Cortisol is often talked about in bodybuilding and strength circles. Ask a bodybuilder why he was holding water or why he couldn’t get rid of the last bit of stubborn fat, or a power lifter why they feel over trained and tank at their meet, and they’ll often blame stress. Excuses like “my cortisol was too high”, “stress made me hold water”, “cortisol made me fat”, are abundant at the conclusion of many strength and physique competitions. “Cortisol = bad” is often the general feeling by strength and physique athletes alike. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone, and we all know catabolism is bad. Or is it?

Cortisol is a lot like “Cousin Eddie” from Christmas Vacation. He means well and is good in small, isolated doses. It’s when he’s free to run amuck that bad things happen. First he’ll appear innocently enough while parking his RV on your lawn. Letting him stick around too long is where the trouble begins. Next thing you know the shitter’s full, the Christmas tree is on fire and you don’t get your Christmas bonus. Much like Cousin Eddie is essential to the Christmas experience, cortisol is essential to human existence. Without it, a whole host of vital bodily functions would be compromised or shut down. Learning to manage stress is one way to keep the negative effects of cortisol at bay and help ensure optimal health and performance.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is part of the fight or flight response (along with adrenaline) and is a glucocorticoid hormone secreted by the adrenal glands during times of stress, both physical and mental/emotional. It is generally the highest in the morning upon waking, and levels naturally fluctuate during the day in response to stressors. While there is individual variance in cortisol levels from person to person, people tend to have consistent patterns of cortisol secretion from day to day8.

While cortisol suppresses the immune system, aids in the metabolism of macronutrients, decreases bone formation, and protects against too much inflammation, its effects are largely gluconeogenic, facilitating the breakdown of amino acids into glucose to provide substrate to the liver for gluconeogenesis18, 21. This increased flow of glucose out of tissues and into the bloodstream diverts energy away from less important functions and increases energy to adequately handle immediate stressful situations.

Cortisol played a major role in our evolution as a species as its release was usually the result of starvation or being attacked by a predator. Acute cortisol secretions provided the body with an immediate source of extra energy it needed to carry out the necessary tasks in order to survive. Once the brain no longer perceived a situation as threatening, cortisol levels returned to normal. For present-day strength and physique athletes, cortisol release is stimulated by intense, high volume training and low calorie intake or excessive calorie expenditure. Common daily stressors such as work, traffic, arguments, lack of sleep, and injury are also major bodily stressors at play14, 27.

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 Effects of Cortisol 

Acute bursts of cortisol release are normal and can have some positive effects for the strength athlete, such as quick bursts of energy, heightened cognitive function, decreased pain sensitivity, and increased lipolysis. This works out well for the competitive powerlifter or weightlifter when stepping up to the platform or hearing the start whistle on a brutal strongman medley. The catabolic properties of cortisol are required by the body, and cycles of catabolic and anabolic periods are essential for numerous bodily functions, such as the restoration of joint tissues.

When cortisol remains chronically elevated or is acutely elevated during key anabolic and catabolic periods such as during training, cortisol quickly exposes the strength athlete to deleterious effects. I’ll touch upon a few negative effects of cortisol and how to manage cortisol levels with nutritive intervention.

Muscle Protein Synthesis

We know that cortisol has a negative effect on muscle protein synthesis (MPS) as outlined in Scott Stevenson’s article Peri Workout Recovery Supplementation (Part 1), so I won’t beat a dead horse (as much as he deserves to be beaten, that sneaky bastard). In a nutshell, consume a sufficient quantity of complete proteins and essential amino acids around training and augment their effect with the inclusion of carbohydrates.


Both testosterone and cortisol tend to be higher in the morning and decrease throughout the day. They are inversely related around training as testosterone levels begin to decline around 45 minutes into a workout while cortisol levels tend to increase and remain elevated. At first glance this would appear to be a negative consequence of cortisol production during this time, but not so fast.

Increased levels of anabolic hormones such as testosterone aren’t necessarily caused by training itself, and positive changes in these hormone levels don’t necessarily lead to increased workout effects. Basically, you can get results from your training without an increase in testosterone around training, and an increase in testosterone doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have a positive training effect. They appear to be more correlative as opposed to causal (they might both happen, just not necessarily because of each other). These short-term hormonal changes are primarily good indicators of stress adaptation as well as volume and intensity of exercise and less an indicator that cortisol is directly hurting your results by affecting your testosterone levels during training. Regardless, the other beneficial effects of blunting cortisol around training are well known and touched on above, and any miniscule benefits from acute testosterone increases during training as a result of managing cortisol are merely a bonus.

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Belly Fat

Cortisol doesn’t contain calories and doesn’t force you to eat more than you should. That being said, chronically elevated cortisol levels are associated with both increased weight gain as well as fat distribution to the trunk region. Visceral fat storage seems to be the culprit, as cortisol mobilizes triglycerides from stored adipose tissue and relocates them to visceral fat cells, deep in the abdomen. Cortisol has also been shown to aid the development of adipocytes (or baby fat cells) into mature fat cells. “Belly fat” produces its own cortisol, and also contains more cortisol receptors than subcutaneous (under the skin) fat. That’s right; belly fat makes its own cortisol, which causes more fat to be stored in that region. Think of it as an evolutionary protective mechanism against injury and starvation. It sure does suck though when it’s the last stubborn area to go for a physique athlete deep in contest prep10.

