Stress Cortisol overtraining Part 2

NOTE: Please read Part I to get maximum benefit and understanding from Part II)

In Part I, we talked about a master stress hormone secreted from the adrenal gland called cortisol. Cortisol can create mayhem in your body, virtually negating all your “best intended” training efforts and robbing you of performance in the gym and out.  While cortisol, in properly controlled amounts, is essential to optimal health, it can become your worst enemy when it stays too high for too long. Stress from lifestyle, emotions, fear, anxiety and intense physical training, jet lag and pre-fight adrenaline all raise cortisol levels which can decrease strength, endurance and overall performance, not to mention impair your immune system – not exactly what we had in mind.

Let’s look at a number of factors that you can use to your advantage to both minimize/ monitor stress, and on the other hand, help your body’s physiology deal with the inevitably higher cortisol levels associated with intense training.  The goal: To better walk that razor’s edge between maximum workout intensity (and all the variables that impact that in terms of modalities, duration, frequency, periodization etc.) without crossing over into the realm of “overtraining” which is counter-productive.

While we don’t want to beat a dead horse, assuming you read Part I, the symptoms of overtraining / high cortisol levels are important and merit repeating:

  • Higher resting heart rate
  • Depression, irritability and anxiety
  • Decreased energy and enthusiasm
  • Decrease in positive mental attitude – feeling overwhelmed
  • Decrease in both anaerobic and aerobic performance
  • Increase muscle tissue breakdown
  • Increase in fat storage
  • Decrease in insulin sensitivity
  • Slower recovery time
  • Decreased connective tissue strength (increasing the risk of injuries and tears)
  • Decrease testosterone levels (decrease libido, intracellular protein)
  • Decrease thyroid hormone levels

So How Do You Know If You’re In Trouble?

Athletes must be have cortisol levels monitored regularly as workouts are not the only variable to raising cortisol levels. A bad break up in a relationship, or marital issues for example, could now cause this week’s training to be too stressful as compared to last week’s training (without the emotional stress).   Early morning resting pulse is a crude but valuable test, whereby upon waking, before getting out of bed (even to go to the bathroom) the resting pulse is taken. Athletes who are in high stress / overtrained mode can show an increase of 10 beats per minute above their normal resting pulse. Additionally and ideally, salivary cortisol testing (considered by many to be the Gold Standard) can be done intermittently to establish baselines and monitor any significant changes.

Even if you don’t / can’t test, assume that given our society, our lifestyle, constant overstimulation from electronics (text, email and social media messaging), relationships, financial stresses and intense training, assume that your cortisol levels may a bit on the high side from time to time. Also realize that the strategies offered for your consideration will lower your cortisol below normal, healthy levels.

Battling Cortisol

At the risk of stating the obvious, the best ways to reduce cortisol levels are to decrease or remove the stressors. As mentioned earlier, not all stressors are bad, and not all stressors are emotional in origin. Infections, illness, skipping meals and high sugar / high refined carbohydrate intake (which is linked to higher cortisol levels) also stress your body’s systems.  Keep your workouts, especially intense workouts, no longer than 45-60 minutes as many studies have shown a sharp rise in cortisol levels beyond that time. Note too that without stress reduction / control, eventually all the below support measures will likely not be as successful as we would like.

Relaxation techniques such as massage, stretching, meditation, self-hypnosis and deep breathing techniques (all of which do help  reduce stress and are recommended!) can be effective to varying degrees. In addition, below are nutritional practices that may offer some help.

Nutritional Guidelines

Remember, the goal of any nutritional program should be to meet the momentary nutritional demands of your body! Having said that, maintaining stable levels of proteins (amino acids) and glucose, while minimizing peaks and spikes, is key. Having these nutrients immediately available helps protect against the catabolic processes that cortisol creates. This translates to small frequent meals throughout the day and complex carbohydrates and high quality proteins immediately after training. Simple sugars can raise cortisol levels.  Low glycemic index foods (meanings foods that do not raise insulin levels rapidly, such as complex carbohydrates, have also been shown to help reduce cortisol levels. In fact, diets that contain lower carbohydrates and higher proteins seem best to resist cortisol responses.

Micronutrient Supplementation  

Given the issues of food transport, processing, storage and cooking, typical foods are a poor source of vitamins, minerals and trace elements.  Supplements are an effective option even with less than perfect absorption.  This is especially true given the fact that the nutrient concentrations necessary for optimal performance and health are far greater than are available in foods.  Below are some key nutrients that have been shown to be important and effectual in controlling cortisol levels from both the stress of training as well as the stress of life.

