Control Cortisol, Treat Your Taste Buds
Around your workout, you need a special type of carb to carefully control cortisol levels. Here’s what you need to know.
You always hear that cortisol is the enemy of muscle growth. The often-ignored fact? You also need it to function properly. You need it to train hard. You need it to LIVE. When your body needs to handle stressful events, including hard training, it kicks into gear by doing the following, courtesy of cortisol:
- Increasing energy mobilization from stored glycogen, fatty acids, and amino acids so you don’t run out of fuel.
- Increasing blood sugar. You don’t want low blood sugar when you’re in a fight or running away from a zombie.
- Increasing adrenaline levels for better reaction times and more focus, drive, strength, and speed.
It’s true, you don’t want too much cortisol. It leads to these problems:
- You experience diminished training-induced muscle growth and an increased risk of muscle loss. Chronic cortisol elevation will lead to higher myostatin expression (which inhibits muscle cell growth), more protein breakdown, lowered amino acid transport to the muscles, and, eventually, lowered testosterone (in males) or estrogen (in females).
- Losing fat gets harder, and gaining fat gets easier. Cortisol is a fat-loss hormone when produced in the right amount (it mobilizes fat for fuel). But if it gets chronically elevated, it’ll reduce the conversion of the T4 thyroid hormone into T3 thyroid hormone. This slows your metabolic rate, and you expend fewer calories.
- It makes you feel like crap. When you feel run down or unmotivated and lazy, it’s very often due to your body not responding to adrenaline. This is called “beta-adrenergic downregulation.” Your body can’t amp itself up or even wake itself up.
- You get big mood swings. Cortisol increases the production of a neurotransmitter called glutamate. It also increases the sensitivity of your body to that neurotransmitter. The problem is, glutamate is an emotion amplifier. The more glutamate you have, the stronger your emotional responses will be. The highs become very high and the lows get very low.
As you can see, you certainly want to control cortisol. In our hormonal Goldilocks and the Three Bears scenario, we don’t want cortisol too low and we don’t want it too high; we want it just right.
There are a lot of “cortisol lowering” supplements available. Most of them either suck or are overpriced. The very best substance to help control cortisol isn’t overpriced, but it’s not very sexy. In fact, you’re intimately familiar with it: carbohydrates!
Carbs decrease cortisol production by elevating blood sugar levels and energy availability. Remember, one of the main functions of cortisol is to mobilize stored energy to face a fight or run away. But if you recently ate some carbs, there’s plenty of energy (sugar) coursing through your veins, and it’s more easily available than what’s stored in your reserves. As such, there’s less need for mobilization and less need for cortisol.
Take a look at the sleeplessness experienced by competitive bodybuilders when they’re preparing for a show, especially during those last 4-5 weeks. That’s when calories and carbs are particularly low.
The body constantly needs cortisol to mobilize energy, and because calories and carbs are so low in these individuals, cortisol stays elevated the whole day and even into the evening. Cortisol then increases adrenaline, which stays high, making it impossible to sleep properly.
That is also why people on a keto or intermittent fasting diet have a lot of energy during the day: Not eating carbs during the day leads to a lower blood sugar level. Lower blood sugar levels increase cortisol levels so that blood sugar levels can be brought back up. Meanwhile, the increased cortisol is amping up adrenaline. BOOM! Energy!
But it’s energy that comes at a cost. Over the long run, you over-stimulate the beta-adrenergic receptors and eventually become desensitized to cortisol, leading to the problems listed earlier.
So yes, consuming carbs is a very simple way to control cortisol levels… but there are drawbacks.
The main problem with using carbohydrates for cortisol control? It’s very easy to overdo it. After all, how many of us really measure our food? To make matters worse, most high-carb sources tend to be calorically dense, making it easy to consume a lot more than you should. Over time, this overconsumption of calories and constant insulin release can desensitize your insulin receptors and make it much harder to get lean and muscular.
Another issue regarding a workout or athletic-event performance is that you want rapidly and easily absorbed carbs without causing too much insulin release. That’s a hard combination to find because, normally, if you consume conventional “fast absorbed carbs” like straight sugar, candy, white bread, etc., they enter the bloodstream rapidly but also cause a stupendously high release of insulin.
The problem with having a high insulin response during training is that it can lead to “reactive hypoglycemia,” which is when the body becomes paradoxically hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) in response to consuming sugar.
A huge bolus of the wrong types of carbs will cause a huge release of insulin, but that large amount of insulin will quickly dispose of all that sugar (by sending it to muscles, the liver, or fat storage), leaving you with low blood sugar.
This makes it pretty much impossible to perform well physically and mentally. You’re weaker, and you can even get woozy and lose focus and coordination. Furthermore, reactive hypoglycemia leads to exactly what we’re trying to avoid: excess cortisol.
When the body senses a hypoglycemic situation, it releases both cortisol and glucagon to mobilize stored glucose to bring blood sugar back up to normal. If you get reactive hypoglycemia during training, you’ll end up producing more cortisol than you would normally have produced without the carbs!
On the other hand, if you consume “slower absorption carbs” or consume the carbs with harder-to-digest foods (slowing down digestion also slows down the rise in blood sugar and leads to less insulin), you’ll likely avoid reactive hypoglycemia.
But even that comes with a problem – digestion will rob you of training energy. When you’re digesting food, blood flow is diverted from the muscles to the digestive system. Your workout will suck.
All of this is why I prefer concentrated workout nutrition.
Fini is a protein/energy bar designed to maximize workout and athletic performance. It contains fast-absorbing carbs and the optimal amount of protein for workouts.
Why is it the perfect bar for controlling cortisol and fueling our workouts? For the following reasons:
Fini isn’t too calorically dense. Each bar contains 300 calories, the perfect amount to fuel a workout.
Fini contains isomaltulose, a fast-absorbing carb that paradoxically has a low GI. It actually prompts the body into using body fat for energy to a much larger degree than other carbs. Equally importantly, it won’t lead to reactive hypoglycemia.
Fini is easy to digest, even soothing to the gut. It won’t cause an excess of blood to be diverted to your digestive system and hamper your workout. You can easily have a Fini before your workout or during athletic events to improve performance in longer-duration bouts.
Fini contains 16 grams of whey protein, which is perfect. While many hardcore types believe more protein is better, it’s unlikely that any more than 20 grams will further increase protein synthesis (Morton, 2015).
This bar is extremely useful in four specific situations:
- Fini can sustain energy longer for lengthy workouts or athletic events.
- Fini is particularly useful for sports where you have to hydrate a lot. If you drink a lot of a nutrient-infused solution, the ratio of fluids to nutrients can be too high and affect absorption negatively. Taking in at least some of your nutrients in the form of solid (but easily absorbed) nutrients is more effective than consuming nothing but fluids.
- Fini is portable. Carrying a Fini with you and using it post-workout is a great cortisol and muscle-building strategy.
- Fini works great for bodybuilders who might be carb-loading for a competition. You don’t want to consume your carbs in fluid form when peaking because you want to minimize subcutaneous water. The downside of consuming a lot of traditional carbs (rice, potatoes, yams) is that it’s hard on the digestive system. This contributes to the big-belly look onstage. Using Fini in the latter part of your carb-loading will give you a fuller look without the bloated belly.
Carbs are your best ally in controlling cortisol levels during a workout and optimizing performance and recovery, but using the wrong approach can backfire. In fact, the vast majority of people that falsely claim that workout carbs don’t work are either keto zealots or use the wrong type of carbs/meals pre-workout, thus leading to reactive hypoglycemia or digestive interference.
That will not happen with Fini. It’s a simple strategy that tames cortisol.