Day in and day out, you’re in the gym pushing yourself through countless intense workouts with one goal in mind – getting lean and packing on muscle. But what you may not know is that without proper attention to your nutrition and supplement intake, your day-to-day efforts may actually be putting your muscles at serious risk of catabolism and, (drum roll please) fat storage. The culprit? Cortisol.
Cortisol may just be the most misunderstood hormone in the body. It is often referred to as the “Stress Hormone” and as such, cortisol carries a very unpleasant reputation.
To start with, cortisol originates from the adrenal gland, located just above the kidneys.
It is generally released in response to stress, both physical and mental.
Its primary function is to suppress the immune system (by activating anti-stress and anti-inflammatory pathways) and to increase blood sugar through gluconeogenesis. It also plays a role in regulating the amount, type and source (fat, carbohydrate, protein) of energy that is supplied to your body’s muscles.
Say what? This is a mechanism used by the body to create alternate fuel sources when blood glucose is not available. This process may be triggered during times of fasting, starvation, stress, or during intense hypertrophy training.
In short, gluconeogenesis will use any available amino acids for its diabolical plan to keep blood glucose levels from dropping too low, more commonly referred to as hypoglycemia.
Why is this important? Well, one of cortisol’s main functions is to trigger gluconeogenesis, which in turn regulates protein synthesis. Why? Think about it – the body is under stress, it needs fuel (and fast!) to stay alert and react to these stressors, so it starts breaking down amino acids (or any available protein for that matter) once it runs out of blood sugar. It would make sense that during this time the body would definitely not continue to spend energy building muscle. This is one of the key reasons why cortisol gets a bad rap among bodybuilders.
New (well, relatively new) research has suggested that controlling cortisol during weight training is actually attainable, and in fact, not as big of a deal as we once thought.
A study performed by Stephen P Bird et. al. in 2006 demonstrated that even with cortisol release during intense weight training subjects still gained muscle over a period of time. It is of interest to note that this study was performed with a supplement regimen – specifically 4 groups: Water (placebo), Carb drink, Amino Acid drink and a Carb + Amino Acid drink.
At the end of the study, all groups gained muscle, however the Carb + Amino Acid group gained the most muscle and lost the most body fat.
Which, if you think about it, makes sense. If you’re consuming a fast digesting carbohydrate drink during your workout, your body will have the necessary fuel it needs to support itself during this “stressful” situation, therefore, cortisol need not be released.
So Cortisol is Not That Bad?
The key here is to understand the difference between cortisol spikes, and an extended period of elevated cortisol levels. As we’ve seen, during training cortisol levels can be controlled, and Bird’s study actually suggests that the body begins to adapt to weight training and will release less and less cortisol as time goes on (hence the placebo group continued to build muscle).
The major problems occur when the body’s levels of cortisol peak for extended periods of time, most notably among those with stressful jobs or during periods of increased personal and/or familial stress. In these instances, cortisol can cause feelings of sluggishness, fatigue and muscle soreness. Fat cells are mobilized causing an increase in visceral fat, and the body’s ability to synthesize protein and rebuild tissue is diminished. As a result, it weakens the immune system, creates a negative nitrogen balance, leads to excessive fat storage and negates the hard work you may be doing in the gym.
Finally, high levels of cortisol can become a menace to your diet, as there is a direct correlation between high levels of cortisol and increased appetite, especially cravings for sugar and fat.
So the reality is that you have to understand your own personal situation to determine how cortisol may, or may not, be affecting your gains.
Supplementing to Control Cortisol Release
As discussed, if your body is well stocked with readily available carbohydrates and aminos during your workout, gluconeogenesis will not be required – so cortisol spikes will not be an issue.
ALLMAX recently released a product which was created specifically for this reason.
CARBION+ is an ion-charged super fuel comprised of 6 pH balanced, high-molecular weight and ultra-low osmolality carbs to help fuel your most gruelling workouts.
All high-molecular weight carbs (45,000 g/mol to 200,000 g/mol) means that they reach the site of absorption at least 30 minutes faster than traditional dextrose or LMW maltodextrin. When CARBION+ gets there, it gets broken down by enzymes, releasing a steady stream of workout fuel. The result is that there’s no dramatic insulin spike, and no cortisol spike, just steady, reliable energy.
Paired with AMINOCORE Tabs pre-workout, this is an ideal stack to build quality lean body mass.
- Stress-related cortisol secretion in men: relationships with abdominal obesity and endocrine, metabolic and hemodynamic abnormalities.
- Independent and combined effects of liquid carbohydrate/essential amino acid ingestion on hormonal and muscular adaptations following resistance training in untrained men.
- Associations of exercise-induced hormone profiles and gains in strength and hypertrophy in a large cohort after weight training.