Don’t Stress! Let’s talk about Cortisol

2stress_jokes_600x4502What is Cortisol?

  • A hormone! It’s part of the body’s endocrine system. A hormone is a signaling molecule that the body uses to control and regulate nearby or distant cells or organs. They play major roles in many essential processes not limited to moods, metabolism, growth, reproduction, and digestion. Some examples of other hormones are melatonin, insulin, growth hormone, estradiol (estrogen), and testosterone.


  • The Stress Hormone: Cortisol’s main function is to restore homeostasis (equilibrium) in the body following exposure to stress. In response to stress, cortisol affects metabolism (encouraging higher blood sugar levels and production of glucose (sugar)), ion transport (cells hold on to more sodium, get rid of more potassium), the immune system (decreasing the immune response and inflammation), and memory (by overwhelming the hippocampus, one of the brain’s main memory centers).


  • A steroid hormone. The term steroid refers to the shape of the hormone- it has 4 carbon rings, 3 rings with 6 sides and 1 ring with 5. 0194.5-01.001.TIF
    Steroid hormones are naturally created by the body from cholesterol which also has that steroid form.

    A notable point about steroid hormones is that since they don’t have much (if any) charge (notice no + or – on the molecules above), they can easily pass through cell’s exterior membrane to the inside (including to the inside of muscle cells) where they can bind receptors and interact with DNA to make changes happen.


  • It is produced in the adrenal gland, in a part called the adrenal cortex (the outer part of the gland). The hypothalamus in the brain releases one hormone (CRH) that signals the anterior pituitary of the brain to release another hormone (ACTH) which travels to the adrenal cortex and signals for release of cortisol in the blood. (It’s called the HPA axis, or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis).


  • A catabolic hormone (in skeletal muscle). The word catabolism means “to break down” and refers to processes in the body where bigger substances are broken down to smaller components, often to release energy. (Side note: The opposite of catabolism is anabolism, which means “to build up,” and involves taking smaller parts to make something bigger. This usually requires or uses energy. Catabolic processes and anabolic processes all make up metabolism.) Cortisol selects specific macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins) to be catabolized in order to meet the body’s energy demands, often sacrificing proteins for energy when muscles’ carbohydrate storages (of glycogen) are low.


  • Forms of Cortisol
    • Cortisol, Cortisone, Hydrocortisone: primary “stress hormone” produced by the body
    • Dexamethasone and prednisone: synthetic forms of cortisone with anti-inflammatory and immune suppressing properties. Useful for things like skin disorders (anti-itch), inflammatory diseases (arthritis and asthma), organ transplant (reduce chances of the body rejecting the foreign organ), and treating people who have lost function in their adrenal glands (Addison’s disease)

 What increases cortisol?

  • Age. Higher age=higher cortisol
  • Hours slept. Fewer hours of sleep=higher cortisol
  • Inflammation and abdominal fat are both linked to cortisol levels
  • Stress. Emotional and physical. This can be from money, work, that guy who just cut you off while driving, and relationships or food intolerances, injuries, illnesses, and skipped meals (fasting).
  • Caffeine. Drinking more than 2-3 cups (8oz cups, not 2-3 Trentas) of coffee each day
  • Alcohol. High alcohol consumption causes disregulation of the HPA axis and higher than normal cortisol levels because cortisol’s release is no longer regulated.
  • Smoking.

And these cortisol increases can add together (summate) to result in even higher cortisol levels in the body.

Short- and Long-Term Stress:

  • Acute (Initial, Short-term): This is your familiar “fight or flight” response where the body mobilizes (catabolizes, or breaks down) energy reserves (of fat, protein and carbohydrates) so you have enough energy to fight or get away. Cortisol and adrenaline increase while DHEA and testosterone decrease. Heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, body temperature, and sweating increase along with anxiety, nervousness, headaches, heartburn, and irritability.


