Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands that plays an essential role in the metabolism of macronutrients. Cortisol also helps the human body manage stress, notably exercise-induced stress. Normally, cortisol levels rise during the early morning hours and are highest about 7 AM. They drop very low in the evening and during the early phase of sleep.
Cortisol levels should be tested in the morning. Insufficient cortisol levels suggest that the production triggered by the adrenal glands’ are affected. Low levels may lead to symptoms such as: extreme fatigue, weight loss, muscle weakness and an inability to cope with stress. In athletes, low levels of cortisol may lead to burnout, which may happen after continued exercise-induced stress with too little rest over a long period of time. It is important for athletes to allow their body and mind to rest and heal in order to support a healthy production of cortisol.
Symptoms of elevated cortisol levels include fatigue, unexplained muscle loss with increased fat storage and reduced exercise capacity. Reducing the intensity of training and/or exercise and increasing the number of recovery days at a low intensity should help to reestablish or maintain healthy cortisol levels. Chronically elevated cortisol levels caused by overtraining can also lead to chronic catabolic states and burnout.
In athletes, maintaining healthy cortisol levels is important in preventing various issues. Elevated cortisol levels can be the result of acute muscle breakdown and stress, as frequently seen with intense exercise or heavy training. Elevated cortisol levels can also be associated with increased physical or emotional stress, strenuous activity, infection or injury. It is important for athletes to prevent chronically elevated cortisol levels as cortisol may also have a catabolic effect on tissue (muscle breakdown) and may be associated with a decrease in key anabolic (muscle growth) hormones. Although the size of the increased cortisol response to intense exercise lessens with habitual training, overtraining may lead to high levels of cortisol which may then be detrimental to sport performance.
There are various ways to balance your cortisol levels naturally, for example by getting enough sleep and consuming a nutrient-dense diet. In conclusion, our cortisol levels impact many aspects of our mental and physical health. In order to make sure that your cortisol levels are balanced and steady, make sure to test your levels and to evaluate how you can make the right changes to rebalance your body and mind.