As we look into more ways to manage and improve athletic performance, the topic of cortisol arises… cortisol is caused by stressful situations but it is important for an athlete or coach to distinguish these situations that can vary from having too much coffee or not paying your bills on time to even spending too much time inside and in front of a screen.


As an athlete aspiring to be at an elite level you need to understand that managing your cortisol levels through stress management, organization, proper sleep routines and even the food you eat will have a direct role in your athletic performance.



What is cortisol?


Cortisol, known as the regulator of the immune response, is a hormone controlled by the adrenal cortex


While cortisol in normal amounts is necessary for proper metabolic function, a chronically elevated cortisol level has adverse effects on health, mood, body composition, and performance. Elevated cortisol secretion from physical or mental stress causes fat, protein, and carbohydrates to be rapidly mobilized in order for the body to take action against the stressor. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response. The mobilization of these nutrients in addition to epinephrine and a number of other endocrine hormones allows the body to take quick action when presented with stress. During this mobilization, cortisol and adrenaline increase while DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone) and testosterone decrease. A chronically elevated cortisol level causes the body to enter a state of constant muscle breakdown and suppressed immune function, increased risk of injury while reducing muscle.


How does cortisol play a role in athletic performance?

Cortisol has a catabolic (muscle breakdown) effect on tissue and is associated with a decrease in anabolic (muscle growth) hormones


reducing levels of cortisol is ideal for an athlete to achieve tissue growth and positive adaptations to exercise training.


Playing many different roles in the body, cortisol can have a negative impact on sleep, mood, sex drive, bone health, ligament health, cardiovascular health, and athletic performance, potentially causing fatigue and inflammation. 


Purpose of cortisol?


its primary functions are to increase protein breakdown, inhibit glucose uptake and increase lipolysis (the breakdown of fats).


Negative parts of cortisol?


Aerobic and anaerobic muscle fibers need time to repair and recover from hard workouts to improve their capacity to exercise. Elevated cortisol and suppressed testosterone do not allow maximized recovery, leading to slower performance gains. A Swiss study of elite male cyclists suggested that ratios of anabolic to catabolic hormones (ie. testosterone/cortisol or IGF-1/cortisol) may be useful markers for the detection of overtraining (Hug et al. 2003). In fact, scientists use this Free Testosterone/Cortisol ratio to evaluate an athlete’s training state. A ratio where cortisol is elevated indicates overtraining, so the modulation of this ratio can be key for those athletes who are susceptible to overtraining.


Hope do you manage cortisol?


A high dose of B vitamins and calcium can help regulate the endocrine hormones necessary for proper cortisol control. Supplementing with 4+ grams of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and 6+ grams glutamine following exhaustive exercise can have a dramatic effect on cortisol. In fact, in a 25-week study of intercollegiate swimmers, the group supplementing with BCAAs and glutamine showed a significant decrease in serum cortisol. A study was done by Stone entitled “Effects of Vitamin C on cortisol and the Testosterone: cortisol ratio” showed a decrease in cortisol levels in 17 junior elite weight lifters. This study also showed that the individuals taking vitamin C (an extra gram a day) improved their testosterone to cortisol ratio by over 20%. This type of decrease in cortisol can lead to increased muscle and connective tissue hypertrophy and enhanced recovery from training. Since vitamin C also decreases the chance of suffering from a cold or flu infection by 30% and may aid in collagen synthesis, it would be wise to take some extra vitamin C when involved in an intense training program. Beta-Carotene, which is oftentimes used for healthy skin function, may also minimize cortisol levels according to Dr. Sapse. He suggested this in an abstract he presented at the 1997 conference on cortisol and anti-cortisols.


What is adrenal fatigue?


Adrenal glands: The adrenal glands (also known as suprarenal glands) are endocrine glands that produce a variety of hormones including adrenaline and the steroids aldosterone and cortisol. They are found above the kidneys. Each gland has an outer cortex that produces steroid hormones and an inner medulla.


Do you feel tired and worn out all the time, even though you're getting plenty of sleep? Do you crave salty foods? Maybe you've been to several doctors and none of them can say what's wrong with you.

If you see a naturopathic (a system of alternative medicine based on the theory that diseases can be successfully treated or prevented without the use of drugs, by techniques such as control of diet, exercise, and massage) or a complementary (non-mainstream) medicine doctor, they might say that you have adrenal fatigue. Yet most traditional doctors say this condition isn’t real.

What Is It?

The term "adrenal fatigue" was coined in 1998 by James Wilson, Ph.D., a naturopath, and expert in alternative medicine. He describes it as a "group of related signs and symptoms (a syndrome) that results when the adrenal glands function below the necessary level." He says it’s usually associated with intense stress and often follows chronic infections like bronchitis, flu, or pneumonia.


What causes adrenal fatigue?


Your body's immune system responds by revving up when you’re under stress. Your adrenal glands, which are small organs above your kidneys, respond to stress by releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are part of your "fight or flight" response. They increase your blood pressure and heart rate.  


How does adrenal fatigue affect athletic performance?


Anabolism vs catabolism


catabolic state — breaking down muscle and storing fat

An anabolic state means that your body is building or repairing tissue





Anabolism involves the hormones:

  • estrogen
  • insulin
  • growth hormone
  • testosterone

Catabolism involves the hormones:

  • adrenaline
  • cortisol
  • cytokines
  • glucagon


Techniques to reduce stress and optimize performance


There are many techniques that can be used to keep a more controlled body, by doing this you can save and have more energy for key moments in training.



These techniques can vary… to.


  1. Getting the right amount of sleep.

   - Make sure you have a consistent sleeping schedule that includes: sleeping 7-8 hours, going to bed and waking up around the same times every day, have a proper “ cool down” routine before you go to bed, avoid devices 45-60 min before bed, limit caffeine 5- 6 hours before your regular bedtime.


2. Meditation o visualization 

  -  there is a direct correlation that meditation and visualization can redo stress, ( cortisol ) and anxiety in everyday life and prior to sports performance.

Meditation on an everyday basis can center your body and energy expenditure to improve overall performance.


3. Include Regular sauna sessions

   -  Saunas have the ability to lower stress levels have cardiovascular improvements, increase hormone production, improve insulin resistance and aid muscle recovery. 

Improving all of these have a direct effect on controlling cortisol on athletes.


4. Limit caffeine intake to the point that it can improve your performance but not affect your sleep.

Something with a dose of between 3 to 6 mg per kg of body weight. 

8-12 oz of coffee can see a positive benefit in training and not elevate cortisol to a point that causes muscle breakdown.


5. Have a consistent diet 

6. Work on having healthy relationships.

7. Have an organized schedule and home.