Too high a cortisol level is not only stressful, but it also makes you fat in the long term. We reveal how you can lower it and even benefit from the stress hormone cortisol while exercising.
“Cortisol makes you fat” or “Fighting the fat-smacking hormone cortisol” are just a few examples of the headlines that have been circulating on the Internet about Cortisol. The so-called stress hormone has recently fallen into disrepute. But very few people know what is really behind it. Cortisol isn’t just a nasty figure killer. Who knows, how can I even really benefit from Cortisol? We asked two experts about this, who should know:
What Is Cortisol, And Why Do We Need It?
Cortisol is a stress hormone from the group of so-called glucocorticoids. Its main task is to put the body on “alert” in the event of (acute) stress and to prepare it for the upcoming “escape” by providing quick energy in the form of glucose. When you are stressed, you waste a lot of energy. Without the release of Cortisol, you would not be able to withstand the stress – you would not be viable at all.
What Functions Does The Anti-Stress Hormone Have In The Body?
Cortisol’s reputation among athletes is – to put it mildly – not precisely the best. However, the fact that the hormone is enormously essential, even vital, is mostly forgotten. “Cortisol takes on two mechanisms,”. “On the one hand, it regulates the sleep-wake cycle and, on the other hand, it ensures that the body can react optimally to stressful situations,” says the internist. However, the idea behind both functions is the same: Your body needs energy. And that is mobilized by Cortisol through the release of glucose and fatty acids from the liver.
The sleep-wake cycle works as follows: “Every day between five and six in the morning, increased cortisol is released,”. Not because you’re stressed, but rather to wake you up. “This is when the highest cortisol concentration is reached. During the day, it continues to drop until a new cycle begins early in the morning,” explains the Hamburg-based endocrinologist. However, if you experience increased stress during the day, the cortisol level rises again. What then happens in the body is what you read below.
What Does Cortisol Do When The Body Is Under Stress?
When the going gets tough, the anti-stress hormone cortisol can save your life. At least when a wild animal is in front of you, you want to get ready to flee. Admittedly, it doesn’t happen that often. However, in the Stone Age, it was vital. Nowadays, it is more likely that the boss or the next important meeting is the “wild animal” you are afraid of and get into a stressful situation. You have an evolutionary survival instinct so that you give everything to escape danger. In the first moment of shock, the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline are released, which awaken the fighting spirit. After about 15 minutes, Cortisol is released and breaks down the adrenaline. However, the fight is not over yet.
“Cortisol provides quick energy so that you can work hard and achieve top performance,” explains stress expert Jacob Drachenberg. “To survive, a strong stress reaction was an obvious evolutionary advantage.”
When it comes to performing – no matter how stressful – you can rely on Cortisol. But in contrast to the intense, short “Stone Age stress” of our ancestors, nowadays, you are more likely to deal with chronic, mental stress. You don’t use the released energy to escape or beat up the boss or the annoying colleague. So, where do you put all that energy? If the stress is not reduced and the cortisol level is not reduced again but is permanently increased, you have a problem.
In Which Situations Is Cortisol (still) Released?
Stress management trainer Jacob Drachenberg: “Cortisol is increasingly released when something is important to you. Because only things that are important to us have the potential to stress us.” So stress can show itself in many forms. It’s not just the ever-growing pile of to-dos or the next meeting. Fear of an unpleasant doctor’s appointment, a conversation with a girlfriend, or an important phone call can trigger a cortisol surge.
“What matters, however, is what you perceive as stress,” stresses psychologist Drachenberg. “That can hardly be assessed individually and objectively. What is routine for one person means unbelievable stress for someone else.” Therefore, it is not possible to make a general assessment of the situations in which the cortisol level increases.
Exercise also causes the hormone to be released. “The simplified basic rule that you can remember is that the cortisol level rises after 45 minutes of exposure,” explains Drachenberg, “This is how a strong performance activates the fight and flight mode. In other words: the system is stressed.”
When is Cortisol Bad For Me?
Generally speaking, Cortisol is NOT a bad thing. It’s your most crucial stress hormone in the body. Without Cortisol, you wouldn’t be able to function under stress. If you’re sincere, stress can also feel good. Such an adrenaline rush sometimes releases real feelings of happiness. It only becomes problematic when the cortisol level no longer falls, i.e., the provided energy is not broken down.
“Cortisol is like fire,” describes the former competitive athlete and stress expert Jacob Drachenberg. “You can use it well to achieve maximum performance. At the same time, it can burn the house down very quickly.”
This happens when relaxation cannot begin, and you are under constant stress. For you to benefit from Cortisol, this interplay between tension and relaxation must function smoothly. “That also means that the higher the tension, the deeper the relaxation has to be,” emphasizes Drachenberg. You should not underestimate that because: “If the cortisol level is increased over the long term, it can even turn into an illness,” explains Prof. Dr. Janßen. Your sleep will also be affected, as Cortisol is not only released in the morning but throughout the day. The “hello-wake effect” of Cortisol in the morning is then subdued, and you sleep worse.
Cortisol also significantly impacts your blood sugar levels and works closely with the hormones insulin and glucagon. This is also useful for providing quick energy. However, prolonged stress can lead to insulin resistance and increased fat storage, especially in the abdomen (trunk obesity).
“The muscles break down, and energy production becomes centralized. While arms and legs become extremely thin, there is a strong increase in weight on the abdomen,”
Exercise And Cortisol: Friend Or Foe?