Vitamins C and B-Complex

In the seminal work “Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome,”  authored by Dr. James Wilson, he points out that all the B vitamins work together for the production of adrenal hormones. In particular, pantothenic acid, B-6 and niacin are key nutrients in adrenal gland function. While they support adrenal hormone production, they also protect against the effects of too much cortisol. B-complex must, according to Dr. Wilson, must be in proper proportion to each other. He suggests that a formula with 50 to 100 mg of B-6, 75 to 125 mg of B-3 and 200 to 400 mcg of B-12.

Stress not only increases cortisol levels, but produces free radicals. Free radicals are combated by anti-oxidants like vitamin C which protects cells. Humans are rare mammals in that we do not produce vitamin C internally, so it is an essential dietary nutrient. Vitamin C is “water soluble” which means that it is flushed out of the body on a daily basis and therefore needs to be taken throughout the day. It is wiser to increase vitamin C during times of increased stress (mental or physical) and it is critical to connective tissue (tendons and ligaments) healing. Top level athletes are known to consume 1000 mg of vitamin C three times per day.

Calcium, Magnesium, Zinc and Trace Minerals

The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol both cause magnesium depletion. A magnesium deficiency can cause anxiety, leading to more stress and more depletion in a vicious cycle. Interestingly, the Paleolithic or Caveman Diet which was basically meats and vegetables, had a calcium to magnesium ratio of about 1:1, compared to a 5 to 15:1 ratio in our modern diets. Calcium is emphasized, but magnesium is critical to increasing serotonin which promotes proper sleep and relaxation.

Zinc is another key mineral and has been shown in studies to reduce cortisol levels.  Trace elements such as selenium, chromium and iodine are key to nervous system function, insulin activity and thyroid function – all of which are negatively affected by high cortisol levels.

Amino Acids

L-glutamine is one of the favorites of bodybuilders. Glutamine is key to supporting immune system function (the immune system which becomes weakened from prolonged high cortisol levels) and is one of the most anti-catabolic amino acids in the it helps protect muscle tissue from breakdown during intense training. In this sense, glutamine helps to combat the negative effects of cortisol.

The branched chain amino acids leucine, iso-leucine and valine (BCAAs) are also favorites of bodybuilders but should be considered by all those undergoing any type of physical training. In a 2010 issue of the “Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,” researchers found that BCAAs supplementation used by those undergoing resistance training, resulted in cortisol levels to be lowered as compared to the control group.


Prolonged stress, either physical or mental, which causes chronically high cortisol levels can damage not only the body, but the brain as well. Phosphatidylserine not only can protect brain cells from cortisol induced damage, but can reduce cortisol levels directly. In a study published in the 2004 journal of “Stress,” it was shown that 400 mg of phosphatidylserine experienced reductions in cortisol levels compared to the other groups.

Hormonal Support

Cortisol impacts a wide variety of hormones, and as such, these hormones (testosterone, thyroid, insulin etc.) should be monitored during training camps. Even in a young healthy male, extreme stress can dramatically lower testosterone levels, thyroid function and insulin sensitivity. Nutritionally and or medically supporting these systems can be helpful.


Acetyl-L Carnitine (ALC) has been studied in Alzheimers patients in the hopes of improving cognitive function. One study showed that long term use of Acetyl L Carnitine lowered cortisol in these patients. Research on rats and mice has shown that ALC increases luteinizing hormone which may, in turn, elevate testosterone. How these results carry over to healthy athletes remains to be seen, but some strength and conditioning coaches and their athletes, believe that ALC supplementation can lower cortisol and increase testosterone. More research is needed.

Sleep and Rest

We can’t close out any article on stress and cortisol without a final mention on sleep. Sleep is the single best, and most important way to manage stress and cortisol levels, rejuvenate the body, enhance hormone levels and support anabolic (growth and tissue repair) processes. The goal is a minimum of eight hours uninterrupted sleep per night, or more if you can get it. Naps too are great and numerous studies document their stress reducing  benefits. If you can’t get a nap, at least carve out some quiet time (with your phone off!) to let your mind slip into neutral and feel your stress levels fall!

About the Author: Dr. Tom Deters

Dr. Tom Deters is the former Editor in chief and publisher of Muscle & Fitness magazine and publisher of both FLEX and Men’s Fitness magazines. He has published hundreds of articles and given hundreds of seminars on training, performance nutrition, diet strategy and bodyfat control.

Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.