By New York Times Bestselling Author and Founder of Clear Medicine Natasha Turner
Generally, cortisol follows a natural healthy pattern of release that looks like this: It’s highest first thing in the morning, which allows you to get up, feel energized and get going with your day. It remains elevated, gradually declining until the evening, which allows you to have the ability to respond and adapt to any perceived stressful event that crosses your path. By the early evening, cortisol levels should naturally be at their lowest point of the day. This is beneficial because cortisol is a stimulating hormone, so a decrease helps to prepare you for sleep. Plus, if you go to bed early enough, your body should not be producing any cortisol between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. That four-hour window, therefore, is true physiological recuperation time. (As a side note, I always told my adrenal compromised or stressed patients to try to be asleep by 10 p.m., since this is the time that matters most to recuperate from stress).
The good thing about short-term stress is that it comes, you deal with it and it goes. But the unrelenting stress that comes with worries about finances, a divorce, a job you despise, chronic illness or generally feeling overwhelmed with your life can cause lasting damage. Persistent or chronic stress involves a different physiological process in your body. Whether the stress is physical, emotional, mental, environmental, real, or imagined, your body releases high amounts of the hormone cortisol. Like adrenalin, cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands (the two glands that sit on top of your kidneys), sparked by a signal from your brain. A variety of stressful conditions, such as feeling cold or hungry, low blood pressure, pain or broken bones, injuries, inflammation, intense exercise, or emotional upsets, cause the brain to activate our stress pathway. Our sleep-wake cycle does, too. Although it is only about the size of an almond, your mighty hypothalamus is the master integrator of your mind and body via the stress response pathway and its control over cortisol production.
If you have a mood disorder such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or exhaustion, or if you have a digestive issue such as irritable bowel syndrome, you can bet that your stress response pathway is in overdrive, cranking up your cortisol. Making the effort to manage both your thinking patterns and your environment is vital to achieving hormonal balance. If you routinely have anxiety-provoking or upsetting thoughts racing through your mind, your stress systems will constantly be working overtime. A certain area of your brain also reacts to stressful or upsetting circumstances in your environment. So, it pays to be mindful of what you allow yourself to be exposed to. Mental and emotional stress may be most injurious because they’re usually not followed by a relaxation response the way most physical stress is.
If the perceived stressful event remains constant in our mind, our body cannot fully achieve a relaxed, healthy, balanced state. When prolonged, this state of imbalance leads to permanent physiological changes. Unlike adrenalin, which draws on your fat stores for energy during stressful situations, cortisol consumes your muscle tissue for fuel. Prolonged stress can, and usually does, lead to muscle wasting and high blood sugar as your body struggles simply to adapt. When these conditions take over, stress becomes extremely destructive to your metabolism, bones, muscles, and brain cells.
Now, let’s add your choice of workouts to this stress picture. Before we go on, let me be clear: exercise isn’t bad. The mental and emotional benefits of working out seem to be consistent across the board, no matter what type of exercise you choose. What is bad is the high-stress culture. And if you’re under a lot of mental or emotional stress, exercising can help because it impacts your cortisol. However, when your cortisol is high already, and you exercise in a way that makes it spike, it can become an issue. This is especially likely if you exercise when feeling exhausted at the end of the day; for very long periods of time; or if you choose very long high-intensity sessions or too-frequent workouts. When you are in an adrenal-stressed or fatigued state, the type of exercise you choose is critical—choosing the wrong activity will only perpetuate the problem.
Here’s a simple summary of the workouts you should not do in this state (and even in a healthy state, for that matter, because of the effect on cortisol and lack of impact on muscle gain):
Although the music is good for you, I used to plead with patients to quit their spinning addiction. The only way I think this cycling can be good is to limit it to 30 minutes and then leave the class. This will allow you to prevent the gradual increase in cortisol that can happen with a longer session. Moderate to high-intensity exercises, like running or spinning, provokes increases in circulating cortisol levels. By contrast, low-intensity exercise does not result in significant increases in cortisol levels; in fact, low-intensity exercise can result in a reduction in circulating cortisol levels, according to The Journal of Endocrinology Investigation (July 2008). If you love this style of workout, please try to use a scale at home that monitors muscle mass (your protein intake will help), and do not do it if you have an adrenal issue.
