Stress isn’t just in your brain—it’s in your body, too.
The word stress just brings bad vibes, right? Therefore, it makes sense that “stress hormone” cortisol has a bad reputation.
But “cortisol is not bad in itself – it’s just a hormone,” says Mike Molloy, Ph.D., founder of M2 Performance Nutrition, who studied microbiology and immunology. “But the dosage and amount of cortisol in the body needs to be correct.”
And one of the things that can impair (or maintain) cortisol levels is exercise – especially when the rest of your life is stressed. But (!!) that doesn’t mean you should swear to sweat in the name of being stressed.
Scroll down for a cortisol worksheet, your relationship to exercise, and what you need to know about keeping yours under control.
What Is Cortisol, Anyway?
Cortisol may be dubbed the “stress hormone,” but this steroid hormone does much more than that. In fact, “cortisol is the most important hormone in the body because it literally touches every other system in the body,” says endocrinologist Elena A. Christofides, M.D., F.A.C.E. It helps control blood sugar levels, regulates metabolism and blood pressure, affects sleep quality, affects sex life, aids in memory creation and even aids fetal health during pregnancy.
If the adrenal glands (which produce cortisol and are located at the top of the kidneys) were removed from the body, you would be dead within 24 hours – faster than if the thyroid or pancreas were removed and both also produce hormones, it say.
Your cortisol levels are controlled by the pituitary glands located in your brain. They use their senses to know if your blood has the “right” amount of cortisol. Too much or too little cortisol in the body? The pituitary glands tell the adrenal glands to adjust.
Generally, their cortisol levels follow a circadian rhythm, peaking in the morning and decreasing by the end of the day, according to Molloy. Of course, they can also fluctuate based on what you are ~ experiencing ~. “Stress is anything that triggers the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol; therefore, any stress (mental, emotional or physical) can cause a response to cortisol in the body,” he explains.
When Cortisol Becomes a Problem
To understand how, why, and when cortisol can become a problem, first consider how different life stressors are compared to 2 million years ago.
“In paleolithic times, cortisol played a very useful role in times of ‘fighting or escaping’ an enemy or animal,” explains Morgan Nolte, D.P.T., board-certified clinical specialist in geriatric physiotherapy in Omaha, Nebraska. The human body has evolved so that cortisol levels rise for a short time when you are in danger and then return to normal when the stressor disappears, she explains. This cortisol spike was a good thing, giving you the extra boost of energy needed to run or fight.
Let’s move into the 21st century, and we may not be facing the “stress” of lions, tigers and bears (oh my), but we are facing other (and more) stressors that cause a response to cortisol in the body.
“In general, modern stress is a different beast compared to the type and amount of stress the body has evolved to deal with,” says Molloy. Nowadays, people are almost always under stress at work, he says, and there are all the “little” stressors of everyday life as a passive-aggressive message, an ex watching his IG story, a Twitter troll, an e without exclamation marks, train delays, traffic, etc. that also cause a response to cortisol in the body.
Unfortunately, “our bodies have not evolved or adapted to the amount of stress we are constantly throwing at them,” says Dr. Christofides. “So our stress response is constantly telling our systems that we are under attack, even when that ‘attack’ is just the pace of everyday life.” And over time, “it can get your cortisol levels out of control,” says Molloy. And that is where cortisol can become a problem.
For example, you may have a natural cortisol boost before a CrossFit competition or work presentation. Again, this is still usually a good thing, because a brief increase in cortisol is associated with benefits such as improved memory and a higher pain threshold.
But because most people are experiencing more stress more often than ever, “sometimes their cortisol levels get out of control,” says Molloy. And that is where cortisol can become a problem. (See More: Chronic Stress Can Shorten Your Lifespan)
Unstable cortisol levels are sometimes caused by a lump in the adrenal gland, causing an excess of cortisol (known as Cushing’s syndrome) or adrenal gland producing too little cortisol (known as adrenal insufficiency or Addison’s disease). , adds Nolte. But these are not the cortisol problems most people face. Usually the problem is too much stress.
How Exercise Affects Your Cortisol Levels
Remember how Malloy said stress responses can be triggered by emotional, mental or physical stimuli? Well, if you have ever had a breakup, had a fight with your mother, or had a reasonable time for school or work, you probably understand emotional and mental stress. But do you know what counts with physical stress? It can be anything from a muscle injury after a football game or an injury after a car accident to general fatigue, dehydration / malnutrition or exercise, according to Dr. Christofides. Yes, exercise causes physical stress.
Don’t read it wrong: exercise is not bad! What is bad is the high stress culture. And if you’re under a lot of mental / emotional stress, exercise can sometimes help because it forces cortisol levels to increase, which can lead to stabilization of cortisol levels, explains Dr. Christofides. What appears, should come down, right? Well, it doesn’t always work that way.
Exercise sometimes aggravates pre-existing cortisol imbalances, she says. “Because exercise produces the body’s stress response, when cortisol levels are not in homeostasis, this can make cortisol levels stay high,” she says. This is especially likely if you exercise at the end of the day, for a long time, or at super high intensities.
