Cortisol – enemy or friend?

Popular "stress hormone" is considered in the fitness world as the number one enemy. It’s attributed to him all the evils related to the work on the silhouette - muscle protein breakdown, testosterone lowering, fat gain, etc. However, it turns out that these claims are not always correct.

Let's start with the fact that cortisol action is completely different during natural pulsatile ejaculation in a demanding situation than during chronic mental or physical stress.

In normal daytime rhythm, the cortisol peak occurs at the time of waking from sleep (about 8 am) and it really makes us energized in the morning (if we do not have it, this is a cause for concern). Subsequent, small cortisol jumps occur around 1PM and 6PM, and the level should gradually decrease, reaching the lowest value in the evening when we begin to feel drowsy.

Cortisol is a glucocorticoid that is produced primarily in the adrenal cortex (but not only) and its most important function is to raise blood glucose levels in stressful situations. Thus, it exhibits an adrenaline-like and noradrenaline-like effect (by cAMP elevation), a hormone that specifically promotes fat burning. If you look only at the direct effect of cortisol, you might say that the statement about the onset of cortisol is untrue. And so it actually is, when the natural daytime rhythm is preserved.

How the stress response is related to cortisol level - infographic
How the stress response is related to cortisol level - infographic

The problem starts when cortisol levels are chronically disturbed - such as reversed daytime rhythm or raised level throughout the day. They may then interact with other hormones. Elevated levels of cortisol cause a different reaction after attachment to the nuclear receptors in the cells. The transcription factors created in this situation may initiate the production of other proteins than we would like. Proteolytic enzymes that break down muscle proteins are formed in this process.

It should also be taken into account that cortisol is produced from the same substance (pregnenolone) as other steroid hormones, even testosterone. Because we have a limited amount of pregnenolone, there is potential competition for this ingredient. As we are in danger according to the body, it will be more important to produce cortisol than testosterone because we need more energy to fight than procreation.

It’s also noted that elevated stress hormone levels result in excessive fat deposition in the lower abdomen, at the nape of the neck and on the face, while preserving the fat-burning properties of the rest. This may lead to redistribution of subcutaneous fat - it moves from one place of the body to the other. This mechanism is not fully known.

Chronically lowered levels of cortisol result in very low levels of energy during the day (especially in the morning), dizziness, and it may also result in impaired immune function. Such ailments can be the result of long-lasting stress when the adrenal glands are no longer able to produce larger amounts of the hormone.

Effects of cortisol - infographic
Effects of cortisol - infographic

So we see that cortisol has two faces - it improves the composition of the body or destroys our body and health when it’s not secreted properly.

One can conclude from this that our enemy is a disorder of cortisol secretion rather than its presence. So lowering his level makes sense only in certain situations. It’s also important to bear in mind that in the phase of fat reduction you can afford a slightly higher cortisol concentration than when building muscle mass.

So how to lower the level of cortisol when it’s necessary?

Proper amount and quality of sleep

Of course, the most important step should be to eliminate the stressor. In our daily lives we should minimize exposures to stressful situations, do not go into conflict, do not impose excessive ambition, etc. However, this is a very individual issue, so in this article I will focus mainly on supplementary treatment.

Supplementation to lower cortisol level

Vitamins and minerals

As in any case, the basis will be to supplement nutritional deficiencies. Especially important here will be supplementing B vitamins, which play an important role in the metabolism of neurotransmitters.


To alleviate the problem, we can incorporate adaptogenic herbs. Adaptogens are substances that aid the body in returning homeostasis in stressful situations. We have a choice here, including Ashwagandha, Ginkgo Biloba, Tongkat Ali, Rhodiola Rosea and many others.

Soothing substances

The next step may be to introduce tonic supplements of the nervous system in the evening and around the training, such as magnesium, l-teanin, or phosphatidylserine. Reduce the stress caused by training and let you relax and improve the quality of sleep.

Lowering an amount of stimulants

You also have to mention the need to eliminate stimulants, i.e. coffee and other caffeinated beverages. And especially after waking, caffeine in the morning will not have morning cortisol demand, and thus it will be impossible to restore the natural rhythm.

Rethink caloric deficit

It’s also important to avoid the chronic state of a severe caloric deficit. Unfortunately, long-term weight loss can raise the level of stress and cortisol. In light disturbances it should be enough to bring the body up to order, but when the cortisol is strongly elevated, we have to go further.

GABA and GABAergic substances

Stimulation of GABA-ergic receptors may result in lower cortisol levels. Their activation in the hypothalamus results in the inhibition of CRH secretion. CRH is a hypothalamic hormone, signalling the pituitary that it should release ACTH. ACTH, in turn, is the hormone that stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. By lowering CRH, we stop the entire cascade of hormone secretion. An example of the effectiveness of this treatment is alcohol. The effect of alcohol mainly results from the stimulation of GABA receptors. Do you know someone who has 3 beers still stressful? Exactly.

Alcohol for lowering cortisol level...?

However, I will not recommend alcohol to cortisol problems as the effects of ingestion may elevate cortisol levels later. The use of GABA may also be ineffective as most of this amino acid is consumed in the intestine into the butter but is excreted into the bloodstream to a very small extent beyond the blood-brain barrier. It may be effective to use GABA "smuggling" drugs through the blood-brain barrier, such as picamilon (combination of GABA and niacin) and phenibut (beta-phenyl-GABA).

Adaptogenic herbs seems to be the most convenient way to lower cortisol level
Adaptogenic herbs seems to be the most convenient way to lower cortisol level

Active and inactive cortisol

At the end we will do a bit more biochemistry. Two forms of hormone circulate in the body - active cortisol and inactive cortisone. The enzyme that transforms these forms into one is 11-beta-HSD. Type 1 of this enzyme converts cortisone to cortisol (mainly in adipose tissue), while type 2 acts in reverse in the kidney. It should be noted that the most problematic form of cortisol is produced on the spot, that is, in adipose tissue. It then works directly on it and adjoining tissues. It would be convenient to block the activity of this enzyme, especially the first type.

Omega 3 and cortisol

It appears that some of these effects are partially unsaturated fatty acids, mainly Omega 3 (EPA and DHA) - selectively block 11-beta-HSD1, reducing the amount of cortisol in adipose tissue. In addition to unsaturated fatty acids, green tea constituents, mainly EGCG, appear to be effective.

When Omega 3 and green tea are not enough, we can turn to curcumin, which also acts similar to the two supplements listed above.

People with more severe problems may get heavier weapons, supplements from the upper shelf. Decreasing the activity of 11betaHSD1 is the domain of a certain DHEA metabolite (which is also an adrenal hormone). However, administration of DHEA alone may be unreasonable when we do not know the general state of our hormonal economy. In the early stages of adrenal problems, elevated levels of DHEA may be noted, and this is also contraindicated for the supplementation of this hormone. Fortunately, the manufacturers of the supplements have taken care of us to solve this problem. You can buy the proper metabolites that work on the 11betaHSD1 enzyme but do not convert to sex hormones like DHEA. Specifically, this is about 7-Keto DHEA supplements. 11BetaHSD is used for the metabolism of 7-Keto, thus keeping the enzyme pool lower for use by cortisone.

Lowering cortisol level - summary

Of course, these are not all possible treatments to manipulate the level of cortisol. Their quantity is substantial and the ways depend largely on the cause of the problems. However, it’s good to look at the adrenal glands, especially when we train intensely, complain about poor mood, insufficient energy during the day and excessive stress.

Tags: adrenal cortex, adrenal glands, anti-stress, cortisol, fight or flight response, lower cortisol, stress, supplements for cortisol

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