  • Chronic Stress (long term): High cortisol and low DHEA/testosterone cause muscle loss,  fat gain, and decreased integrity in bone and other tissues (heightened catabolic processes, delayed repair/immune mechanisms). Other symptoms of chronic stress are weight gain, fatigue, blood sugar fluctuations, heightened appetite and carb/sugar cravings, muscle weakness, and increased susceptibility to illness. Sex drive is often reduced as well. Chronic stress can really turn into a self-propagating cycle that’s hard to escape and researchers are recently uncovering many relationships between elevated cortisol levels and numerous health ailments.

Stress is BAD, why do we NEED cortisol?

Like most other things in our lives, moderation is key with cortisol and too much or too little are problematic. Our bodies are affected differently from temporary, acute rises in cortisol levels and chronically elevated levels.

  • Waking up in the morning. Cortisol is part of our bodies’ daily rhythm (circadian rhythm). Cortisol levels peak in the early morning and decrease through the afternoon and evening.
  • In people whose bodies can’t produce cortisol (a condition called Addison’s Disease) their bodies cannot mount a stress response and basically go into shock upon encountering a stressful event.
  • Cortisone, a synthetic form of cortisol, is used as a short-term drug to alleviate inflammation, swelling, and joint pain. Used too long, however, cortisone use can lead to memory problems, weight gain, depression, and increased infections.
  • Exercise increases cortisol levels temporarily (acute response), but this increase is actually beneficial to immune function, memory, appetite control, weight loss, libido, energy and inflammation. Workouts where the rest periods are short, total volume is high, and anaerobic metabolism is stimulated raise cortisol the most, and this hormone response is what’s most associated with muscle remodeling and growth.

What are the best options to combat elevated cortisol levels and chronic stress?

  • Awareness. Start taking note of occurrences in your life that raise your body’s stress levels.
  • Learn. Check out The Cortisol Connection, an awesome book. It’s an easy read and teaches about stress, cortisol, and effective ways to counteract the damaging effects of cortisol and stress. Empower yourself: Learn about your body.
  • Exercise! Regular exercise does so much to alleviate stress (mental and physical) and lower cortisol levels.
  • Prioritize Sleep.
  • Balance exposure to stress with recovery from stress. Plan your recovery days in addition to your workout days. Also, consider avoiding one cortisol trigger if you’ve encountered a lot of other triggers in that day.
  • Eat Well! Eating poorly, irregularly, or excessively actually adds stress to our bodies. Eating foods we have intolerances to increases inflammation which elevates cortisol and stress as well.


What are the most effective methods you know or use to reduce stress levels?

Let me know what you think of this article!



Badrick, E., Bobak, M., Britton, A., et al.. The Relationship between Alcohol Consumption and Cortisol Secretion in an Aging Cohort. J Clin Endocrine Metab. 2008 Mar; 93 (3): 750-757. 


Wednesday Workouts Body & Mind

Body Workout

My current workout schedule is a 4 day resistance training split with one day of interval cardio per week. My split is:
-Upper Body
-Lower Body
-Full Body A
-Full Body B
and my focuses are increasing strength on bench press and deadlift and increasing repetitions on pull-ups. I’m using a programing technique called daily undulating periodization for increasing strength on the deadlift and bench press, so I include both lifts in two workouts each week and for each lift, I have one heavy day and one lighter day each week as well. My hope is that increasing my frequency of performing these lifts will result in some awesome strength gains!

Here is the workout I did yesterday, my upper body workout. I did these exercises after my 15-20 minute warm up routine that involves foam rolling and 8-10 dynamic stretches or mobility drills. This workout took about 70 minutes including the warmup.

A. BB Bench Press (Heavy) 5-6 X 1-3 Reps
B. Pullups 3 X Max Reps
C. Plank (arms on airex mat, Legs in TRX) 3 X60”
D. Inverted Row (TRX) 3 X 8-10 reps
E1. DB Bicep Curls 3 X 8-12 reps
E2. Bench Dips 3 X 10-15 Reps
E3. Prone T’s 3 X 10-15 Reps

To explain some of my shorthand: BB=Barbell, DB=dumbbell, exercises with the same letter (E) are performed in sequence like a circuit, and the first numbers to the left of the “X” are the number of sets.

