When you exercise, your body releases hormones. We generally think of hormones like testosterone, growth hormone and insulin. These three hormones are anabolic because they help build tissue.
But there is another hormone that the body releases during exercise. It’s called cortisol. Unlike the previously mentioned anabolic hormones, cortisol is catabolic – meaning it breaks tissue down. Therefore, it’s crucial to understand cortisol and the role it plays in your workout.
The hormone cortisol has the following effects:
- Reduces protein synthesis.
- Facilitates the conversion of protein to glucose.
- Stops tissue growth.
In other words, the effects of cortisol on anyone looking to build muscle are very much undesirable. So, here are some tips you can use to control cortisol:
- Shorter training sessions. While we might think more is more when it comes to hitting the gym, keeping workouts short is one of the best ways to control cortisol. Cortisol is released by the body in response to stress, and strength training sessions shorter than 45 – 60 minutes have been demonstrated to minimize this. Similarly, cortisol is best controlled by cardio sessions shorter than 30 – 45 minutes. Going to the gym should be part of your day – not the whole day.
- Eat carbs when it counts. When it comes to nutrition, it’s important to recognize the inverse relationship between glycogen and cortisol. As glycogen levels go down, cortisol goes up. When your body runs out of glycogen – which it uses for energy – the increase in cortisol triggers a breakdown of protein (stored as muscle) to be converted to fuel. It’s not a good thing for people trying to build muscle, but it can be avoided by eating first thing in the morning and consuming carbs immediately after a workout. When taking your post-workout protein shake, ensure that you are also getting some simple carbohydrates that can be absorbed quickly.
- Manage stress. Since cortisol is released in response to stress, managing your stress levels outside of the gym will be helpful. This may mean setting aside time for meditation, bubble baths or even a massage.
- Get enough sleep. Cortisol levels are lowest (and growth hormone levels are highest) in the deepest phase of sleep. Get your required 7 – 8 hours, and do your best to ensure that it’s uninterrupted (i.e., put your phone on silent).
- Supplement. A 2001 study by Peters, Anderson & Theron concluded that getting 3 grams of Vitamin C a day helps lower cortisol levels. It’s also believed that supplementing with glutamine may help. If you’re concerned, you may wish to consider these options.
The biggest takeaway is the importance of quality vs. quantity when it comes to your gym time. Spending more time at the gym may actually have the opposite effect that you intend, so keep your workouts shorter, efficient and effective.