is a graph of what a normal cortisol pattern should look like…


https://www.zrtlab.com/landing-pages/diurnal-cortisol-curves-saliva-vs-urine/


You’ll notice cortisol production is highest in the morning upon waking up and it slowly decreases throughout the course of the day. Of course, there will be some variability here depending on what time you work out as this will also “spike” cortisol in the short-term or if you endure a stressful event at work, etc., but the general idea is that it should steadily come down as you prepare for bed and wind down for the day.


The moral of the story is, cortisol production in adequate and appropriate amounts, especially in the morning, is a good thing and we want our bodies to produce cortisol!


Conversely, chronically elevated cortisol or stress can be detrimental.


There are a variety of lifestyle-related causes for excessive cortisol production such as, but not limited to…


  • Mental stress

  • Too much high-intensity training without proper recovery

  • Chronic dieting/undereating

  • Poor sleep quality/quantity

  • Chronic inflammation


If your body/mind are chronically stressed, whether that be from a high-stress job, relationship stress, not prioritizing exercise, recovery, nutrition, etc., symptomatically, this can lead to...


  • Increased muscle breakdown

  • Increased water retention

  • Increased appetite

  • Mental burn out

  • Headaches

  • Irritability

  • High blood pressure


Again, constantly elevated cortisol levels are usually a byproduct of unmanaged chronic stress. Moreover, we need to look at our ability to manage stressors as well as lifestyle factors like nutrition, sleep, exercise, recovery, etc. before automatically claiming that cortisol itself is a bad thing and confuse correlation with causation.


Now, you may be wondering where/how does caffeine/coffee consumption in the morning prior to eating relate to all of this.


Let’s first explain what caffeine is and how it affects our body…


Caffeine is a stimulant that increases alertness, cognition, energy, and performance (sound familiar?). It's found primarily in coffee, tea, and energy drinks/capsules.


Caffeine is so effective because it blocks adenosine to its receptor in our bodies. Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that relaxes your brain and makes you feel sleepy. When this receptor is blocked, adrenaline and cortisol production can occur, making you feel alert, wired, and energized.


Caffeine often gets a bad rap because it increases adrenaline and cortisol production, BUT as you’ll remember, this can be a GOOD thing in the short term! Caffeine consumption, even daily, is NOT inherently bad. There are many benefits to caffeine consumption IF consumed in the proper doses (similar to cortisol) such as performance improvements during training, hunger/satiety management, mental acuity, and more.


So now for the answer to the question you've all been waiting for...should you eat before drinking caffeine in the morning even if you're not looking to avoid a cortisol spike?


It truly depends and, as with most topics we discuss, context and nuance matter!


There are a variety of areas we would encourage you to consider assessing and addressing prior to eating before drinking your coffee if you’re simply only doing so to avoid a “cortisol spike.”


Are you currently finding ways to proactively manage your stress?

As we learned above, stressors in the gym drive adaptations that make us stronger, fitter, and more capable. Stressors in life make us more resilient, more adaptable, and more equipped to handle whatever life throws our way.


However, too much stress can hinder any kind of progress we want to make inside the gym, inhibit our ability to show up for ourselves or others, affect our relationships, and bleed into other areas of our lives.


So how do we balance too much stress with the “right" amount of stress?


Something we encourage our clients to do isn’t necessarily decrease their stressors (in most cases) and instead, assess if they can INCREASE their ability to cope with said stress. Oftentimes stress stems from work, family, relationships, etc. and unless you’re in a place where you can realistically or want to leave your job, a partner, a relationship, etc., it can be highly effective to find ways you’re able to proactively cope with your stress.


For example, finding specific times in which you can add in routines that help you effectively manage stress (i.e. going on a walk during your lunch break, reading in the morning before you start your workday, spending time with like-minded people, etc.).


OR even figuring out what skills you can acquire or would like to acquire that could assist you in terms of stress management. This could look like setting boundaries with work (hard cut-off times, removing your work email from your phone) or your family/friends (only answering phone calls when you have the space to do so, communicating with your loved ones what you have the capacity for ahead of time).