Strangely, in the aftermath of my workout, I’ve been most sore in my chest (probably from the heavy bench press) and my mid/lower traps (from the prone T’s, the lightest exercise on there, but truly a weak point for me).

Mind Workout

Becoming the best fitness coach I  can be involves continuously learning. I’m currently reading Training for Strength by Chris Beardsley. It’s a review of the scientific research studies that exist on strength training.


My other favorite brain-stimulation lately is the Physique Science Radio podcast hosted by Layne Norton and Sohee Lee. It’s free. I stream it in my car through soundcloud and nerd-out on their fitness Q&As and interviews with notable exercise physiologists, nutritionists, and fitness psychologists.

I’d encourage you to check out either, but especially the podcasts, and always be learning (through reputable sources)!

Fit Food For Thought

I’ve been doing well so far with my resolution to track food intake daily.  My Macros+ is the tracking app I’ve been using because it allows me to input my macro goals, and it shows my accumulations throughout the day. It also has a barcode scanning function to search for foods and populate the nutrition information that has saved me so much time.  I’m also working on getting my protein intake up to 158g per day (which is my current body weight, as of Monday, so I’m eating 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight)

I’ll be real for a second here, tracking food daily is hard for me. It may not seem like a difficult task to many, just logging food eaten, but I’ve struggled with disordered eating and emotional eating through my life, and I subconsciously place a lot of emotional weight around my dietary habits. Holding myself accountable and pre-measuring the foods I eat is challenging. There is a strange association in my mind between sitting on the couch mindlessly eating a bag of pita chips and relaxation or stress relief–which, rationally, I know to be uncorrelated. Today was tough because I’m a little overwhelmed with life at the moment and my normal response to stress is to mindlessly eat.

I’ve been listening to the Physique Science Radio Podcasts by Sohee Lee and Layne Norton, episode 17 to be specific. Their guest on this episode, Steve Ledbetter, a fitness psychologist, says one should view things like scale weight and food logs with as much emotion as one would count the number of white cars in a parking lot. This is definitely something I’m aspiring toward in my pursuits this year. I’m addressing my sources of stress rather than escaping from them with food and constantly reminding myself that the number on the scale is just a number and has nothing to do with my happiness or the quality of person I am.

I’m going to share a couple of my meals from this week (meals I remembered to take a picture of). You’ll notice they are not perfectly “clean” or made of only “good” foods, but they are good enough. I hope these help give you all some ideas of protein-centered meals you might like to include in your diet.

Meal 1 (Left): a handful of Spinach, grape tomatoes, a can of tuna, and half an avocado seasoned with salt and pepper (27g Protein)

Meal 2 (Center): 4 ounces lean ground turkey, refried beans, and 1 ounce of cheese (33g Protein)

Meal 3: (Right): a cup of plain greek yogurt (taste-wise, I prefer the 2% over the nonfat) and half a cup of trail mix consisting of almonds, cashews, and dried cranberries (25g Protein)

January Resolutions

I don’t know about you, but I love resolutions, planning, and goals. I’m truly a goal-oriented person. I love setting goals in all areas of my life as they give me direction, focus, and a sense of purpose. I also think resolutions give us hope that the future will be a little different, a bit better in some way than the present.

Sadly, however, we all know how New Years’ Resolutions tend to go: Jane sets New Years’ Resolutions, Jane tries really hard the first week or month of the year, then by March, Jane has either given up on or forgotten said resolutions, and nothing has changed. So, what can we do to set resolutions that stick? Here are 5 tips that may help.