Exercise and Cortisol can be two perfect partners, so you can even benefit from the stress hormone during your workout. Exercise is the best outlet for getting rid of all that pent-up energy and lowering cortisol levels. You are in “fight mode” to do justice to your job, family, and co the whole day. A lot of Cortisol already accumulates in your body. Today, however, most of the work is done at the desk. Physically, you don’t get your money’s worth, so you usually can’t break down all the pent-up energy at all. It looks terrible when it comes to relaxation. You remember tension needs relaxation.
A straightforward game for you: A crisp workout, and you’ll kill two birds with one stone. But: ” For most, only top performance counts in sport. But then it becomes a stress factor,” explains Jacob Drachenberg. Therefore: Only those who allow themselves a break can set new stimuli and thereby build muscles in the first place. “Even a high-performance machine like a Formula 1 car has to make regular pit stops. Only a short pause makes it possible to go full throttle again,” explains the expert, who himself was a professional water polo player for years.
Important: From a training time of 45 minutes, the cortisol level rises in any case. A robust and long-lasting level of performance automatically activates the stress hormone. To train the next time effectively, the regeneration time must always be adjusted to the performance time. Everything else overwhelms your body ( overtraining ) and hurts your performance. Because the problem is not the Cortisol that is released but the lack of time to break it down again.
When Does Cortisol Prevent You From Losing Weight?
Do you want to bend and break your six-pack or lose a few pounds? This can then degenerate into stress, which in turn means that more Cortisol is released. “Not only is energy provided, but many other processes are suppressed at the same time, such as digestion and the immune system. Everything to stay focused on fight and flight,” explains the expert Drachenberg. You can still digest it later. This can mess up your body and torpedo your weight loss project. Because if the cortisol level is not lowered, a cycle develops from which there is no escape. The small rolls of bacon then continue to hide the view of the six-pack. “Whether the metabolism is suppressed, however, is entirely individual.
A second point is insidious: particularly in stressful times, nasty cravings for fast food and sweets quickly arise. Because your brain has learned: It needs energy under stress. And anything high in calories provides them in vast quantities. But you can hardly burn them. So it’s no wonder that stressful phases leave their marks on your hips. Here are four ways to lose weight despite a stressful everyday life.
What Are The Symptoms Of High Cortisol Levels?
In the short term, an increase in cortisol levels pushes your performance. “It only becomes problematic when the regulation no longer works, so that the cortisol concentration in the blood is permanently increased,”. This chronic condition leads to several symptoms that you should take seriously.
The expert Drachenberg recommends: “You should check your early warning signs regularly. Ideally, every day. The earlier you notice that something is going wrong, the better and easier it is to take corrective action.” Look out for these stress symptoms:
- You are easily distracted and can no longer concentrate.
- Your performance is falling.
- You sleep very poorly and have a disturbed sleep rhythm.
- You can get to 180 quickly and get excited about everything.
- You have binge eating.
- You start to doubt yourself.
- You find it difficult to have a clear thought.
In everyday life, you quickly lose track of what is stressing you and when you are stressed. The stress expert has developed a simple system for this: “My personal TrackMyDay system shows the 25 most important early warning signs. The whole thing takes less than two minutes and provides good, clear information about yourself.”
How Can You Lower Cortisol Levels?
Being permanently energized is not suitable for you. However, with a few simple tricks, you can quickly get this under control. “I always recommend both symptom-oriented, i.e., short-term, and working on the roots, i.e., on the causes of stress,” explains Jacob Drachenberg. His best stress-relief tips:
- Take breaks: take the lunch break, drag out the end of the day and constantly check emails at the weekend? Could you stop it? “These times are there to give the body rest and to slow down. And that is important to be able to start again.”
- Stop A little exercise that can be easily integrated into everyday life. In every line or red light, consciously pause and take a deep breath. “The important thing is to just perceive everything WITHOUT wanting to change anything.”
- Solve problems in the present: Most people are already stressed out with problems far away in the future. But you can’t change anything yet. “What lies in the future is all only hypothetical. That is why one should rather take care of the problems that can be solved immediately.”
- Stay focused: This applies to both sport and work. Introduce times when you don’t want to be disturbed and communicate that. Check your emails only every few hours. Cell phones are also taboo. You will see how more effectively you will work.
- Make Friends With Whom You Can Laugh: Social contacts are the best medicine. “Being out in a group makes you feel safe. It’s the opposite of fight and flight. A great way to release Cortisol.”
- Say No: whoever says yes, gives some of their energy to others. However, it is finite and has to be recharged at some point. Time to say “no” to others and thus “yes” to relaxation and time for yourself.
- Customize Your Workout: every workout is better than none. Sometimes a crisp 20-minute HIIT workout is a better choice and serves the purpose more effectively than lifting weights for hours.
- Separate Performance From The Result: It is up to you which performance you achieve. Only you can give everything. How others rate the result, however, is beyond your scope of responsibility. “With this attitude, you can save yourself a lot of stress because you can’t change the reaction of others. You should rather focus on your performance. And that takes place in the present, not in the future.”
- Strengthen Your Stress Competence: For example, think about what is stressing you and deal with how you can change that. Or get outside input. Jacob Drachenberg has the largest podcast on stress in Germany, in which he deals with new topics about stress every week.
Conclusion: Stress And Relaxation Have To Be In Balance
“Stress will always be there because there are always things that are important to you,” And that’s just as well. “The dose makes the poison. Because it’s always about balance.” Because it is the stress and the energy provided by Cortisol that makes you productive, you can’t perform without it. Take advantage of that! Set conscious breaks as an opposite pole. Every tension needs relaxation. This is how you keep your cortisol level in balance. So you always have a good argument after work or a hard workout to make yourself comfortable on the sofa or relax for a whole weekend.