In it for the long haul? Here’s where you have to triage – and listen to me carefully. Eating well and sleeping enough come first. Just focus on that, and if that’s all you can do, that’s okay. Eat only Good Food, sleep as much as you can, and supplement for cortisol management. Those are your top priorities, and if you can keep those up, you’ll maintain an awful lot of your general “health”.
I received more than a few emails following that statement, asking about cortisol management, and steps you can take to help you manage your cortisol levels. Now, I'm not an expert on adrenal fatigue by any means, but I'm pretty good with Google, so I've pulled some basics together for y'all. I also checked in with Dallas and Mathieu Lalonde to see what their giant science-y brains could add. One word of caution - I've given you some supplement links as reference, but common sense should tell you to do your own research before you start taking anything new, right?
Let's hit the basic background principles first. The adrenal glands produce many of the body's hormones, including epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol. The function is to help us under stress - the release of certain hormones puts us into "fight or flight" mode, to help us deal with crisis situations. Trouble is, when you are under constant stress, the glands are working overtime, pumping out these hormones. The excess cortisol wreaks havoc on your metabolism, and seriously circumvents the processing of fat, protein and carbohydrates and fat loss efforts.
You can help to manage cortisol levels with the following supplements and common sense tips.
BCAA (branch chain amino acids). A general recommendation is to take 5g of mixed BCAAs per dose, 3-4 times a day, especially post work-out, and on an empty stomach.
Dallas adds that L-glutamine has been found to have immune-stimulating properties, and can help with muscle recovery when training hard. Supplement with 10 grams, twice daily on an empty stomach, with one of those servings taken right before bed. Powdered forms are inexpensive and easily mixed into a few ounces of water.
Phosphatidyl serine. Studies have shown that 800mg/day can significantly suppress cortisol, but this can get expensive.
ZMA supplements (zinc-magnesium-aspertate) or any other supplement that has zinc, magnesium and/or calcium, along with vitamin C supplements or Emergen-C Lite. Those should help with immune function and DNA repair during stressful times.
Avoid all NSAIDs (like Advil). Dallas explains that these anti-inflammatories not only negatively affect cortisol, but they decrease protein synthesis rates. This means that your body's acute response to the stress of high-intensity exercise is diminished, which potentially could slow recovery/adaptation. Stick to fish oils for their anti-inflammatory properties.
Perform your workouts but reduce the intensity. Exercise does reduce stress. However, excessively long bouts of training or too many intense workouts deliver too much stress to an already-stressed body, and will increase levels of cortisol.
M@ adds that intense met-cons should be no greater than 30 minutes, and ideally much less than that. Monostructural cardio at high intensity (running, rowing, cycling, swimming) should be less than 45 minutes. Weightlifting workouts should also be less than 45 minutes in total.
Get plenty of sleep, but it does not have to be all in one chunk. Don't freak out if you sleep for a little while, wake up, then go back to sleep (as you've been doing), or get up and take a nap later in the day. Research has shown that it is not the total amount of sleep hours that matters, but the number of sleep cycles achieved while sleeping.
Here’s something from the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies: "Studies show that the length of sleep is not what causes us to be refreshed upon waking. The key factor is the number of complete sleep cycles we enjoy." It turns out that short afternoon naps (75-90 minutes) are very productive sleep-cycle wise. So go ahead and get your sleep in whenever you can - it doesn't have to be a whole 8 to 9 hour block.
With respect to your overall diet, we've more than got that covered, don't we? However, be sure to abstain from caffeine and other stimulants. M@ also adds that you may want to abstain from alcohol and fructose as well.
A small (no more than 2 blocks of whatever macronutrient combination suits your goals) PWO meal will help lower cortisol levels after exercise.
So now you've got a few options for helping you manage your cortisol levels, including some that come from a bottle. One obvious word of caution - this does NOT mean you can supplement your way out of stress and its negative effects on your health and fitness. Employing good life stress-management skills are going to do more for your efforts to manage cortisol than any combination of supplements. A little extra help never hurts, however, so add the above to see you through the stressful times.