Cortisol is a hormone that your body produces and this hormone spikes in response to stress. Cortisol is essentially an anti-inflammatory hormone, and one of its effects (in addition to waking you up in the morning) is to reduce inflammation in the body. A little bit of cortisol is useful in dealing with occasional stress, but a lot of cortisol is a problem and affects your body adversely. For example, when you have chronically high levels of cortisol, you become more insulin resistant and your immune system doesn’t work as well. Also, you crave more carbs and fats while simultaneously slowing your metabolism. Although while you are actively exercising, your short-term cortisol levels increase (because that’s what cortisol does—it helps you get moving), regular and consistent exercise lowers your overall cortisol level. Not only does exercise help manage cortisol better, but it also increases the production of other important neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.
Exercise shouldn’t be damaging
It is key to do exercise that isn’t damaging to your body—so we’re not talking about running a marathon. What we’re really after is reducing inflammation and stress. To get these good results, think about working at 70% of your maximum. That way you can maximize the positive effects of cortisol in the body. For example, did you know that cortisol increases glucose concentration in your blood so you can have easy access to energy right away? It also helps repair tissues that are broken down through exercise. So although cortisol levels can be indicative of stress and inflammation, do not oversimplify by concluding cortisol is always bad.
Similarly, don’t avoid movement or stress out of a misguided sense that doing so will help reduce your cortisol levels. Even if you regularly work out for an hour a day, if you spend all your other work hours sitting at a desk, you are still at an elevated risk for inflammation-related problems, such as Type II Diabetes and heart disease, despite your workout! Long periods of just sitting are never good for you.
Be careful with caffeine
Consuming caffeine is one method people use to get themselves moving, but you want to be careful with it. Caffeine raises your cortisol levels higher than normal throughout the day, and caffeine will result in higher than normal cortisol levels during exercise (especially for men). One way to counteract that potential problem is through increasing your omega-3 fatty acid intake. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to lower cortisol levels as well as reduce inflammation. Try to move toward ingesting less coffee, and more fish, flax seed, sea buckthorn or chia seed. Please understand, though, that I’m not saying increasing your omega-3 intake is a good enough counter to your caffeine intake. Your best health bet is to find a lifestyle that results in sufficient energy without caffeine. Embracing the three-legged stool approach can create that energy.
You have a set point for cortisol
Your body has what’s considered to be a “set point” for cortisol functioning, meaning that cortisol is released when a certain level of stimulation (anxiety, anger, etc.) is reached. Having a low threshold for anxiety (you get anxious quite easily) and a low threshold for cortisol release means that your body is releasing cortisol more frequently than if you had a higher set point. Regular aerobic activity can work to help calm you so that your body can handle more stress before cortisol is released. Thus regular exercise can help to change your cortisol set point. Seriously, how cool is that?!