Fat & Cortisol - How to Break the Cycle of Gaining

Cortisol and Fat

Nutrition is an Essential Weight Loss Tool

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I've been asked a lot recently about Cortisol and fat. Back in the days when I began training clients and preparing people for bodybuilding and fitness competitions, we didn't differentiate between one kind of fat and another. We just called it bodyfat and knew we had to get it off before stepping on the stage. As my business and knowledge grew, I became aware that plenty of people who train hard can't seem to lose certain types of fat in specific areas of the body.

I used to think this meant the client just wasn't telling me about binge sessions or eating outside the plan we had constructed for him or her to prepare for competition. I thought, 'Man, this guy (or gal) must be getting up in the middle of the night and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or whole packages of cookies because if he/she were following the diet, the fat would melt off!'

But there were too many dedicated athletes who I knew weren't cheating. Why weren't they able to get that last bit of fat off their abs? Why were they the ones watering up on stage as a comparison round progressed?

When the link between stress and belly fat was clearly outlined in the media, I was skeptical at first. I thought, 'Okay, this guy is fat because he eats too much, plain and simple!' The link made a lot of sense to me in those cases where I knew someone didn't have a problem following a diet. I knew Cortisol is not the friend of the man wanting to pack on size. It's one of the reasons people searching for ways to suppress this response turned to Nubain in the mid-'90s. We all later found out that Nubain was not the answer. The problem had nothing to do with reducing Cortisol, and everything to do with a vicious opiate addiction akin to heroin.

When definitive proof emerged about the negative and disastrous effects of Cortisol on the body in relation to fat retention and muscle-wasting, I did a lot more research to gain a clear understanding of it for my clients. Today, as a result, I work differently with clients on diet, and I factor in the effects of Cortisol.

Should a serious bodybuilder or fitness athlete be concerned about the effects of Cortisol on belly fat and catabolism? Absolutely. Although we in fitness and bodybuilding are in far better shape than most people who don't work out or watch their diets, we are still as susceptible to fat gain from a flood of Cortisol as the guy on the street holding the hoagie sandwich. So how does stress wreak this much havoc?

Stress can cause overeating and characteristic binge eating to occur because most people aren't aware of the triggers that make them reach for food. That's just on the surface. In addition, stress causes the release of this hormone called Cortisol. Now, before I sound like an infomercial for Relacore or one of the many other supposed cortisol-controlling, over-the-counter products, let me just say the problem isn't that simple. Sure, some of the properties of these new OTC wonder drugs can create a sense of well-being and relieve some of the responses to stress. However, the challenge is more about creating a lifestyle change and knowing what to do so that your body doesn't automatically go in "fight or flight" mode.


Fight or flight is a term people use to describe the response that occurs in the body when stress of any kind is present. It is very significant in the overall scheme of bodily function. Essentially, the brain will protect the body from harm by secreting chemicals to offset feelings of dread, worry and fear that occur during stressful situations. The process begins in the hypothalamus and sets in motion a sequence of events from nerve-cell activity to the release of the chemicals to prepare the body for what's to come - fight or flight.

Do we really live in a world of fight or flight? Sometimes. In most cases, probably not. Yet that's how our bodies have responded to stress since the beginning of time. Whereas cavemen actually did live in a fight-or-flight world, having to dodge dangerous creatures and other cavemen, we usually do not. However, when we have to swerve to avoid a collision on the highway, have to confront someone angrily getting in our face, must stand in line for hours at the DMV and then be treated shabbily, or remember we need to pay a bill by 5:00 p.m. and the clock reads 4:56, our bodies release these chemicals in a fight-or-flight response. Unfortunately they do not discriminate between serious circumstances and those that are merely unsettling.