Cortisol may also be involved with weight gain due to its role in increasing blood glucose and suppressing insulin. Chronically elevated blood glucose levels and suppressed insulin levels send hunger signals to the brain, possibly leading to overeating. Cortisol has also been shown to directly increase appetite by binding to receptors in the brain and modulating other hormones known to stimulate appetite and the desire for high-calorie foods11.

Water Retention

Many physique competitors often complain about unwanted water retention the day of their show, with cortisol being at the head of the blame train. Cortisol acts like antidiuretic hormone (ADH), handling 50% of intestinal diuresis, causing the re-uptake of water instead of increasing its excretion. Coupled with cortisol’s ability to inhibit sodium loss, it becomes very apparent that increased stress on show day can make a physique competitor prone to water retention9, 20.

Immune System

Short-term suppression of the immune system during acute cortisol increases is normal and allows for the reallocation of energy towards more immediate life endangering challenges, as well as a brief inflammatory response which is essential to the rebuilding of damaged tissue, such as during strength training. But chronic cortisol secretion can lead to unrestricted inflammation and in turn a myriad number of health consequences, such as increased susceptibility to illness and infections, increased risk of cancer, food allergy development, and possibly an increased risk of various autoimmune diseases15, 25.

GI Tract

Chronically high cortisol levels can lead to digestion and absorption issues as well as inflammation of the mucosal lining of the intestines, more commonly known as ulcers. This inflammation leads to an increased production of cortisol and as a result a vicious cycle of stress/ and digestive issues occurs. A compromised GI tract isn’t optimal for the strength athlete for obvious issues, such as nutrition absorption and assimilation as well as waste elimination. Insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, dementia, depression, thyroid disorders, and other conditions may also occur15, 25.

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Managing Cortisol

Peaking for a bodybuilding contest and high intensity mesocycles before a powerlifting meet are both prime times to make sure excess cortisol production is kept in check. Sufficient sleep, meditation, massage, music therapy and other stress management techniques may prove useful. Besides the effect of diet on managing cortisol, specifically the provision of proteins/amino acids and carbohydrates around training, there are a few supplemental strategies that may be useful in certain circumstances.

Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a component of the cell membrane which plays a role in cell signalling. PS supplementation has been shown to provide the following benefits12, 13, 16, 17, 23:

  • Reduced plasma cortisol levels before and during exercise
  • Prevention of mental deterioration that often accompanies extensive exercise
  • Increased exercise capacity, plasma lactate concentration and time to exhaustion
  • Improved sense of well-being
  • Decreased perceived muscle soreness and markers of muscle damage
  • Increased plasma testosterone concentrations and testosterone to cortisol ratio


  • 400-800mg/day
  • Timing should coincide with periods of highest cortisol elevation, such as first thing in the morning and before training. An additional dose before bed may help with more restful sleep.
  • PS supplementation is somewhat controversial in its effectiveness, but anecdotally I can vouch for decreased hunger, water retention, increased hardness/fat loss in stubborn areas, and elevated mood both in myself during contest prep as well as in competitors I have worked with.

Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) and Melatonin are sleep aids that may affect cortisol levels by promoting restful and continuous sleep1, 6.

  • GABA: 2,000-5,000mg up to two hours before bed
  • Melatonin: 0.3mg to 5mg 30-60 minutes before bed

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Vitamin C supplementation has shown to decrease cortisol levels in endurance athletes19.

  • 3,000mg/day in divided doses

Magnesium supplementation (specifically from ZMATM) has been shown to decrease serum cortisol levels following aerobic exercise26.

  • ZMATM is a patented formula consisting of 30mg Zinc (As Zinc Mono-L-Methionine Sulfate And Zinc Aspartate), 450mg Magnesium (As Magnesium Aspartate) and 10mg Vitamin B6 (As Pyridoxine Hydrochloride) for males (per 3 capsules, 2 capsules for females), taken on an empty stomach 30-60 minutes before bedtime.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids have been shown to decrease cortisol levels in a dose-dependent manner through the management of inflammation. Omega-6 fatty acids have shown the opposite to occur3, 7.

  • Sufficient EPA/DHA (from fish oil or other sources) offers a host of health benefits besides cortisol control. I recommend a MINIMUM of 1,500mg combined EPA/DHA per day.

DHEA and its metabolites, such as androstenetriol, have been shown to possess very potent anti-glucocorticoid (i.e., cortisol) activity2, 24.

  • Common daily doses for both DHEA and its metabolites is 25-100mg/day
  • DHEA and its metabolites may be banned by drug tested athletic competition, and as such it is prudent that the athlete refer to their governing body’s handbook for an official banned substance list.

Adaptogens are a class of compounds that are purported to increase the body’s resistance to stress. Adaptogenic herbs such as Ashwagandha, Rhodiola Rosea, and Magnolia Bark are all popular choices for the reduction of cortisol4, 5, 22.

  • Either taken separately or as an adaptogen complex, 250-1,000mg is the typical dosage range for most adaptogenic herbs.


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