“If you exercise later in the day, when your cortisol levels are declining, it may cause cortisol levels to deviate from the circadian rhythm,” says Molloy. It is usually a short-term deviation and your cortisol levels return to normal. But night exercise can aggravate pre-existing cortisol problems, he explains. (This is why morning exercise may be part of the solution, but more on that below).
The population most at risk for cortisol imbalances are endurance practitioners, according to Dr. Christofides. This is because resistance exercise increases the amount of time your body is under physical stress, according to a study of the topic published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. If you ride a bike or run two to three hours a day, sometimes a week, it’s a long time with high cortisol levels, she says. So for people who already (‘already’ are the key word here!) Have disrupted cortisol levels due to a stressful life outside the gym or a pre-existing condition, resistance training can make the problem worse. While this should not scare you from training for a marathon, it should encourage you to prioritize your emotional health, mental health and recovery during training. (See: How I Learned to Love Rest Days).
Molloy says he also sees cortisol problems in communities of people who consistently perform strenuous exercise such as HIIT and CrossFit. “If you are going through a period of separation, divorce or crisis at work, you probably don’t want to do a workout that leaves you behind,” he says. This is because, during these periods of high stress, your cortisol levels are already rising. So if a workout is making you slick, it probably increased cortisol levels even more. Doing a workout that will greatly increase cortisol levels when you are in a period of intense stress is like trying to put out a fire with fuel – it makes the situation worse.
Symptoms and Side Effects of Cortisol Imbalance
If you love your current exercise routine, the thought of reconnecting may seem counterintuitive, but “the cost of exercising 100% when mental and emotional stress levels are at 100% compromises muscle mass, the plateaus strength, weight gain, and widespread exhaustion, “says Molloy of the side effects of cortisol imbalance.
There are also other non-exercise symptoms – most of which are similar to the symptoms of overtraining syndrome. Some other symptoms of a cortisol imbalance are:
- Reduced libido
- Mood change
- Depressive or anxious thoughts
- Trouble sleeping
- Short term memory issues
- Lack of menstrual cycle
Because the entire endocrine system is interconnected, this is just the tip of the iceberg, says Len Lopez DC, chiropractor and fitness expert. For example, “your body needs progesterone to produce cortisol. When there is overproduction of cortisol, it can cause an imbalance in progesterone and estrogen levels, which can lead to estrogen dominance,” he says. (This in itself can lead to a host of other health problems, such as obesity, cardiometabolic disease, and even cancer.)
It is also worth mentioning that mental health problems like anxiety and depression have a direct relationship with cortisol. Some studies have linked elevated cortisol levels to mental health problems, while others have found that chronically high cortisol levels increase your risk of mental illness in the future.
Because cortisol again affects every system in the body, chronically high levels of cortisol can lead to other daunting health problems such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
What to Do If You Think Your Cortisol Levels Are Off
If you think you are having a cortisol imbalance, talking to an endocrinologist is a good idea. If that’s really the case, there’s good news: You probably don’t have to stop working out completely. Instead, you may need to make some adjustments to fitness routines and out of the gym.
To get started, try going to the gym in the morning. This will align your exercise-induced increase in cortisol with the naturally occurring increase, Dr. Christofides explains. “Just don’t go to the gym in the morning instead of sleeping seven to eight hours. That’s the number one way to make things worse,” she says.
If you are an ultramarathoner or self-identified Cardio Bunny, you may need to schedule a off-season when you are not traveling many miles. Or you can simply incorporate more low-intensity exercise or yoga into your routine.
What if high intensity exercise is your jam? Good news: “I would never say stop doing CrossFit or HIIT,” says Adam Splaver, MD, a cardiologist (and in love with CrossFitter) with Dr. Doctor. This kind of exercise is tremendously beneficial, he adds.
The trick is not to cancel your box or membership in the HIIT studio, but to go less often or exercise at a lower intensity. Molloy is a fan of the first: “If you are stressed, try these exercises at 70 to 85% of your maximum intensity.”
Obviously, “It’s almost impossible to prescribe an exact training regimen that reduces the risk of it because it’s so individual,” says Dr. Splaver. The important thing, he says, is to tune in (and then listen) to your body.
From there, some lifestyle changes can greatly help balance cortisol levels:
- Sleep 7 to 8 hours a night
- Supply adequately (and eat enough)
- Smoking and drinking less (or not at all)
- Take adaptogens (specifically ashwagandha and astragalus)
- Going to therapy
- Spending more time with friends
- Laughing more
“It’s amazing the difference that journaling for three minutes before bed can make for overall stress levels,” says Molloy.
How Long Until Your Cortisol Levels Return to Normal?
“You can see some real differences within a week or two,” says Molloy. “But it all comes down to how out of control your cortisol levels are and how much you are able to change your lifestyle to address them.” And of course, continuing to manage your stress levels is essential to keeping them from rising too high again, he says.
If you think your cortisol levels are doing something unstable, go to your doctor to discuss solutions. And even if you are not convinced that your cortisol levels are deactivated, your health and wellness routine can probably benefit from the lifestyle changes mentioned above.