The Muscle Saver - Fight Cortisol and Treat Your Taste Buds

You always hear that cortisol is the enemy of muscle growth, but the often-ignored fact is that you need it to function properly; you need it to be able to deal with stressful events and to train hard. In short, you need it to live.

Consider that when your body needs to handle stressful events, including hard training, it kicks into gear by doing the following, courtesy of cortisol:

  • Increasing energy mobilization from stored glycogen, stored fatty acids, and stored amino acids so you don't run out of fuel when you need it.
  • Increasing blood sugar. You don't want low blood sugar when you're in a fight or running away from a zombie.
  • Increasing adrenaline levels so that you have better reaction times and more focus, drive, strength, and speed.

All that should make it obvious that you don't want to quash cortisol levels completely. That would lead to chronic fatigue, depression, chronic muscle and joint pain, and the inability to regulate any of the functions listed above.

What About Too Much Cortisol?
Likewise, you don't want too much cortisol as it can lead to problems such as:

  • You experience diminished training-induced muscle growth and increased risk of muscle loss. Chronic cortisol elevation will lead to higher myostatin expression (which inhibits growth of muscle cells), more protein breakdown, lowered amino acid transport to the muscles, and, eventually, lowered testosterone (in males) or estrogen (in females).
  • Losing fat gets harder and gaining fat gets easier. Cortisol is a fat loss hormone when produced in the right amount (it mobilizes fat for fuel), but if it becomes chronically elevated, it'll reduce the conversion of the T4 thyroid hormone into the T3 thyroid hormone. This will make your metabolic rate slower. If your metabolic rate is slower, you expend fewer calories per day.
  • It makes you feel like crap. When you feel run down, burned out, or unmotivated and lazy, it's very often due to your body not responding to your own adrenaline. This is called "beta-adrenergic downregulation."
  • Basically, your body can't amp itself up or even wake itself up. This likely explains why you might need a lot of coffee to get started in the morning and a few more cups to keep going throughout the day, or if you need a strong pre-workout stimulant just to get through your workout.
  • You get big mood swings. Cortisol increases the production of a neurotransmitter called glutamate. It also increases the sensitivity of your body to that neurotransmitter. The problem is, glutamate is an emotion amplifier. The more glutamate you have, the stronger your emotional responses will be. The highs become very high and the lows get very low.

As you can see, you certainly want to control cortisol. In our hormonal Goldilocks and the Three Bears scenario, we don't want cortisol too low and we don't want it too high; we want it just right.

The Very Best Controller of Cortisol
There are a lot of "cortisol lowering" supplements available. Some, like glycine, can have a decent effect, but the effect is indirect as it puts your brain into rest and recover mode rather than directly addressing cortisol.

Phosphatidylserine is nice, but effective doses are very expensive. Adaptogens like rhodiola and aswhaganda can have an impact, but cortisol control is only a small part of what they do.

The fact is, most cortisol supplements either suck or are overpriced. The very best substance to help control cortisol is not overpriced, but it's not very sexy. In fact, you are intimately familiar with it: carbohydrates!

Carbs will decrease cortisol production by elevating blood sugar levels and energy availability. Remember, one of the main functions of cortisol is to mobilize stored energy to face a fight or run away, but if you recently ate some carbs, there's plenty of energy (sugar) coursing through your veins and it's more easily available than what's stored in your reserves. As such, there's less need for mobilization, less need for cortisol.

Take a look at the sleeplessness experienced by competitive bodybuilders (or anybody going on a very restrictive diet) when they're preparing for a show, especially during those last 4-5 weeks. That's when calories and carbs are particularly low.

The body constantly needs cortisol to mobilize energy, and because calories and carbs are so low in these individuals, cortisol stays elevated the whole day and even into the evening. Cortisol then increases adrenaline and the adrenaline stays high, making it pretty much impossible to sleep properly.

That is also why people on a keto or intermittent fasting diet have a lot of energy during the day: Not eating carbs during the day leads to a lower blood sugar level. Lower blood sugar levels increase cortisol levels so that blood sugar levels can be brought back up. Meanwhile, the increased cortisol is amping up adrenaline. BOOM! Energy!

But it's energy that comes at a cost. Over the long run, you over-stimulate the beta-adrenergic receptors and eventually become desensitized to cortisol, leading to the problems listed earlier.

So yes, consuming carbs is a very simple way to control cortisol levels... but there are drawbacks.

The Limitations of Carbs
The main problem with using carbohydrates for cortisol control is that it's very easy to overdo it. After all, how many of us really measure our food? To make matters worse, most high-carb sources tend to be calorically dense, which makes it easy to consume a lot more than you should.

Over time, this overconsumption of calories and constant release of insulin can desensitize your insulin receptors and make it much harder to get lean and muscular.

Another issue, at least when it comes to workout or athletic event performance, is that you want carbs that are rapidly and easily absorbed without causing too much of an insulin release. That's a hard combination to find because normally, if you consume conventional "fast absorbed carbs" like straight sugar, candy, white bread, etc., they enter the bloodstream rapidly but also cause a stupendously high release of insulin.

The problem with having a high insulin response during training is that it can lead to "reactive hypoglycemia," which is when the body becomes paradoxically hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) in response to consuming sugar.

What happens is that a huge bolus of the wrong types of carbs will cause a huge release of insulin, but that large amount of insulin will quickly dispose of all that sugar (by sending it to muscles, the liver, or fat storage), leaving you with low blood sugar.

This makes it pretty much impossible to perform well physically and mentally. You're weaker and you can even get woozy and lose focus and coordination. Furthermore, this reactive hypoglycemia will lead to exactly what we're trying to avoid: excess cortisol.

When the body senses a hypoglycemic situation, it will release both cortisol and glucagon to mobilize stored glucose to bring blood sugar back up to normal. If you get reactive hypoglycemia during training, you'll end up producing more cortisol than you would normally have produced without the carbs!

On the other hand, if you consume "slower absorption carbs" or consume the carbs with harder-to-digest foods (slowing down digestion will also slow down the rise in blood sugar and lead to less insulin), you will likely avoid reactive hypoglycemia.

But even that comes with a problem – digestion will rob you of training energy. When you're digesting food, blood flow is diverted from the muscles to the digestive system, in which case your workout will suck.

All of this is why I prefer concentrated peri-workout nutrition.