Additionally, asking for support — from friends, your family, your partner, your coaches — when needed is a huge step forward in coping with stressors!


If you can reduce or mitigate the stressor itself, great! Otherwise, if it’s unrealistic to completely remove certain stressors, we encourage our clients to find ways they’re able to proactively cope and practice what works for them daily.


Once outside stressors are managed, then we can look at whether eating before drinking coffee would actually benefit this person


Are you already chronically underfed (very stressful on the body) and/or do you put off eating because you’re “full” from drinking coffee?

Something that shouldn’t go without mentioning is if you’re consistently in an underfed state, eating before coffee is probably pretty negligible in terms of inhibiting a cortisol response. If you’re consistently underfed, your body will be producing more cortisol regardless of if you drink your coffee prior to eating in the morning or not.


Dieting and caloric restriction can be very stressful on the body and although this isn’t a bad thing in the short-term, some instances we want to avoid are restricting calories so much that it’s hard to adhere to a calorie deficit as well as prolonged periods of dieting. The goal with dieting or fat loss phases is to eat the MOST amount of food possible while generating results, not the least. This prevents huge up-swings in caloric intake at the end of the day or on the weekend for most people and enables them to consistently comply and consume enough calories to maintain their calorie deficit.


Additionally, prolonged periods of caloric restriction are mentally and physically stressful. We’ve written numerous articles on the importance of spending time at your caloric maintenance (to name a few, simply search through our library) and why this not only makes your dieting phases more sustainable and successful, but also gives your body time to recover from dieting.


Some specific areas to assess and evaluate here are…


1) Whether you’re consistently eating enough food. For most people, a general recommendation is to take your bodyweight/desired body weight and multiply it by 13-15, depending on your goals. If you’re interested in learning more about how this applies to YOU and your specific needs, book a diet audit with a Clar-e-ty Coach! This is a one-time virtual "diet audit" where we will review your current intake (quantity and quality) along with your current goals and provide quick feedback and a Clar-e-ty approved macronutrient and calorie plan to put you on the right path.


2) Whether you’re eating enough macro- and micronutrients in the appropriate quantities. Are you eating around your body weight or goal bodyweight in protein or about 3-5 servings per day? Are you eating at least 4-6 fistfuls of fruits/veggies/micronutrients daily? Are you consuming around 25-30g of fiber daily?


3) When was the last time you dieted and for how long? If you’ve dieted in the past 5-6 months, maybe consider a period of time at maintenance or refining habits or strength gains and then circle back to a fat loss phase down the road. We have helped a number of clients reach their body composition goals simply by structuring and periodizing their diet and maintenance phases, giving them periods to simply back off.


4) Does drinking coffee/caffeine suppress your appetite to the point that you have to put off eating breakfast? If so, it could be advantageous for you to eat before drinking caffeine. Not to avoid a cortisol spike, but so you can eat a meal before noon if that’s something you struggle with.


Lastly, do you simply feel better drinking your coffee before eating or vice versa?

At the end of the day, if you feel better eating before your coffee/caffeine, great! Eat a balanced meal before you drink your coffee.


But if you feel better drinking your coffee straight out of bed, are currently managing your stressors, are eating enough food to support your needs, and prefer eating breakfast after coffee, drink your coffee first! No need to worry about “spiking your cortisol.”


This is why we encourage you to keep the bigger picture in mind before diving into all the finite details or looking for ways you can “hack” your way to health because you likely can’t.


If you take nothing else away from this blog, it’s that we just want to recognize people on the internet using catch-all phrases or trying to sell you on the newest/latest and greatest “hack” are probably not telling you the whole truth.


If they are trying to scare you or sell you something, it's probably worth doing some additional research before assuming they're telling the truth, and if you believe it’s too good to be true, it probably is ☺


Use your best judgment and question their resources if there are any provided! You can even seek out evidence-based coaches or resources, as needed.

We hope you learned something new!


 

Resources and Coaching:

Online Coaching here.

[Free] Nutrition Guide here.

Recipe & Macro Guide here.



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