Heroes & Villains

Anyone looking round this site might be under the impression we view natural testosterone as some kind of superhero. Well to be fair … you’re not far wrong.

When you really think about it, it has plenty in common with that impressive lot. There’s T’s capacity for super strength and stamina as well as the ability to improve, or even save, lives.

Plus, like any good spandex clad caped crusader, you could argue that testosterone has a fair few archenemies. Most guys trying to safely maximise T would likely point to cortisol as one such villain. Cortisol is our main stress hormone, which has a nasty habit of getting in the way of testosterone’s good work.

But is it really all bad? Remember healthy bodies are all about balance. With the possible exception of mens’ nipples, everything tends to be there for a reason. Troops, if Star Wars taught us anything, it’s that these good guy, bad guy relationships are rarely as straightforward they first seem.

So what’s cortisol’s deal? What does it do? Do we need it? Is it really in opposition to T and if it is, what can we do about it?

What is cortisol exactly?

Like testosterone, cortisol is a steroid hormone. However, whereas T is anabolic in nature – meaning it promotes the protein synthesis need to build muscle – cortisol is catabolic. Essentially this means it slows down that same protein synthesis, leading to slower growth and over time even a breakdown of what mass we already have.

Other examples of anabolic hormones are insulin and growth hormone, while things like adrenaline and glucagon would be classed as catabolic.

Part of a group known as glucocorticoids hormones, cortisol is released by the adrenal gland during times of emotional, mental or physical pressure.

At this point you may be asking yourself why. Why, if cortisol can negatively affect growth and performance, do we even need it?  When on earth would our bodies ever need to wither down naturally?

Well, whereas a lot of T boosting sites might take a hard line on painting cortisol as the bad guy, here at least, we believe in giving credit where it’s due.

Such as?

Cortisol definitely has its uses. For example, it’s capable of delivering huge energy surges, using glucose drawn from our protein stores, through a process called gluconeogenesis. Ideally this is meant for emergencies though. It’s vital part of what’s best known as the fight or flight response.

So that slowing down of certain bodily processes we mentioned earlier is cortisol cutting back on luxuries to focus more energy on dealing with challenging situations. It’s the human equivalent of booting up in safe mode on a laptop. Strictly no frills.

Other benefits of well-balanced cortisol are help controlling inflammation, regulating blood pressure and blood sugars and contributing to a healthy sleep cycle. The hormone rises in the morning as part of the waking process.

In fact, if we have too little cortisol it can lead to low blood pressure, weakness and fatigue.

Stress test

The issue is that in most cases cortisol can be a little trigger happy. Remember, it has its evolutionary roots in a world of sabretooth tigers and woolly mammoths. Maybe understandably, it’s still a little jumpy.

That can spell trouble because our hormones exist as part of a balance. As anabolic and catabolic forces are at opposite ends of those scales, it’s bad news for T levels if cortisol becomes too dominant. One up, one down basically.

If left unchecked spikes in stress hormone are pretty likely. Sure, for the most part we’ve swapped giant, prehistoric beasts for bills and work deadlines these days, but the world is still a demanding place and cortisol is always ready to step up.

Physical stress stimulates cortisol too of course. Which, you don’t need me to tell you isn’t great if you’re looking to get the most from your workouts. Effort and stress comes with the territory. No guts, no glory. No pain, no gain, all that.

So given the choice between;

  • Testosterone, a hormone offering you the tools to push on, build and improve
  • Cortisol a hormone which, albeit with good intentions, is willing us to quit and go home so it can make a start on getting rid of all this unnecessary muscle mass

I know which one I’d want in my body’s driving seat.

Other things cortisol may shut down, or at least scale back in tense times include things as drastic as your digestive, reproductive and immune systems.

Aside from anything else, having a stress hormone like cortisol consistently high can put a strain on you mentally. Eventually it may negatively affect mood, increasing chances of anxiety or depression.

Oh god, how do I get this stuff out of me?!

Easy there. Easy now. Cortisol just has a habit of interfering in the wrong place at the wrong time, bless it. The best thing to do is take steps to keep your deck stacked safely in favour of testosterone. Below are some simple ways you can make sure your T always has top billing.

Get restful sleep

Our bodies need time to rest, to relax and the best way to do that is with some deep, restorative, unbroken shut eye. A 1997 study reported that sleep deprived subjects had higher cortisol through the entire day.  Those with 4 hours downtime rather than 8 also had more leptin too, an apetite stimulating hormone, making more likely to crave sugar during the day.

Don’t push too hard

We know we said earlier about testing yourself at the gym, but be sensible. If you overtrain and put your body under severe pressure, cortisol will really bring the noise. As shown by a trial from the University of Limburg, overtraining causes T to dip and muscle damage that can take months to recover. The answer is as easy as a few well-placed rest days in your weekly routine.

Eat smart

Shocker, a healthy balanced diet will improve things. But even within that there are top choices for keeping a lid on cortisol. Bananas or pears for example. Dark chocolate. The antioxidants in black or green tea, as well as probiotic rich foods like natural yoghurt. Drink plenty of water too, as dehydration can cause a cortisol surge.

Get an early start

By this we mean lifting more than just our heads off the pillow early bells. Remember, morning is when cortisol is usually highest and there’s an increasing amount of evidence to suggest the best way to change this is with working out first thing. Compound lifts, such as deadlifts, presses and squats are particularly good for boosting T.

Up the intensity

More and more people are coming round to the idea that long, drawn out cardio is not the best for T. What is however (and therefore bad for cortisol) is High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT. As luck would have it you can read about that here.

So where do we stand on cortisol?

Ah cortisol’s not so bad. It’s only looking out for you really. Like an in-built, seriously over protective parent.

But if you’re looking to max out your natural T for a healthier lifestyle, better strength, physique, stamina, libido etc, high cortisol is going to get in your way.

It’s liquid worrier when we need liquid warrior. Best to keep our T in charge and cortisol on the sidelines if we need it.

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