Circuit Style workout:
A mix of cardio that has your heart rate elevated for 20 mins or so and weights during the hour session – this is the style you want to avoid. You’ll lose fat, but you could eventually also lose muscle because of the spike in cortisol caused by the intense cardio included in the sessions. Completing cardio before strength training, or mixing the two activities in one session, is shown to increase cortisol, according to numerous studies that I have reviewed, including the latest one I’ve seen in the European Journal of Sport Science (April 2017). When you complete strength training on its own, or strength training followed by a short high-intensity cardio activity, cortisol is typically not increased. The amount of lactic acid was also higher in the group that did the endurance training first, which would compromise performance for the strength training component and hinder gains from the workouts. My suggestions for spinning also apply here. These are examples of workouts at popular on trend places like Orange Theory and F45.
A Mixture of Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, gymnastics, and HIIT cardio:
You will lose fat, but most likely also overtrain, risk immune suppression, and eventually, risk getting hurt as shoulder and low back injuries are common in this sport, according to the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation (May 2018) and the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine (April 2014). This kind of group practice is, however, associated with higher levels of a sense of community, satisfaction, and motivation, according to Sports Medicine: Open (February 2018). An example of this style of workout is CrossFit.
Boot camp classes:
You probably won’t gain muscle; you may maintain or even gain fat from the stress of the workout, as it boosts cortisol and drops your thyroid hormone, or lose both muscle and fat due to cortisol. If you love this style of workout then please, try to use a scale at home that monitors muscle mass (your protein intake will help), and do not do it if you have an adrenal issue.
It should be done only in your mind. Cortisol, cortisol, cortisol— cutting your muscle and immunity down! Frequently running for more than 40 minutes is not helpful because of the adverse impact on your muscles and hormones. After an intense exercise session, cortisol levels are higher, thyroid hormones are lower and testosterone plummets. An August 2016 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology compared pre– and post–endurance workout measurements of cortisol, testosterone, and thyroid hormones. Researchers found it could take up to 24 hours for the thyroid to return to baseline, 48 hours for cortisol, and 72 hours for free testosterone. Think of the impact this has on your mood, muscle mass, memory, and metabolism. Stop running long distances; instead, shorten your runs and go faster by sprinting. Running does damage to your muscle mass and, contrary to popular belief, it does not help maintain bone density.
Pilates could be passé. Many of my patients raved about Pilates and their core strength. But I never found one who wasn’t deficient in lean body mass after using bioimpedance analysis to assess their body composition. Don’t just take my 22 years of clinical experience for it; a study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness (November 2017) found similar results. Although Pilates is a popular activity among women, the empirical, quantitative evidence indicating a positive effect of Pilates exercises on body composition is still poor. This group tested the concept by having 37 women (aged between 40 and 50) complete 90 minutes of Pilates three times a week for eight weeks. They measured the women’s body composition with a bioimpedance analysis before and after the study. The results showed that weight, BMI, fat percentage, and waist, abdomen, and hip circumference decreased significantly after training, while no significant difference in lean body mass was observed.
Eight weeks of yoga, strength training, or Nordic pole walking three times a week would offer you a completely different outcome—you would gain lean mass, and the research is there to prove it, right along with my clinical notes. I hope you are starting to see the point I am making. If any of the activities mentioned above describe your workouts, I hope you will reconsider doing the wrong things or at least make time for things that are proven to help. Let me clarify something else before we go on: it is possible to manage, and perhaps even negate, the harmful effects of these workouts—if you have the constant support of a trainer, integrated medical doctor, or naturopathic doctor who can perfect your protein and nutrient intake, monitor your adrenal function, stay on top of your lean body mass and fat mass, and monitor your blood immune markers. Most of us do not have access to expertise like this, so no accommodations are made, and in the long run, the damage is done by these types of workouts. It’s all about cortisol control. Some tweaks are, however, possible. Recall that I mentioned your cortisol decreases as the day goes on, so it would be beneficial for your sleep, stress recuperation, and healing if you chose to do more stimulating exercise in the morning when cortisol is naturally higher.
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