Is cortisol the key to a better you?
If you want to look great, feel great, have unbounded energy levels, and maximise your health, your stress hormones are really important.
For sure, nutrition, lifestyle, and physical training are the foundation upon which a great body is built.
But dysfunctional stress hormones can compromise all your hard work in those areas.
Cortisol is one of your major stress hormones. Bringing this hormone back into balance can be a key factor in getting the body you want and achieving a maximised life.
Beyond ‘go hard or go home’
Stress hormones play a big role in:
- fat storage
- blood sugar control
- energy levels
- digestive health
- chronic disease risk
- nutrient absorption
- hormone balance
- cognitive function
- personal productivity
This is a big reason why stress hormones can be a key factor with our Manchester personal clients (who are often busy professionals).
Helping people to be successful in all realms of their lives (not just in getting a better body) involves intelligent analysis.
And programme design that goes far beyond the ‘go hard or go home’ philosophy often espoused by personal trainers.
We therefore need to consider a range of potential issues that can hold us back from achieving body composition and health success.
One of these issues is definitely stress and stress hormones.
Evolution & stress: modernity sucks?
From an evolutionary standpoint, humans are not designed to be consistently stressed (what we call a ‘chronic adaptive state’).
Unfortunately, modern life has different ideas.
The amount of stress we’re subjected to every day is not only very different to what it was only 20 or 30 years ago, it’s at odds with our fundamental human design.
This mis-match between the levels and types of stress we’re designed to deal with from an evolutionary standpoint, and the levels and types of stress we experience in the modern world, have an often dire impact on body composition, health, and happiness.
While we can’t wind the clock back, we can manage how we live so that we minimise negative stress, and manage its impact on our bodies and lives.
The hormonal fall out
The stress hormone cortisol is one of our major fat storage hormones, and also has a direct relationship with blood sugar and insulin.
Have you ever noticed that you go for sugar or carbs when stressed?
It’s part of your hardwired evolutionary response.
Even worse, when you have elevated cortisol, you’ll preferentially store that sugar as fat.
Stress hormones also directly impact on sleep, energy levels, and cognitive function.
They also impact on thyroid hormones and metabolism, male and female hormonal health (and fertility), levels of inflammation, and professional performance.
Stress hormone health also dictates your ability to handle stress positively and take situations in your stride.
In our practice, with hundreds of stress hormone tests performed to date, adrenal gland health (and HPA axis health in general) is very often at the root of other health, body composition and happiness challenges.
So what can we do?
Let’s take a look at the graphs below.
These are real results from testing we have conducted with our clients (after vitamin D, stress hormone profiling is our most recommended test – for good reason).
The stress hormone testing we use looks at cortisol and DHEA. Cortisol shows us what’s happening on a daily basis, where DHEA gives us a longer term picture.
These test results help us to pinpoint exactly what’s going on.
From here, we can take these results into consideration when designing our personal training programme and when making other recommendations.
These recommendations include nutrition, physical training, lifestyle, and supplementation, as stress can come in many forms.
The first stage of adrenal dysfunction
Cortisol Graph 1 – first stage of stress hormone dysfunction
In this graph you can clearly see that every cortisol sample was above the optimal range, indicating that the body is attempting to respond and adapt to acute stress.
DHEA is within the normal range.
While you can respond to ongoing stress by keeping cortisol output high for some time, eventually the wheels will fall off the wagon.
This picture is indicative of someone who has a large degree of ongoing stress in their life and is increasing stress hormone production in order to cope with those stressors.
Very often, I’d expect to see this kind of result from busy professionals, elite athletes, or those with ongoing trauma in their lives.
Adrenal dysfunction – burn out
Cortisol Graph 2 – long term failure to adapt, total burnout
In this graph, every cortisol sample was below the optimal range.
DHEA is also below the optimal range, indicating long term exposure to chronic stressors, and total adrenal / HPA axis burnout – not pretty!
These results would be typical of professionals with a number of years (or decades) under their belt, elite athletes who have been ‘depleting’ for years, or those who have ongoing trauma in their lives.
With busy professionals, the stress, wine, poor food choices, late nights, early mornings, travel, and entertaining catch up.
In this kind of situation, even basic professional responsibilities can seem insurmountable, and you can feel totally overwhelmed by life.
Recognising the problem instead of suffering in silence, and getting the right kind of help can turn things around pretty quickly in my experience.
Optimising stress hormones through appropriate exercise, nutrition, supplement and lifestyle protocols can result in a better body, more happiness, better performance at work, better personal relationships, and an all round better quality of life.
Don’t forget though, that stress isn’t just about the 150 emails that landed in your inbox this morning.
Poor food and drink choices stress your body, as do lack of sleep and water, poor relationships and mental outlook.
Remember, too, that exercise also stresses your body. More does not always equal better, and personal trainers who don’t assess stress load prior to designing an exercise protocol are doing a disservice to their clients.
Actively taking control of, and managing, these factors, can have a profound effect on your stress hormones, leading to a better body and a better quality of life!
Another important thing to bear in mind is that the response to stress (sympathetic nervous system response) is the same regardless of the stressor.
Which in plain English means that no matter the source of your stress, your body responds in the same way.
Whether it’s a food intolerance, work deadlines, relationships, inappropriate exercise, poor food choices, lack of sleep, finances, the daily commute, an injury – or anything else (!), your body just interprets it as ‘stress’, and responds in the same way.
The biological response is the same, and the cost to you is the same.
Stress – from all sources – has the ability to make (or keep!) you fat, ruin your health, and significantly reduce quality (and quantity) of your life.
It’s worth taking some time out to actively think about, and gain perspective on, the factors in your life that add to your total stress load, identify the strategies that can help you, and write down a plan to implement them!
One of my favourite strategies is to listen to the Naturespace app (iTunes) (Android) on the way back from the gym after a long day (whoever said that owning a personal training facility would be glamorous is a downright liar!).
It immediately provides relaxation, I can feel my breathing deepen, and my mind start to relax.
Want to know more about stress? Further reading:
To your lean, healthy, optimised future,
Matt & the Optimised personal training team