How to Naturally Lower Cortisol Levels

August 2nd, 2010 by Paul Johnson

Cortisol is a hormone with many negative effects, especially for bodybuilders. Your body is constantly producing low amounts of cortisol and it does have its purpose in low amounts, so Cortisol is not all bad.

Normal Cortisol levels vs. High

When Cortisol is at normal levels it helps mobilize fat while dieting, heal wounds, and it helps remodel muscle tissue when you are building muscle. When it gets too high it eats away at muscle and lowers your testosterone levels, causes inflammation, fatigue, insomnia, loss of strength. It also has negative effects on fat metabolism.

Cortisol levels during excercise

Your body will release large amounts of cortisol during weight training or hard cardio sessions. Studies show that the more intense your weight training or cardio the higher the release of cortisol and testosterone and growth hormone during your workout. This cortisol spike is not a bad thing if you keep your workouts brief. It becomes a problem when someone does marathon training and the cortisol is elevated for hours doing a workout. That's why naturals have always been recommended to do short workouts and not do too much volume per workout.

Causes and cures for high chronic cortisol levels

Cortisol becomes a real problem when you have chronic excessive amounts of high levels of cortisol even during rest. Chronic high levels of cortisol at rest are caused mainly 3 factors based on my research findings. One major factor is Visceral fat. Visceral fat that is covering your organs and that can't be pinched on your outside like subcutaneous fat. A big gut is caused by a lot of visceral fat in men because men tend to carry more visceral fat than women and the belly has the ability to store a lot of visceral fat. That's why men and not women tend to get a pot belly when they get a lot of fat.

There is cortisol receptors on visceral fat that stimulate visceral fat gain. And unfortunately visceral releases a lot of cortisol. The more visceral fat you have the more cortisol you will release. The more cortisol you release the more visceral fat that you gain because its stimulating the visceral fat receptors. As you can see its a perpetual cyclical cycle. The only way to stop it is to stop gaining visceral fat. Which means you have to stop gaining weight to stop the cycle and start losing fat if you want to start reversing it.

The 2nd reason for high chronic levels of Cortisol is mental stress. Your pituitary releases cortisol during mental stress. Thats why people that are very stressed out all the time tend to have insomnia, muscle twitches, fatigue, and other symptoms of high cortisol. High chronic levels of cortisol can give you a burned out feeling that you can't get out of. This leads to a perpetual cycle because as you get stressed out you release cortisol, which then stresses you out more and you continue to release cortisol. You won't stop this cycle unless you do something proactive to break it.

There is ways to get out of excessive long term cortisol levels due to stress. Obviously you need to stop doing whatever is that is causing the stress. You just can't expect the Cortisol to lower because as I said the body responds in a perpetual cycle feedback system, so the only way to stop it is to get rid of the cause. The other way to stop it is with Vitamin C. Taking vitamin C has been shown in countless studies to help prevent the release of cortisol in response to mental stress. Another way you can deal with it is taking some over the counter cortisol blocker supplements that deal with stress. There are some herbal cortisol blocking supplements that help you get relaxed. This can help minimize the stressful mental response so your less likely to release cortisol. How well it works is open to debate, but if you can't stop your stressful job or environment stacking vitamin C together with a natural cortisol blocking supplement might be worth the effort. There is also some scientific evidence that relaxing your mind through music or having sex can reduce stress and cortisol.

The final reason for long term high chronic levels of cortisol is over training. Doing way too many sets per muscle and per week and never taking any rest off will lead to this effect after 2 or 3 months usually. To help avoid this keep your set volume reasonable, take a rest day between each weight training sessions, and take one or 2 weeks of total rest from excercise at least every 3 months. Even when you keep volume low you must take a break once in a while because over time the cortisol will rise and your testosterone levels will lower as your body over trains from week after week of excercise. The breaks allow the body to restore its hormones back to normal and give your mind a break too.

