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Controlling Cortisol & Adrenal Fatigue

November 5, 2015 | 0 Comments
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There is no denying that we all face stress in some way, shape or form almost daily during our lives. So figuring out how to reduce it, or at least control it, can have an tremendously positive impact on both how quickly we are able to reach our health and fitness goals, and our lives in general.

Related Plan: Free Nutrition Plan

Related Article: Competing Too Frequently

Related Article: ATP Science Cort RX Supplement Review


What Is Stress

Stress can be loosely defined as anything that triggers a change or reaction in the body. 

Seems broad doesn’t it? 

We commonly associate stress with things like running late, demanding work schedules or a sudden major life change. But to the body, or more specifically our internal stress response system, stress is detected far more frequently than you may think. Stress, and our body’s consequential response to stress, can lead to diverse range of health implications, which can affect you both in and out of the gym.

There are a host of internal and external sources of stress that our bodies are exposed to that cause a specific response to occur. This response is not dissimilar to how humans responded to stress during cavemen times when survival was threatened due to sudden attack or in times of famine. Let’s quickly go over just how the body recognises and reacts to ‘stressors’.

How Is Stress Detected

The brain, or more specifically, the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, is responsible for detecting both internal and external sources of stress. We are aware of things that can typically make us stress on a daily basis, but the body even recognises stress when we are suffering from inflammation, allergies, immune reactions, toxins and even digestive problems.

This is because stress is recognised as anything that triggers a reaction in the body. When the HPA axis detects stress, it regards the source of such to be potentially life threatening, and therefore launches a defence mechanism with the sole purpose of ensuring our survival. Our body prepares itself for survival, expecting to go to battle or flee or hide; the so called "Fight or Flight response".

In order to prepare our body for survival, several additional proceses also take place::

  • The HPA axis signals the pituitary glands to secrete the hormone Adrenocorticotropic (ACTH).
  • Creation of ACTH becomes the priority for the pituitary gland; thyroid, reproductive and other hormones cease creation and regulation.
  • ACTH alerts the adrenal glands to produce cortisol, which is the hormone responsible for responding to the stressor and preparing the body for survival.
  • Cortisol signals the body to prepare for survival and immediately demands fuel sources to be readily available.
  • Glucose from glyogen in muscles and organs is obtained, broken down and transferred into the bloodstream as blood sugar for an immediate source of energy.
  • Triglycerides are also transferred into the bloodstream as a secondary source of fuel in case blood sugar levels are inadequate.
  • Insulin resistance occurs as the body wishes to prevent this hormone from removing the fuel from the blood stream (in effect, cortisol and insulin are antagonist hormones, the presence of one blocks the other).
  • Water retention is increased to prepare for bleeding and blood loss so that there will be more blood capacity to increase the chances of staying alive for longer.
  • Blood pressure increases as veins contract and narrow to discourage blood supply from travelling to the extremities.
  • Hormones that encourage sleep, such as melatonin, are blocked to ensure mental alertness.


As can be seen, there is quite a significant internal response from the body when stress is detected. The problem is, in reality, the stressor isn’t usually life threatening, yet the body cannot differentiate the nature of the stressor being detected.

When the body survives the threatening situation or stressor, cortisol returns to the brain to signal that it no longer needs to be released and the stress has been responded to. However, the nature of our lifestyles means that we are constantly exposed to sources of stress, whether internal or external, physical or psychological. In effect, our bodies continually undergo the stress response, which in turn make us resistant to the quantity of cortisol typically produced, therefore requiring greater amounts of cortisol to be created in response to stress.

So how does all of this affect our ability to get results in the gym?

How Stress Affects Body Fat

After a stressful situation, cortisol also acts to return the body to its previous state before being exposed to a threat or stressor. As the body assumes we have just utilised all of our energy in battle through physical exertion, our appetite increases in order to replenish our carbohydrate (glycogen) and fat (triglyceride) stores that we’ve just apparently depleted. As glucose is the preferred energy source of the body, carbohydrate cravings, in particular for simple carbohydrates or sugars, are common after a stress response as this is the particular macronutrient our body believes we are now lacking.

But in reality, how often do we actually fight off stressful situations physically? 

Usually it is just a matter of us sitting at our desks at work or in the car during busy traffic. So our bodies are tricking us into unnecessarily replenishing our energy stores when in fact we haven’t even utlised them!

