How Cortisol Affects Performance
The relationship between cortisol and performance is more interdependent than you might think. They rely on one another for balance, and signal when there is an imbalance, showing adverse signs within your body. When your adrenal functions are working regularly, you can perform at your peak; however, when your adrenal functions are not optimal, then your performance lacks. Many systems that are controlled by the adrenal glands cause this reaction in your body, and they all work together. So, a simple hormonal imbalance can disrupt the entire balance of all of the systems, weakening your performance even more.
What do the adrenal glands do?
The adrenal glands help to regulate stress; when called upon, the inner gland secretes epinephrine and norepinephrine; and, the outer gland secretes cortisol, DHEA, testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, and aldosterone. These hormones and biological chemicals allow your body to respond to stress.
The heightened state that your body is in when undergoing this response is suitable for a short amount of time; yet, if the stress becomes chronic, then your body can be negatively affected. The hormone that can cause significant damage to your body due to chronic adrenal output is cortisol. Cortisol mediates inflammation, metabolizes foods, modulates immune function, helps regulate blood sugar and cellular energy production, and much more. Stressors like overtraining, infections and under eating causes your body to respond, increasing cortisol levels. If stress continues, your adrenals will tire, and your DHEA levels will eventually drop as well. Low levels of DHEA will also cause problems with the communications between your brain and adrenals, and your pregnenolone will focus on creating enough steroids for cortisol.
Cortisol and Performance
As your cortisol levels stay consistently high, your body becomes more and more impaired. You become increasingly fatigued due to the onset of adrenal exhaustion, making you unable to recover from exercise and have low-performance gains; you also become more susceptible to injury and inflammation due to your body’s state of weakness. Also, hormonal imbalances caused by chronic stress can negatively affect reproductive hormones. Likewise, the drastic change in cortisol, DHEA, testosterone, estrogen, and melatonin from heightened adrenals affect your sleep, your drive, your energy, and your training and performance.
What Happens as Cortisol Increases?
First, you have an uneven or low amount of energy throughout the day. The elevated and decreased fluctuations of your daily drive are signs of cortisol dysregulation. Then, you tend to have sudden cravings for sugar and carbohydrates since cortisol influences your metabolism and insulin, causing you to gain weight over time.
Next, your sleep becomes disrupted, and you tend to feel restless; this is prompted since high levels of cortisol decrease your melatonin. Consequently, your muscle gains slow even when you are strength training. Muscles are unable to grow during sustained stress periods because they do not have enough DHEA and testosterone to build upon. You become catabolic, which is a term not athlete wants to hear!
Moreover, excessive cortisol levels lead to higher chances of injury, along with inflammation and an inability to recover. Lastly, stress can inhibit your digestion, causing a higher chance for infections, nausea, and irritability.
How to Manage Stressed Adrenals
If the relationship between your adrenals and performance is negatively affecting your body, then chronic stress could be the problem. Whether your body is responding to stressors from overtraining, under-eating, or loss of sleep, you can reduce your stress and hormonal levels in several ways.
One way to help balance your hormones would be to stabilize your blood sugar; you should eat small frequent meals each day to maintain the right amount of sugar in your body. Also, you should consume protein with each meal and limit your intake of foods that are on a high glycemic index. Another way to help balance your adrenal functions and heighten performance is by getting enough sleep. Adequate rest allows your body to regenerate and recharge essential biological systems. Athletes need seven to eight hours of sleep per night to be optimal.
Additionally, to help balance the relationship between your adrenals and performance, vigorous exercise should be paired with recovery time to allow the body time to recover; overtraining will negatively affect your adrenals and performance.
Lastly, vitamin B and vitamin C should be taken to help promote the balance of your hormones and help to heal the adrenals. Other nutrients and supplements that would help you balance your adrenal functions are alpha-lipoic acid and essential fatty acids. Alpha-lipoic acid helps to regulate your blood sugar and repair insulin receptors, while essential fatty acids reduce inflammation and increase insulin sensitivity.
What test can be used to look at the adrenals?
DUTCH testing is another beneficial tool when looking for clues on how to reduce high or low cortisol levels and regulating your hormones. The test shows a complete hormone panel that looks at the different metabolic pathways the hormones are taking and gives you information to take corrective action. The DUTCH lab is simple and requires you to urinate on a test strip four times throughout the day (and sometimes a fifth one overnight) and allow it to dry. Upon review, a qualified practitioner can help you to develop a protocol that takes corrective action.
The relationship between adrenals and performance is interdependent within the body. Adrenal glands and their corresponding biological chemicals are essential in regulating your body’s systems. Likewise, stress is good in small quantities since it helps your performance, but chronic stress can be fatal to performance. Knowing the signs of chronic stress and where your cortisol is at, can help you prevent major health issues presently or in the future. Being able to relate your loss of sleep or low blood sugar to an imbalance in your adrenal functions could potentially save you from exhaustion or severe illness.
If you want to get your hands on the right lab tests and resources to understand what your adrenals are doing, to test and not guess, simply schedule a Discovery Session today!
Rich Jacobs is a Board Certified Integrative and Functional Nutrition Practitioner who specializes in resolving gut, insomnia, low libido, fatigue and fat issues. He uses a holistic approach and functional lab work to identify root causes such as hormone imbalances or gut pathogens that could be impacting your health.