Guest Post By Sam Miller
What comes to mind for you fitness aficionados? – CrossFit? Carbs? Conjugate method? Cortisol? While I’m sure we could continue the alliteration for days the purpose of this article is to provide some comprehensive education around Cortisol. The big C word appearing on everything from infomercials to your local GNC.
From a simple scientific and biological perspective Cortisol is a glucocorticoid (hormone) produced by the adrenal glands in our body. Our cortisol output is dependent on life stress, sleep, training volume, dietary protocols and so much more. When in balance, it can be powerful and provide bursts of energy at the right times. When imbalanced cortisol can contribute to adrenal insufficiency, weight gain, chronic disease and a cascade of other hormonal problems.
Think back to thousands of years ago. Before computers, iphones, desk jobs, and rushing little Johnny to daycare in the carpool line we lived a fairly simple life. Our adrenal glands existed to provide the necessary stimulus for our bodies in times of short lived stress. An example of this in nature would be during the mere 4 hours per day that a lion is awake, a gazelle is on alert to run, flee, or escape at a moments notice. However, the other 20 hours of the day when a lion is sleeping and otherwise relaxing, working on his fashionable mane, the gazelle gets to relax.
Human bodies are not a far cry from this example. Short periods of stress to find food, shelter or to protect ourselves would have been a fraction of the chronic stress we experience in the 21st century from technology, corporate america, dietary insufficiency, and other run of the mill problems. Most practitioners and clinicians who actually acknowledge the existence of adrenal fatigue, break down the effects of cortisol into four phases:
1) the alarm phase
2) continuing the alarm phase
3) the resistance phase and
4) the burnout phase.
Our above examples in nature would simply be classified as the alarm phase – this is natural. The continuation of the alarm phase and resistance phase are where many of us (including myself and my clients) have to manage our stress load. As we progress through these four stages there are both deleterious physical changes as well as internal biochemical deviations from our natural set point. By stage 4 you’ve already been running from a lion 24 hours per day for the last 365 days. Phew, I’m tired just thinking about it.
From a bio-chemicial perspective, during the continuation or resistance phase you will start to see substantial drops in hormones like DHEA and testosterone, as hormone precursor material is diverted towards the cortisol production pathway. The key here is a hormone named pregnenolone, which is the precursor or raw material to both the sex hormones and cortisol. This diversion is named the ‘pregnenolone steal’. After some time the body simply runs out of ways to manufacture stress hormones, and cortisol levels finally begin to drop. Now, the levels of both the sex hormones and the stress hormones are low. Levels of neurotransmitters (GABA, Serotonin, Dopamine, Adrenaline, etc) are often also low.
So what causes us to progress through these four phases? Simply put it is too much stress and not enough recovery. Our nervous system is like a see-saw on a childhood playground, for us to play nicely we need a balanced weight or load of sympathetic and parasympathetic stimuli. Think of this as strenuous or stress inducing activities versus relaxation or recovery activities.
For health and physique minded individuals this becomes all the more challenging- When thinking about transformations we are always asking our bodies what can you do for me? We want to get leaner, stronger, faster or get more work done. These are all sympathetic inputs. Inputs to “fire” our system and up-regulate activity. To balance this we must think and remember: what can we do for our body? When we feed it, restore it, and recover it we can be better prepared to perform the aforementioned activities above. This is our response to “chill” or rest and digest.
While we may wish there was a magical reset for our hormones and neurotransmitters the truth is we must slowly fight to rebalance the scale, to regain our energy, and re-establish our natural equilibrium. Nothing is more frustrating to individuals who have been putting in the work in the gym, cutting calories, and crushing caffeine at work to get that next promotion. However, to leave it unmanaged is to ask for more of the same – less energy, more sleep disturbances, decreased performance and decreased body composition.
Sam has obtained numerous certifications throughout his career (ACE, ISSA, NCCPT & Precision Nutrition) and strives to further develop his intellect in all things pertaining to training, nutrition and athletic science. Sam’s philosophy is rooted in maximizing lean muscle tissue by pairing strategic nutrition with select strength and muscle-building movements in order to improve body composition and metabolic rate in his clients.
In addition to coaching others since 2008, Sam has been active in the industry since 2009, both competing as an athlete and fitness modeling from 2012-2014). Sam participates in the NPC, where he is a five time nationally qualified athlete, and has placed in the top 2 in the North Carolina and South Carolina contests for Men’s physique competitors. During his time as a competitor Sam has trained under some of the most renowned coaches in the industry, absorbing and distilling as much knowledge as he could to best apply their individual practices to a vast array of client circumstances.
Sam graduated with his B.S. from Elon University where he was the student coordinator of personal training & fitness for Elon University Campus Recreation. In 2014, Sam furthered his education by obtaining his Master’s degree from North Carolina State University.