With ongoing exposure to stress, this results in prolonged increased levels of cortisol and therefore increased appetite, hunger, and consequently insulin levels. Many studies have also revealed that the additional glucose produced during times of stress is more likely to convert to body fat in the form of triglycerides stored around the abdominal region; just another defence mechanism our body employs in a bid to protect our organs from stressors.

The Impact of Cortisol on Muscle

Cortisol is a catabolic hormone due to its influence on reducing protein synthesis. When present, even during intense exercise, the body attempts to attain alternate sources of fuel in a bid to spare any glucose that may be available. The primary alternative source of fuel is derived from our muscles, whereby muscle tissue is broken down to allow individual amino acids to be accessed and converted into glucose; a process known as proteolysis. When cortisol is secreted, other crucial hormones necessary in order to increase size and strength are blunted; namely insulin, testosterone and human growth hormone. 

Ironically, even our workouts, whether it be weight training or cardio, can potentially be sources of stress to our body, which seems contradictory due the muscle building or fat loss goals we may have. It is therefore important to ensure that we monitor certain aspects including our workout duration, workout intensity and workout frequency to ensure our workouts aren’t potentially creating a degree of stress that would be extremely difficult to recover from and hence negatively affect our progress.

Aside from the physical implications that prolonged raised cortisol levels may have, the combination of increased insulin resistance, decreased immunity, and elevated blood pressure can lead to far more adverse health impacts over time. Besides symptoms of weight gain and loss of muscle size and strength, prolonged stress (and more specifically consistent elevated cortisol levels) also have significant impacts on cardiovascular health, depression, anxiety, insomnia, sex drive and digestive problems.

How To Reduce Cortisol

So before you really start stressing about the implications of stress itself, and contribute to the vicious cycle which wreaks havoc on your body, we have compiled some tips as to how to how to combat and manage some common sources of stress and control your cortisol levels, giving you the ability to maximise your results in the gym and lead a healthy life.

  • Eat smaller portions of food more frequently to ensure your blood sugar levels remain balanced while also opting for slow digesting complex carbohydrates, to minimise spikes in insulin and lower insulin resistance.
  • Utilise pre, during and post workout nutrition & supplementation. Studies have revealed that those who incorporate both carbohydrates and protein in comparison to those who incorporated neither or one in isolation, are able to inhibit the most cortisol release, while also being able to gain the most muscle mass. If you need some guidance, check out our Free Nutrition Plan and Free Supplement Plan.
  • Supplement with carbohydrates during your workouts. Utilising carbohydrates intra-workout will force your body to release insulin and hence blunt the release of cortisol. Choose a carbohydrate that is light on your digestive system to keep blood in your muscles rather than in your gastrointestinal system. We recommend All American EFX Karbolyn.
  • Avoid excessive amounts of stimulants such as caffeine, as well as alcohol, which both cause internal stress.
  • Incorporate low intensity exercise such as walking or LISS (low intensity steady state) cardio into your workout split. This will assist in lowering cortisol levels and also provides the opportunity to psychologically relax and de-stress.
  • Sleep! Despite sounding like the solution to all problematic issues in life, there is no denying the role sleep plays in keeping us healthy, happy and balanced. During times of sleep, cortisol levels often drop significantly. It is important to get the minimum 8 hours of recommended shut-eye per night as frequently as possible.
  • Give meditation and yoga a try. These types of passive activities give you time to truly relax, focus on breathing and take a break from your busy schedule. Try to also take these calming principles and apply them in your daily life to avoid stressing over the little things.
  • Reduce internal stressors. Ensure you combat digestive issues, allergies, toxins, radiation or anything causing you inflammation. Use of omega 3 fatty acids from Fish Oil and tumeric are some of the most effective anti-inflammatory ingredients and are readily available. 
  • Supplementat with vitamin C, glutamine and specific anti-stress cortisol reducing supplements such as ATP Science Cort RX. These supplements have been shown to reduce cortisol levels and more specifically, negate the stress derived from exercise.


You now have the knowledge surrounding cortisol and its various negative effects, both physically, mentally and emotionally. Understanding when your body recognises stress and its consequential actions in the body can allow you to take control of your cortisol levels and eliminate known sources of stress both internally and externally to become happier, healthier, stronger and leaner. 

Related Plan: Free Nutrition Plan

Related Article: Competing Too Frequently

Related Article: ATP Science Cort RX Supplement Review


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