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Why Killing Yourself in the Gym Could Be Doing more Harm Than Good
Discover the 10 telltale signs of high cortisol levels and learn how to naturally balance them for better health and well-being.
If you’ve been diligent about your fitness routine, mindful of your diet, and feel like you're doing everything right, yet you cannot lose weight whatsoever…
Or perhaps sleep is a constant frustration, with the struggle to fall asleep or those 3 AM awakenings becoming too frequent…
Or maybe your digestive system seems to have a mind of its own, subjecting you to discomfort, bloating, and even stomach cramps that leave you constantly questioning your health.
… high cortisol levels might be the hidden culprit behind your symptoms.
Living with elevated cortisol levels can feel like an unending battle against your own body and mind. Despite doing “all the right things,” you often feel stuck, exhausted, and like you don’t have control over your health.
In this article, we're talking about all things cortisol:
- what it is
- how too much is a bad thing
- the telltale signs you might have excess levels
- how you should and should NOT be exercising
- the foods to eat
- low-cortisol lifestyle tips
Whether you’re just noticing you may have a cortisol issue, or you’ve been working towards lowering your levels for a while, we hope this article helps shine some light on areas in which you can make some healthy adjustments.
What is Cortisol, Anyway?
When you're under stress, your body produces a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol increases the amount of glucose in your bloodstream to help fuel your body in the event of a “fight or flight” situation.
Cortisol also suppresses insulin production, which prevents cells from getting the nutrients they need. This triggers hunger signals to be sent to your brain which can lead to hunger, overeating, and weight gain.
10 Signs You Have High Cortisol
1. Weight Gain
High cortisol levels can contribute to weight gain, particularly around the abdominal area. This phenomenon is often referred to as “stress belly” or “cortisol belly.” When cortisol levels are consistently elevated, it can lead to an increase in appetite and cravings for high-calorie, comfort foods.
Cortisol can also promote the storage of fat, especially visceral fat, which is the fat that accumulates around the organs in the abdominal cavity. This type of fat is associated with an increased risk of various health conditions, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
2. Trouble Sleeping
Elevated cortisol levels can disrupt the body's natural sleep-wake cycle, making it difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, or experience restful sleep. Cortisol follows a daily rhythm, typically peaking in the early morning to help wake you up and gradually decreasing throughout the day.
However, chronic stress or irregular cortisol patterns can lead to elevated cortisol levels at night, interfering with the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. This disruption in cortisol and melatonin can result in insomnia and poor sleep quality.
3. Anxiety & Depression
High levels of chronic stress and elevated cortisol have been linked to increased feelings of anxiety and depression. Cortisol plays a role in the body's “fight or flight” response to stress.
Prolonged activation of this response can lead to imbalances in neurotransmitters and contribute to mood disorders. Additionally, high cortisol levels can impact the function of the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with regulating emotions and memory.
4. High Blood Pressure
Cortisol can affect blood pressure regulation through its interactions with the cardiovascular system. It can lead to vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels) and an increase in heart rate, both of which contribute to elevated blood pressure.
Prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels can contribute to hypertension (high blood pressure), which is a risk factor for heart disease and other cardiovascular complications.
5. Impaired Immune Function
Excessive cortisol can suppress the immune system's activity. While cortisol is an important part of the body's response to inflammation and stress, chronic elevation can weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infections and illnesses.
This can lead to a higher susceptibility to common infections and slower recovery from illnesses.
6. Digestive Issues
Elevated cortisol levels can impact the digestive system in multiple ways. Stress and cortisol can lead to decreased blood flow to the digestive organs, which can contribute to issues such as indigestion, bloating, and discomfort.
Chronic stress can also disrupt the balance of gut bacteria, potentially exacerbating digestive problems. Conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can be triggered or worsened by chronic stress and high cortisol levels.
7. Cognitive Changes
Chronic stress and elevated cortisol have been associated with impaired memory, decreased attention span, brain fog, and difficulties with decision-making. Many women will experience a version of this when they have children. It's commonly referred to as either “pregnancy brain” or “mom brain.”
Cortisol can impact the hippocampus, a brain region important for memory formation and cognitive function, leading to changes in neural connectivity.
8. Muscle Weakness
Cortisol is involved in breaking down muscle tissue, a process known as catabolism. While this is a normal part of the body's response to stress, chronic elevation of cortisol can lead to excessive muscle breakdown, contributing to muscle weakness and a decrease in muscle mass.
This effect can be particularly relevant for individuals who engage in intense and prolonged exercise without adequate recovery.
9. Skin Problems
High cortisol levels can lead to increased oil production in the skin, contributing to acne. Additionally, cortisol can impair collagen production, leading to thinning of the skin and delayed wound healing. This can make the skin more susceptible to damage and slower to recover from injuries.