Steroids actually block the action of Cortisol at the cortisol receptor which is why bodybuilders on steroids can train a lot more volume and not worry about muscle loss or over training. This is why as naturals we need to keep our workouts short and take vitamin C pills to blunt the cortisol spike like steroid users do. Some argue that you shouldn't try to blunt the cortisol response during weight training because you need that cortisol spike to help build muscle. I say if we didn't want to blunt it, then steroids wouldn't be helpful in muscle building since they are very effective Cortisol blockers too. Also, we are not blocking it totally, there still will be a cortisol spike during your workout. Cortisol seems to be blunted for up to 24 hours when taking high dose vitamin c preworkout, so its not just during the workout you are reducing cortisol. Therefore, I will continue to take my vitamin C preworkout.

Vitamin C supplementation and Cortisol

As pointed out earlier, Vitamin C helps blunt the release of cortisol to mental stress. What about high levels of cortisol during weight training? Studies have shown taking a gram of vitamin C dramatically reduces cortisol. Here is just one of many studies of vitamin C taking preworkout:

1: J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2008 Jun;48(2):217-24.Links
Effect of vitamin C supplementation on lipid peroxidation, muscle damage and inflammation after 30-min exercise at 75% VO2max.Nakhostin-Roohi B, Babaei P, Rahmani-Nia F, Bohlooli S.
Department of Exercise Physiology, Guilan University, Rasht, Iran

AIM: Hypothetically, supplementation with the antioxidant vitamins C could alleviate exercise-induced lipid peroxidation. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the effect of vitamin C supplementation on exercise-induced lipid peroxidation, muscle damage and inflammation. METHODS: Sixteen healthy untrained male volunteers participated in a 30-min exercise at 75% Vo2max. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups: 1) placebo and 2) vitamin C (VC: 1 000 mg vitamin C). Blood samples were obtained prior to supplementation (baseline), 2 h after supplementation (immediately pre-exercise), post-exercise, 2 and 24 h after exercise. Plasma levels of VC, total antioxidant capacity (TAC), creatine kinase (CK), malondealdehyde (MDA), total leukocytes, neutrophils, lymphocytes, interleukin-6 (IL-6) and cortisol were measured. RESULTS: Plasma vitamin C concentrations increased significantly in the VC in response to supplementation and exercise (P<0.05). TAC decreased significantly in Placebo group 24 h after exercise compared to pre-exercise (P<0.05). Although MDA levels were similar between groups at baseline, it increased significantly 2 h after exercise only in the Placebo group (P<0.05). CK increased immediately and 2 h after exercise in both groups and 24 h after exercise only in placebo group compared to pre-exercise (P<0.05). Markers of inflammation (total leukocyte counts, neutrophil counts and IL-6) were increased significantly in response to the exercise (P<0.05). In VC group, there was significant increase in lymphocyte counts immediately after exercise compared with pre-exercise (P<0.05). Serum cortisol concentrations significantly declined after supplementation compared with baseline (P<0.05) as well as declined 2 and 24 h after exercise compared with immediately after exercise in VC group (P<0.05). CONCLUSION: VC supplementation prevented endurance exercise-induced lipid peroxidation and muscle damage but had no effect on inflammatory markers.

I take a gram of Vitamin C pre and post workout. As mentioned earlier cortisol during your workout isn't really a terrible thing as long as your workouts are short. I take the Vitamin C to make sure my cortisol doesn't spike too high. I don't think someone should just let cortisol spike uncontrolled.

Other supplements that block cortisol

The only other supplements I have seen that block Cortisol besides Vitamin C and mind relaxers were the vitamins magnesium and zinc and Vitamin B's. However, these seem to be only effective if the person is deficient. Obviously if someone is getting enough of these vitamins already it won't have an effect. Another was 11-oxo which is off the market now. 11-oxo had steroidal / prohormone qualities though, so it wasn't a safe option. The other is Imodium AD (loperamide) which is an anti-diarrhea product. Obviously it's not something you want to take for that purpose. Carbohydrates lower cortisol too. Thats probably the reason why when you diet the carbs have a muscle sparing effect.