What we know from the last blog is that cortisol raises insulin. In that thinking, if it raises insulin, then controlling it should also lower it, right? When you look at research from transplant patients who are taken slowly off synthetic cortisol, they drop their plasma insulin by 25%. So, we know that the hypothesis is accurate.
Insulin, Cortisol and Metabolic Syndrome
When we look at the negative cardiovascular consequences of excess insulin, they sound and act suspiciously like the consequences of excess cortisol. We find high blood sugar levels, elevated blood pressure, high cholesterol and abdominal obesity. These consequences are also called metabolic syndrome, although in the case of cortisol it is often called Cushing’s Syndrome.
Regardless, the hallmark of the condition is weight gain. Almost all show a central weight accumulation. That means that stress will not only cause you to gain weight, but will also cause mostly an abdominal weight gain (Called lipodystrophy).
The litmus test is the use of prednisone (synthetic cortisol) and whether it causes weight gain. We find that the most common side effect from this drug is, in fact, weight gain.
So, how do we reduce stress and lower the cortisol production? Easier said than done. You cannot prevent your boss from dumping the next short deadline project on your desk any more than you can stop the wind blowing. So, the question is: “Are there things that can burn off cortisol?” That answer is a resounding YES.
As you might think, when stress hits and your body gets ready to fight or run, those very activities are the activities that reduce the factors associated with stress. Therefore, controlling excess cortisol, and stress, becomes an exercise based solution.
Exercise and Cortisol
During exercise, we find that your body temporarily increases cortisol, but these levels quickly return to normal after exercise. Regular exercise overall produces a cortisol lowering effect, leading to a reduction in overall cortisol levels, and a reduction in the symptoms of stress. Numerous studies find exercise as good as, if not better at, reducing stress than any other technique, including medication.
Yet, this little stress hormone is a tricky little customer. It does more than simply hang out making your life anxious. Cortisol also accelerates the breakdown of proteins into their smaller counterparts, amino acids. As amino acids, they enter the blood and liver cells where they can be changed into glucose. This is useful if we need extra energy or we have been starving ourselves and the body needs to cannibalize its own tissue to keep you alive (as in starvation dieting).
But, prolonged stress causes chronically elevated cortisol. Get where this is going? Yep. Keeping the cortisol high will also cause the body to make more sugar from more amino acids causing a net loss of metabolically active muscle and chronically elevated levels of blood sugars.
Remember, glucose levels are controlled by more insulin being secreted, and more insulin mobilizes the fat cell into storing more fat. This is coupled by a decrease in antibody formation, which means a lower immunity protection.
Keep in mind that short term (acute) production of cortisol is helpful, but chronic stress, leading to chronic elevations of cortisol, is not.
The question is, what type of exercise is best for burning off the excess cortisol?
What we find is that high intensity training increases cortisol temporarily, but as long as energy levels are high, cortisol quickly returns to normal levels and excess cortisol is burned off. The excess cortisol is also used to stimulate an acute inflammatory response mechanism involved with tissue remodeling. In other words it enhances tissue repair.
However, when cortisol remains high due to chronic stress, cortisol tends to cause atrophy in muscle (mostly your fast twitch) and also accelerates bone mineral loss. Over time this leads to what we call an “alarm reaction.” This is characterized by enlarged adrenal glands, atrophied lymphatic cells and the production of fewer white blood cells. In other words, both long term stress and chronic overtraining have an immunosuppressive effect.
The good news; just 20-30 minutes of exercise can reduce your cortisol levels (stress) and allow your body the ability to recover.