Exercise Can Reduce Stress, So Why Does It Spike Cortisol?

Turmeric, ashwagandha and phosphatidylserine are some supplements you may be stocking in your medicine cabinet to defend against the widely demonized hormone cortisol. But is cortisol the villain it's painted to be?

While cortisol and exercise are related, don't go cutting your fitness routine! (Image: Jamie Grill/Tetra images/GettyImages)

After all, even exercise, a healthy practice, leads to the release of cortisol. Before you hop onto Amazon and order a cart of stress-management supplements, consider the science behind cortisol, exercise and how you can reduce "bad" cortisol without a blow to the wallet.

What Exactly Is Cortisol?

While cortisol has become demonized, it's responsible for protecting your overall health and well-being. Made in the adrenal glands, cortisol is released to control the body's blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, act as an anti-inflammatory, among other functions, according to the Society for Endocrinology.

Your levels of cortisol vary throughout the day but usually spike in the morning when you wake up, gradually falling throughout the day — this is known as a diurnal rhythm, according to the Society for Endocrinology. Good sleep is crucial in regulating cortisol, as your diurnal rhythm reaches its lowest point around midnight, while you're sleeping (more on this below), according to a November 2015 review published in Sleep Science.

Although cortisol is a naturally occurring hormone that you need to stay healthy, too much cortisol can have a negative affect on the body. Typically referenced as the "stress hormone," cortisol is often released when your body feels overly stressed or endangered, according to the Society for Endocrinology.

Consistently high levels of cortisol in the body can lead to health problems including anxiety, depression, digestive issues, sleep problems and weight gain, according to the Mayo Clinic. Chronic cortisol exposure may even be associated with obesity over time, according to a February 2017 study published in Obesity.

Cortisol and Exercise

Our brains and bodies are highly developed but still respond to stress just as they did in the cavemen days. In other words, your body can't tell whether you're running from a predator or participating in a HIIT class — it simply understands stress. So, exercise can actually cause a release in cortisol, according to the University of New Mexico.

Your body triggers cortisol in proportion to the intensity of the workout, which can indirectly lead to weight gain, according to the University of New Mexico. However, the process is a little complex. In prolonged cardio, cortisol is released to preserve your body's carbo stores for energy. Instead, your body uses fatty acids and amino acids for fuel, making it difficult for glucose to enter your muscles, which leads to muscle catabolism or breakdown.

Your body's metabolism (the process by which your body burns calories) is largely determined by genetics but also your body's ratios of fat and muscle, according to Harvard Health Publishing. As muscle burns more calories than fat, the higher your muscle mass, the more calories you burn each day. So, long bouts of cardio can indirectly lead to muscle loss and therefore hinder weight loss.

Unfortunately, the science gets even trickier. Workout-induced cortisol release (glucocorticoid cortisol) is not the same as cortisol triggered by chronic stress, according to a January 2017 study published in Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology. Exercise-related cortisol causes a release in dopamine, a chemical that makes you feel good (thus reducing stress), which solely stress-induced cortisol does not.

Exercise also causes your brain to produce endorphins, which are chemicals that act as natural painkillers, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Endorphins improve your overall brain function and — bingo — help reduce stress, too. Bottom line: Don't stop exercising!

Other Ways to Lower Stress Levels Naturally

Lowering your stress levels is one way to lower your cortisol. When it comes to busting stress, (and building muscle and losing weight), adequate sleep is a key player, according to the American Institute of Stress. Introducing calming practices before bed can help improve your rest. Instead of spending time on your phone or tablet before bed, limit your screen time and try journaling or meditation.

You can also lower stress by eating a healthy diet and avoiding unhealthy habits, according to the Mayo Clinic. Fill your meals with nutrient-dense whole foods and plenty of fruit and vegetables. Curb your caffeine intake and lower your sugary food consumption, especially close to bed time.

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