why it increases, what are the effects and how to lower it

What Is  Cortisol And Fitness: Why It Increases, What Are The Effects And How To Lower It

Cortisol  is a steroid chemical mediator produced by the adrenal glands .

Also called stress hormone , it is synthesized and released mainly in “critical” conditions (e.g. fasting, prolonged efforts, mentally hyper-demanding situations, etc.), with the aim of maintaining or restoring homeostasis variations .

It is no coincidence that any event capable of disturbing cellular or organic homeostasis is considered by the body to be a stress-producing agent.

However, it is essential to remember that this hormone constitutes a physiological chemical mediator and, indeed, of vital importance – we partly owe our ability to ” adapt ” in the short term to cortisol. It’s not about an enemy.

  • induces an increase in cardiac output ;
  • increases blood sugar , increasing hepatic gluconeogenesis (conversion of alanine into glucose), stimulating glucagon secretion and reducing the activity of insulin receptors ;
  • it reduces the immune system decreasing, consequently, also the inflammatory reactions (inhibition of phospholipase A2 );
  • decreases the synthesis of collagen and bone matrix ;
  • promotes protein catabolism (stimulates the conversion of proteins into glucose and glycogen synthesis )
  • it favors the mobilization and use of fatty acids but, in certain circumstances – and probably more so in some districts than in others – it instead stimulates lipogenesis .

Having a marked catabolic function , if in excess and chronically , cortisol can have a negative impact on health and performance. It can compromise lean mass (even bones , skin , hair , etc.), worsen glucose metabolism , predispose lipognesis and fat deposits – hindering weight loss – increase susceptibility to certain infections, etc.

It must be said that the excess of cortisol is an aspect to be contextualized carefully. An important distinction must in fact be made between pathological hypercholesterolism (which sees an exponential and chronic secretion of the hormone, independent of environmental and behavioral factors) and hypercortisolemia due to psycho-physical stress (which, on the other hand, falls within the physiological or paraphysiological sphere, because essentially due to environmental and behavioral factors).

The first cases are to be treated exclusively in the medical field, because they are usually serious or potentially severe. The latter however, the subject of this article, can be corrected by simply changing diet and training .

Let’s see how.

why it increases, what are the effects and how to lower it

Why Does It Increase In Healthy People?

Excluding the pathological causes of hypercortisolemia, such as tumors, endocrine pathologies, syndromes of various kinds (Cushing, etc.), functional insufficiency of various organs, etc., a chronic excess of cortisol can be observed, but most often pulsatory and with blood levels very distant from the previous ones, in case of:

  • Major psychological stress , depression , anxiety;
  • Important physical stress – also from environmental factors, such as the climate;
  • Insomnia or otherwise insufficient sleep ;
  • Prolonged fasting or intense caloric deficit  , especially in terms of carbohydrates;
  • Obesity or underweight ;
  • Pharmacological therapies;
  • Overall excessive training load, especially in terms of volume.

Negative Effects On Body Composition And Performance

In the healthy person looking to improve their body composition , excessive cortisol activity can:

  • reduce general physical performance ;
  • promote water retention;
  • catabolize muscle mass or prevent its growth;
  • favor the accumulation of fat;
  • lead to generalized fatigue ;
  • determine hyperglycemia and hyperinsulinemia;
  • arrange for both overreaching and overtraining .

Cortisol And Weight Loss

Many slimming food systems are based on the control of cortisolemia. Most of the time, these are “distorted” concepts. Cortisol is not a “demon to fight” and, on the contrary, most of the time it promotes weight loss.

Of course, if constantly in excess, it can be counterproductive; but what chemical reaper would not be?

Moreover, it is impossible to establish a low-calorie diet or perform prolonged aerobic exercise without noticing an increase in circulating cortisol.

In endurance physical activity, this is usually compensated for by the increase in GH which, in addition to acting as a hyperglycemic agent, partially prevents muscle catabolism.

Furthermore, to limit the growth of cortisol in the blood we could consume frequent snacks during the day, avoiding remaining on an empty stomach for more than one to three hours. Doing so, however, would also result in an increase in insulin – which, let us remember, is a hypoglycaemic , anti-catabolic and lipogenetic mediator.