The body's response to stress has been characterized as GAS - General Adaptation Syndrome. GAS is a three-stage process. The first is fight-or-flight response with release of Cortisol and other chemicals. The second is a resistance, or the ability of the body to learn to deal with this new stressor. The result is increased - usually excess -production of Cortisol. This excess of Cortisol in the body is associated with some negative metabolic issues (disorders) such as insulin resistance, increased blood pressure, obesity (mostly in the belly/trunk area), suppressed immune function, and slow healing of wounds. In the third stage we see total adrenal exhaustion, which leads to extreme fatigue, immune system burnout, sometimes auto-immune response, and the possibility of other systemic symptoms, including those associated with severe depression and Alzheimer's disease.


Stress relief is the best way known to reduce this chemical chain reaction and response. Knowing how to avoid the causes of the initial phase of GAS (the fight-or-flight response) is one of the best ways to prevent flooding your body with excess Cortisol and, by association, reduce the proliferation of belly fat - whether you take a yoga class three times a week, practice meditation, or simply repattern your behavior to combat the response at the time it occurs. Try to remain calm when you're delayed in traffic. Relax with classical music. Refuse to react when someone screams in your face. To be realistic, however, sometimes you do need a greater weapon.

A lot has been written on supplementing to combat Cortisol production and secretion. Several over-the-counter products are on the market, including Relacore that I mentioned earlier. Most of them are designed to just mildly relax you and prevent anxiety from occurring. Are they strong enough? Many say they help, and that belly fat melts away on these products. I Typically people ? who experience I positive results are also on a program of diet and exercise. Exercise is essential for both stress reduction and changes to body composition. However, there are other supplements you can take to greatly reduce this Cortisol response.

PS (Phosphatidylserine)

One such medication is PS, which is also effective in reducing short-term memory loss and age-related dementia. It excels at neutralizing the effects of excess Cortisol. The effects of this important supplement can be even greater in athletes who regularly use resistance training. This fact is important for us because it means we can also reduce the negative effects of Cortisol on muscle catabolism (breakdown) during stressful periods such as precontest training.


Unfortunately Cortisol secretion and production increase with age. Even more unfortunate is the fact that production of the adrenal hormone DHEA drops with age. Supplementing with DHEA can help combat the effects of Cortisol by alleviating the symptoms. It can also increase glucose tolerance and convert excess bodyfat into lean muscle mass. None of this positive effect can occur without diet and exercise. Additionally DHEA helps combat depression, fatigue, and the joint inflammation that results from heavy training.


Most people in the bodybuilding community consider herbs ineffective. The truth is, the ones that act as "adaptogens" (counteracting the effects and stages of GAS) can also have a dramatic effect on reducing Cortisol levels that cause belly fat and break down muscle. Adaptogenic herbs, such as Siberian ginseng, Manchurian thorn tree extract, hawthorn extract, echinopanax elatum and schisandra can be powerful weapons against Cortisol excess. Tribulus terrestris and adjuga turkistancia are effective in reducing fatigue, promoting muscle retention, and increasing anabolism in the body. This knowledge is crucial for bodybuilders training for competition while trying to combat the tiring effects of diet and longer training sessions.


Adrenal exhaustion is the toughest part of the fallout from Cortisol excess. DHEA can somewhat help in this effort, but getting adrenal function back is a long process. Burnout means extreme fatigue, insulin resistance and many other problems that make getting and staying lean very difficult. For a bodybuilder burnout is a huge obstacle. Extreme changes in diet and stimulation of insulin response too often are responsible. Supplementary insulin injections among bodybuilders can contribute to - and even force - this condition. Steroid use and particularly overuse of thyroid hormones can cause it too. Many bodybuilders or fitness athletes who have tried thyroid drugs for a competitive edge believe they gain weight because their thyroid has stopped working.

Perhaps it's suppressed, but more likely thyroid use has contributed to the burnout of adrenal function. Steroids exacerbate this condition. A combination of all these factors can spell trouble for the competitive bodybuilder or fitness athlete.

If you think you have a problem with Cortisol excess, there are many small changes you can make to help you out of it. Act now, though. If you're suffering from more than just Cortisol excess, and feel you may be an adrenal-burnout candidate, go to an endocrinologist to examine your options. This is a serious condition that requires a combination of strict dietary changes and pharmaceutical or supplementation assistance.

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