Stress causes a host of problems in the body. Weight gain or weight loss, high blood pressure, kidney problems, digestive issues and trouble sleeping are all symptoms of stress. If you start diving into the problems associated with stress you’ll eventually come across a hormone called cortisol.
While it’s commonly known for its role in stress, cortisol has wide-ranging effects on the body. It’s classified as a steroid (not the kind of steroid that helps you win at the Olympics) and is recognizable by almost every cell in your body.
Some of the roles cortisol plays are:
- Control blood sugar
- Regulate metabolism
- Reduce inflammation
- Help new memories form
As you can see, cortisol does a little bit of everything. In the world of fitness, it carries a negative connotation because it’s considered “catabolic”. Simply put, something that’s catabolic degrades tissues in the body so that they can be used elsewhere. Things that help your body grow are labeled anabolic.
Let’s say you’re running late and need to catch the train. That’s a stressful event. Your adrenaline spikes and cortisol is released into your bloodstream. Cortisol helps switch your body from rest mode to work mode. One way it does so is to begin degrading your muscle tissue.
Cortisol breaks down tiny amounts of muscle tissue to be used for energy by the body. On the surface, it seems like that could hinder your muscle-building progress, but keep in mind that you can build muscle as easily as you can break it down. Cortisol doesn’t break down tissue constantly, only when you need it.
The problem with cortisol and its role in stress is that it should be balanced. A stressful event should be counteracted with time to relax. Being in ‘go’ mode all the time isn’t safe or healthy. Cortisol isn’t meant to be flooding your bloodstream at all times.
Signs of high cortisol are:
- High blood pressure
- High blood sugar
- Weight gain, particularly around the face
- Irregular menstrual cycle
Those symptoms are attributable to other problems, so don’t rush to blame cortisol. Your doctor can use a blood test to see if your cortisol levels are too high. The takeaway message is that cortisol does a lot of good and only a little bad.