As we can see, therefore, the increase in cortisol is not a “so dramatic” condition and is perfectly within physiological limits. All this, obviously, provided that certain conditions are not “extreme” – such as prolonged fasting or huge volumes of training.

How To Recognize It

Even if paraphysiological hypercortisolism is generally considered to be minor, its continuation over the long term can cause a far from negligible worsening of the state of health.

Let’s think of a woman entering menopause. By itself, this delicate moment increases – due to hormonal causes – the danger of osteoporosis. By adding excessive blood levels of cortisol, skeletal health could only get worse.

Even the “basic” people more sensitive to infections and muscle or tendon injuries , if affected by excessive levels of cortisol, can see their condition worsen.

So how do you know if cortisol is too high?

A haematological investigation is, more often than not, indicative of the daily cortisolemia. This is because it represents a “snapshot” of the current layer.

As we have said, cortisol is a pulsating secretion hormone, diet-dependent and variable according to environmental circumstances. Therefore, to understand if it is “globally in excess”, we must necessarily perform a urine collection in 24 hours .

The normal value is 20-100 μg overall.

Alternatively, we could do multiple dosing in saliva ; in that case, the reference value would be between 0.6 and 10 ng/ml (depending on the time of day).

How To Lower It

As previously mentioned, cortisol is secreted to a greater extent when a subject is subjected to a situation of chronic stress, therefore, there are numerous factors capable of promoting the release of this hormone; knowing them and avoiding these situations allows an individual to stay healthier .

It is well known that people subjected to stressful situations tend to gain weight, have little  energy , lose  muscle mass , have  sleep disturbances and retain liquids. These are all effects compounded by the increase in cortisol levels.

To better control the production of this hormone, a person can adopt numerous precautions in their lifestyle.


  • Sleep about 8 hours, lack of rest is a condition of great stress;
  • Do not reverse the diurnal cycles, therefore going to bed at night and waking up early in the morning,  biological rhythms  are marked by light, inverting them alters the production of  glucocorticoids;
  • If possible, take a 30-minute rest in the early afternoon.


  • Eat small frequent meals, possibly eating every 3 hours, to avoid hypoglycemia , which in turn causes the release of cortisol;
  • Take   low  glycemic index carbohydrates  at least 2/3 times a day to avoid hypoglycemia and/or insulin peaks with  secondary hypoglycemia , resulting from excessive  insulin release  which consequently stimulates  cells  to absorb  glucose;
  • Take carbohydrates after training , as intense physical activity  consumes  sugars and leads to hypoglycemia, which stimulates the release of glucocorticoids;
  • Having breakfast  with carbohydrates as soon as you wake up, after overnight fasting the body must restabilize the blood sugar that drops during the night;
  • Do not fast, as food deprivation leads to hypoglycemia, as well as catabolizing muscle mass
  • Take  fruit and vegetables  and possibly a complex of  antioxidants , given that  free radicals  can damage cells and trigger  inflammatory states that lead to the release of cortisol;
  • Eat  fatty fish  or take  omega-3 supplements  as an imbalance between  omega-3 and omega-6 fats leads to the development of chronic inflammation that favors the release of cortisol;
  • Drink 2 liters of  water  a day: in addition to promoting the elimination of  toxins , possible states of dehydration  are avoided  , a very stressful condition for the body;
  • Sip water during and after a workout for the same reason as the previous point.


  • Avoid long workouts, since the release of glucocorticoids is proportional to the duration of physical activity;
  • Take a day of rest after an intense workout, as the muscle microtraumas induced by training activate an inflammatory response which, if excessive, causes the release of cortisol, therefore training a body still tired from the previous workout can favor the release of cortisol.

Other Good Habits

  • Don’t neglect diseases since any disease favors the release of glucocorticoids;
  • Reduce the frenetic rhythms that can stress the body;
  • Try to reduce  anxiety and excessive agitation;
  • Avoid using drugs and  alcohol.

Protect Yourself From Adverse Atmospheric Agents

  • Avoid extreme climates, or at least cover up when it’s  cold and look for cool places on hot days;
  • Protect yourself from the sun, as excessive exposure to the  sun  damages the skin, overheats the body and triggers an inflammatory response .

These indications improve life and allow the production of cortisol to be reduced, thus promoting health, well-  being , weight loss,  fitness  and full  physical form .

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