  1. Turn your goals into systems.
    My dad introduced these concepts to me when he handed me this article by James Clear. What’s the difference between a goal and a system, you ask? To summarize, a goal is the result while the system is the process. If the goal is to write a book this year, the system could be to write 2 pages each day. I don’t know about you, but planning to write 2 pages each day sounds a lot less overwhelming than thinking about sitting down to write a whole book. I’m also a lot more likely to procrastinate a big endeavor like writing a book than the little task of writing a few pages. Lastly, in focusing on the system, every day has the potential to be deemed a success. In focusing on systems, we commit ourselves to a process, not an end result, which  reduces stress over the outcome, produces more chances for success, eliminates the need for immediate gratification,  and enhances our enjoyment of all the moments along the way.
  2. Plan small changes.
    With a new year comes the desire to make a fresh start with drastic lifestyle changes.
    I like the analogy of a pendulum to describe the effects of big changes. The more change you aim for, the higher the pendulum is raised and the greater the rebound force will be swinging toward the other side (the old habits). Instead of making big changes all at once, make 1-2 small changes every week, 2 weeks, or month. For example, if your goal is to lose weight (or more accurately, fat) through dieting this new year, instead making the drastic change to an immaculately “clean” diet of chicken and asparagus 5 times a day, just make 1-2 small changes in your diet per week that align with the overall goal like this:

    • Week 1: Track your food intake each day
    • Week 2: Track food intake each day + Eat 1 gram of protein per pound of your body weight each day
    • Week 3: Track food intake each day + Eat 1 gram of protein per pound of your body weight each day + Eat 3 servings of vegetables daily
  3. Start now and keep going!
    There is no need to wait until next Monday, the 1st of February, or next January 1st to start working toward a goal. Further, if you mess up, forgive yourself and keep moving toward your goal.
  4. Consistency is Key!
    It doesn’t matter how many times you hit the gym, how many healthy meals you eat, or how many pages of your book you write this week if it’s not sustainable. If you hit the gym 7 days this week and are so exhausted/sore/injured that you don’t go at all next week, what was the point? Set yourself up for success by setting goals/systems you can be consistent with, even if they seem small. Overtime, the progress you make will add up!
  5. Plan to Reassess!
    It is said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. I recommend reassessing your progress toward your goals at least once a month and no more than every 2 weeks. Is your diet working? Are you seeing the results you anticipated? Do you constantly find yourself wanting to write more than 2 pages each day? Is going to the gym 5 days each week and working out 2 hours each session too much for your body? When setting a goal, I put my reassessment date on my calendar and then put that idea out of my mind. Until that assessment date, I’m committed 100% to the plan I’ve set.

As an example of these strategies applied (and to keep myself accountable), here are my January Goals:

  • Career Goals
    • Blog: Get it running, gain followers
      • System: Write an article every 2 days. Plan articles for the month on calendar ahead of time. Link on Facebook and Instagram. Make card and hand out to gym friends and clients
      • Reassessment: 1 month, January 31st. Average views? Was it manageable to write a post every 2 days?
    • Training: Start training clients, give educated advice
      • System: Read training research and articles by other trainers I trust 30 minutes daily
      • Reassessment: 4 weeks Feb 1st. Is it manageable reading that much? Could I read more? Am I learning useful information this way? Are my clients satisfied with my coaching and obtaining desired results?
    • Doctorate of Physical Therapy Programs: Get accepted!
      • System: Maintain correspondence with the 20 schools I’ve applied to.
      • Reassessment: April 1st. I should hear back from all the schools I’ve applied to by then.
  • Fitness Goals
    • Diet: Goal is to lose fat
      • System: Track food intake and meet protein goals (wk 1). Hit macro goals daily (wk2-4). Plan and prep meals ahead of time. Measure/Track progress with weight, pics, circumference measurements weekly.
      • Reassessment: 1 month, Feb 1st. Am I losing fat? Am I able to stick with my macros consistently? What can I do better?
    • Workouts: Establish a good base of strength, mobility, and aerobic conditioning so next month I can start learning olympic lifts!
      • System: 4 day lift split (upper body, lower body, full body A, full body B), at least 1 cardio session with high intensity intervals per week, daily mobility/stretching work on areas with issues (more on this later)
      • Reassessment: 1 month, Jan 31st. Change workout to Olympic Lifting progression. Weekly Reassessment for mobility/stretch work: January 11th.

What kind of goals and/or systems are you working on this month?