The stress hormone cortisol is part of our fight of flight survival mode (remember the body hasn’t changed much in 60,000 years!) so we still live with this hard wired survival mechanism as standard. It’s also the body’s natural anti-inflammatory hormone. This explains why so often we get ill on holiday because the body relaxes, cortisol reduces that’s been keeping our immune system in check!
Cortisol is made in the adrenals along with other important hormones such as DHEA (the opposite to cortisol, it has a calming effect), oestrogen and testosterone. Melatonin (the ‘dracula’ sleep hormone) is the opposite to cortisol – cortisol should be the highest at the start of the day and lowest at the end, in opposition to melatonin. All of our hormones like to work in balance – like an orhcestra – if one instrument starts playing out of time or tune, then the whole orchestra doesn’t sound good. This happens when there is too much cortisol – it can affect production of other hormones through what is known as the ‘cortisol steal’. Why does this happen? The body above everything else wants to survive so it prioritises cortisol over all the other hormones. This is why when cortisol is high it can stop your periods (the body thinks it doesn’t need to reproduce), reduce your ability to sleep (survival over sleep) plus it downregulates the digestive system (fight not digest). Cortisol is catabolic – ie it breaks down glucose stores and uses micronutrients to provide energy to the lungs, heart, muscles, brain and eyes for survival.
The fight or flight mode breaks down glucose for energy and protein if there isn’t enough glucose. It has a catabolic effect on the body – which isn’t very helpful for repair and recovery after training when we want the body to be in an anabolic state. It can also reduce testosterone (made from DHEA) which enhances the effects of growth hormone.
How do we switch the body to recovery and repair mode?
- Fast for at least 12 hours a day to give your digestive system a break and to help your sleep wake cycle.
- Watch your blood sugar – highs then lows stimulate cortisol release.
- Where there is pain there is cortisol (as it’s anti-inflammatory). Reduce meat, dairy, junk food and foods that cause bloating.
- Be mindful of what you are eating and eat slowly. Place a knife and fork down between each mouthful. This gives the satiety hormone leptin more time to tell your brain you are replete.
- Do we really need 20g of protein after training when cortisol is high? Is our digestive system ready for such a hit of (often whey based) hard to digest food immediately after training? A small amount of carb rich food (a banana or a shot of our Sport Elixir) increases glucose into the blood which helps lower cortisol.
- Sleep more. Sleeping outside helps to reconnect us with nature! Less blue light before bed. Try Epsom bath salts for muscle repair and sleep.