10. Menstrual Irregularities
Too much cortisol can disrupt the delicate balance of hormones in the body, potentially affecting the menstrual cycle in women. Irregular periods, missed periods, or even amenorrhea (absence of periods) can occur as a result of hormonal imbalances caused by chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels.
The most accurate way to diagnose cortisol-related issues is through laboratory testing, which measures cortisol levels in the blood, urine, or saliva at different times of the day to assess the body's natural cortisol rhythm. This can help determine if there is an abnormal pattern of cortisol secretion.
Kiss CrossFit & Bootcamps Goodbye
Intense and prolonged exercise can lead to a significant release of cortisol. While cortisol is a normal part of the body's stress response, chronically elevated levels can have negative health effects.
These types of exercises are activities that involve a high level of physical effort, often pushing the body to its limits and causing a substantial increase in heart rate, respiration rate, and overall stress on various systems.
These exercises typically require a significant amount of energy and can be challenging to sustain for extended periods.
Here are some examples of intense and prolonged exercises:
- High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
- Long-distance running
- High-intensity cycling/Spin
- Boot camps
- Martial arts training
While these types of exercise can offer great benefits for cardiovascular fitness, strength, and overall health, they can further elevate cortisol levels due to the additional stress they place on the body.
Intense, yet brief exercise sessions should be incorporated into a well-rounded fitness routine that includes lower-intensity activities and proper recovery strategies to prevent overtraining and excessive stress on the body.
Low-impact workouts are less likely to trigger excessive cortisol release and can actually help reduce stress and promote relaxation. This is important because chronically elevated cortisol levels are often associated with chronic stress, and incorporating low-impact activities can contribute to a more balanced stress response.
Some low impact exercises include:
- Slow strength training
These exercises are gentler on the joints and muscles, reducing the risk of further stress to an already stressed body. This can support the healing process and overall well-being.
As a cherry on top, low-impact exercises like walking, yoga, or slow strength training can have a positive impact on mood. They promote the release of endorphins, which are natural mood lifters, and can help counteract some of the negative emotional effects associated with high cortisol levels.
The Best of Both Exercise Worlds
Slow-motion strength training truly combines the best of both worlds in the case of controlling cortisol. Although it's intense, it's incredibly brief and low-impact. When incorporated correctly, it requires significantly more rest time than time spent working out.
The recommended routine is two, 20-minute slow-motion strength training workouts a week with 2-3 days of rest in between. During the rest time, you can still engage in low-intensity, low-impact activities like walking and yoga.
Foods that lower cortisol
Certain foods and dietary habits can help support healthy cortisol levels and manage stress. While there are no specific foods that directly “lower” cortisol, incorporating a balanced and nutritious diet can help modulate the body's stress response.
Here are some foods and dietary strategies that may help:
- Complex Carbohydrates: Foods like whole grains (oats, quinoa, brown rice), legumes (beans, lentils), and starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes) can help stabilize blood sugar levels. This can prevent spikes and crashes in blood sugar, which can trigger cortisol release.
- Fruits and Vegetables: A diet rich in fruits and vegetables provides essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that support overall health. Antioxidants, in particular, can help combat oxidative stress caused by high cortisol levels.
- Protein: Including lean sources of protein in your diet, such as poultry, fish, lean beef, tofu, and legumes, can help stabilize blood sugar levels and provide a steady source of energy.
- Fatty Fish: Fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and may help reduce the negative effects of chronic stress.
- Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds are good sources of healthy fats, fiber, and magnesium, which can support stress management.
- Herbal Teas: Chamomile tea and green tea are known for their calming properties and may help reduce stress and anxiety.
- Dark Chocolate: Yes! In moderation, dark chocolate with a high cocoa content (70% or higher) can have stress-reducing effects. It contains antioxidants and compounds that promote relaxation.
- Probiotic-Rich Foods: Foods like yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut contain probiotics that support gut health. There is a growing body of research suggesting a strong connection between gut health and stress response.
- Water: Staying hydrated is crucial for overall health and can help regulate bodily functions, including cortisol release. Dehydration can contribute to stress, so drinking enough water is essential.
- Limit Caffeine and Alcohol: Excessive caffeine and alcohol consumption can disrupt sleep patterns and exacerbate stress. Moderation is key.
- Balanced Meals: Eating regular, balanced meals and avoiding extreme calorie restriction can help prevent blood sugar fluctuations that trigger cortisol release.
- Magnesium-Rich Foods: Magnesium is involved in stress regulation, and magnesium-rich foods like leafy greens, nuts, and seeds can support healthy stress management.
