Cortisol: Sleep, Exercise & more

Cortisol is often demonised as the root of all problems in the body but in actual fact it played an integral role in our evolution and how we live our lives today.

Rightfully referred to as the stress hormone, Cortisol is released by the adrenal gland once your body experiences any type of stress or low blood-glucose concentration. Cortisol has a direct correlation to the fight or flight response and is a protection protocol developed during our evolution. It has often been called a 'life sustaining' adrenal hormone because it is a natural defense mechanism and also influences, regulates or modulates many of the changes that occur in the body in response to stress. These include:

  • Blood sugar levels
  • Gluconeogenesis; the metabolising of fat, protein and carbohydrates to maintain blood glucose
  • Anti-inflammatory response
  • Immune responses
  • Blood pressure
  • Heart and blood vessel tone and contraction
  • Central nervous system activation

Cortisol may be called the stress hormone but in actual fact it helps us deal with stress by shutting down unnecessary functions, like reproduction and the immune system, in order to allow the body to direct all energies toward dealing with the stress at hand. During our first years as humans these stresses were mostly avoiding mortal danger but nowadays, as societies develop, we get most of our stress from day-to-day lifestyle (this may be directly linked to sickness and infertility).

Cortisol also has a huge part to play with how and when we sleep. In ideal circumstances, we wake with the light of the sun and start to wind down for the day when the sun is also lowering in the sky. Cortisol is naturally released when the photoreceptors in your eyes (through the eyelids) pick up on blue light (emitted by the sun but also most screens), this naturally triggers your body to start the waking cycle. When your photoreceptors pick up blue light at night (street lights, smart phone screens, TV etc) it is not only difficult to get to sleep but also almost impossible to achieve a good restful nights sleep (this is usually the reason we feel 'groggy', even after 8-10 hrs per night)

For athletes, cortisol can either be your friend or foe. During high levels of stress it inhibits the uptake of amino acids into the muscle cells, making it damn near impossible to fuel muscle cells. It also inhibits bone formation and decreases calcium absorption in the intestine. Although cortisol gets a lot of flack, when it comes to actual stress a little bit of cortisol goes a long way (i.e. weight lifting or high intensity training) This kind of release has been linked to better insulin sensitivity. So when you do kick your training into ultra drive, your body drains the glycogen supplies and engages fat burning without effecting insulin response.

Obviously the main way of keep cortisol down is to stress less but it can also help to have a well balance diet that includes healthy fats, rich dark chocolate, berries, and even chamomile tea. This also means that  having regular rest and recovery days are imperative to a healthy balance body.

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