Do you think your cortisol levels might be high?
It’s common for athletes to experience some sort of adrenal dysregulation as a result of the intense stress we put on our body throughout exercise.
It’s first important to understand how your adrenals work to release cortisol, and the important role it plays. When our body receives a stress signal, our adrenals release cortisol into the bloodstream to help heighten our awareness and put us into “fight or flight” mode.
Under normal circumstances, the hypothalamus and pituitary are able to sense when there are adequate levels of cortisol in the bloodstream to regulate cortisol accordingly as needed based on stressors. However, when stressors are chronic or do not cease, cortisol levels do not come down and this negative feedback loop is unable to be achieved, meaning that cortisol remains at high levels in the bloodstream for prolonged periods.
When cortisol levels are high, you might experience:
Imagine this: You’re a CrossFit athlete, hitting a WOD 5-6 times per week, possibly with extra work before or after the main WOD in the form of accessory work, additional weightlifting, or gymnastics skill work. You’re active on the weekends, and hold a busy job that requires you to be up early or stay up a bit later to get your workout in.
You feel better after you eat, but about an hour later, your energy levels crash and you’re tired again, so you reach for coffee throughout the day. If you’re a trainer, you might even be drinking coffee from 5am through the evening and you can get to sleep right away since the caffeine doesn’t seem to have the same effect it used to.
Oftentimes, athletes are forced to slow down when their body is unable to take the stress any longer and unable to mitigate cortisol levels are chronically low (or high) levels. You start getting injured and have trouble healing. You have hip pain as the adrenals are related to the twisting of the hips and leg length. You feel generally worn down.
What Do You Do To Feel Better?
If you think your cortisol levels may be too high, here are some nutritional and lifestyle changes that promote adrenal health from the inside out:
Prioritize sleep and resting. Aim to get between 8-10 hours of sleep a night.
Stay hydrated, and don’t forget about electrolytes. The adrenals sit directly on top of the kidneys, and hydration plays a key role in their function. Without enough electrolytes, water is unable to be utilized and passes directly through our system, so adding an electrolyte supplement, salt, or lemon to your water can help retain water at adequate levels.
Find a balance between your macronutrient consumption, getting plenty of protein daily, without too many carbohydrates with fat. Eating too many carbs increases blood sugar levels, and insulin levels as a result, and can lead to insulin resistance and hormone dysregulation.
Incorporate a wide variety of nutrient dense foods into your diet to promote healing and gut health.
Consider reducing or removing caffeine as it may be affecting your body’s natural ability to regulate cortisol levels and maintain a natural circadian rhythm.
Practice moderate exercise methods to reap the benefits of exercise while avoiding adding stress to your body while you heal. This might mean reducing cardiovascular movements and focusing on resistance training, but work with a trusted fitness professional to determine the best plan for you.
Consult a healthcare practitioner about taking adaptogenic herbs and supplements to find out if they may be helpful for you. They’re growing increasingly popular, but they can help or hurt you if you’re not sure you’re getting the right thing.