- B Vitamins: Foods rich in B vitamins, such as whole grains, leafy greens, and lean meats, can help support the nervous system and energy metabolism.
It's important to note that while these foods and dietary habits can contribute to a healthy stress response, they are most effective when part of an overall lifestyle approach to stress management.
The Low-Cortisol Lifestyle
Lowering cortisol levels and maintaining that low-cort life may require some lifestyle changes. And it's really no surprise that this list includes the usual suspects: sleep, exercise, nutrition, and mindfulness.
Here are some effective lifestyle strategies for managing cortisol:
- Regular Physical Activity: Engaging in regular exercise can help reduce cortisol levels and improve overall stress resilience. Aim for a combination of aerobic exercises (e.g., walking, swimming, cycling) and strength training. However, avoid excessive high-intensity exercise, as it can temporarily elevate cortisol levels.
- Meditation & Breathwork: Meditation and deep breathing exercises can help calm the mind, reduce stress, and lower cortisol levels. Practicing mindfulness regularly can improve your ability to cope with stressors as well.
- Adequate Sleep: Prioritize sleep by maintaining a regular sleep schedule and creating a comfortable sleep environment. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night.
- Balanced Nutrition: Eat a well-balanced diet that includes whole grains, lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats. Avoid excessive caffeine, sugary foods, and alcohol, as they can contribute to cortisol spikes and disrupt sleep.
- Limit Stimulants: Reduce or eliminate the consumption of stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, especially in the afternoon and evening. These substances can disrupt sleep and increase cortisol levels.
- Social Support: Maintain strong social connections with friends and family. Having a support system can help you cope with stress and reduce feelings of isolation.
- Time Management: Organize your schedule and prioritize tasks to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed. Time management techniques can help prevent chronic stress.
- Limit Exposure to Stressors: Whenever possible, minimize exposure to stressful situations or environments. This might involve setting boundaries, saying no to additional commitments, or making changes to your work environment.
- Laugh and Have Fun: Engage in activities that make you laugh and bring joy. Laughter has been shown to reduce stress and improve mood.
- Hobbies and Leisure Activities: Make time for hobbies and activities you enjoy. Engaging in enjoyable activities can provide a welcome break from stressors. Pickleball anyone?
- Set Realistic Goals: Set achievable goals and break them down into manageable steps. This can reduce the sense of overwhelm and help you stay focused.
- Limit Screen Time: Reduce exposure to screens, especially before bedtime. The blue light emitted by screens can interfere with sleep patterns.
- Nature and Outdoor Time: Spend time in nature and outdoor environments. Nature walks or simply being in natural settings can have a calming effect on the nervous system.
- Professional Help: If you find that chronic stress is significantly impacting your life, consider seeking help from a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor. They can provide valuable guidance and support.
Here’s What You Need to Know About Managing Cortisol
Cortisol, aka the “stress hormone,” plays a crucial role in the body's response to stress and its ability to function effectively in high-pressure situations. However, when cortisol levels remain consistently elevated due to chronic stress, it can have a big negative impact on your health.
From weight gain and sleep disturbances to anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure, the effects of excess cortisol are far-reaching and can significantly impact quality of life. Recognizing the signs of elevated cortisol levels is the first step in addressing these issues and taking proactive measures to manage stress.
For someone dealing with chronic stress, lifestyle changes are absolutely necessary to achieve and maintain balanced cortisol levels. These strategies include a wide range of practices, from regular physical activity and meditation to balanced nutrition and adequate sleep. By incorporating these habits into daily life, you can effectively reduce cortisol levels and cultivate a more resilient response to stress.
An often overlooked – and extremely important – piece of the puzzle is understanding the role of exercise in managing cortisol. While intense and prolonged workouts can elevate cortisol levels, they can be balanced by incorporating low-impact exercises like walking, gentle strength training, and yoga into a fitness routine. To get the best of both worlds, consider slow-motion strength training.
Finally, the role of nutrition in cortisol regulation should not be underestimated. While no single food can directly lower cortisol, a well-balanced diet rich in complex carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and essential nutrients can help the body better cope with stress and maintain hormonal balance.
This long list of solutions may seem overwhelming and it might feel impossible to do all at once, but it is possible to create change. Start by making adjustments in one area of your life until it becomes a healthy habit. Once you have that down, conquer the next area of life.
Soon you’ll begin to see and feel the changes in your body!
Meeting with a Personal Trainer and/or a Nutrition Coach can help you build a game plan to manage your symptoms.
This is where The Perfect Workout can help.
To speak with a Personal Trainer about exercise, nutrition or any help with lifestyle adjustments please call us at (888) 803-6813.
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