The stress hormone cortisol has a catabolic effect on your muscle tissue, meaning it breaks it down and further reduces anabolic hormones like IGF-1 and GH that actually help muscle growth from being released in the body. It also has a knock on effect on your sleep, your metabolism and even your immune system.
If you’re trying to improve your athletic performance, it’s essential to keep your cortisol levels as low as you can - we’re going to look at 3 highly effective ways to keep cortisol levels low.
Diet is one of the easiest and most effective ways to keep your cortisol levels low. In a study titled ‘Associations between Sleep, Cortisol Regulation, and Diet: Possible Implications for the Risk of Alzheimer Disease’ researchers studied the links between cortisol and the diet in relation to the risk of Alzheimer Disease.
One of the key findings was that diets high in refined sugar, salt, animal proteins and fats with a low intake of fruits and vegetables resulted in disruptions to our natural cortisol releases, heightening the cortisol response. Whereas the mediterranean diet characterized as being predominantly plant-based foods (i.e., vegetables, fruits, olive oil, legumes, whole-grain cereals, nuts, and seeds) and fish and a low intake of processed foods, dairy products, red meat, and vegetable oils resulted in lower levels of cortisol, inflammation and oxidative stress.
Interestingly, this study also identified a number of specific dietary interventions that can reduce cortisol levels including:
- Flax seeds (specifically Linola 989, the strain with the highest content of lignan)
- Magnesium (500mg p/day)
- Creatine (5g p/day)
Breathing and Meditation
In a study entitled ‘The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults’ researchers took 40 participants and split them into two groups of 20.
The first 20 were given intensive training on diaphragmatic breathing techniques and followed an 8 week program while the other did not. They then tested salivary cortisol levels in both groups and the results were remarkable.
The group that practiced diaphragmatic breathing had significantly lower cortisol levels than the other group. This can be attributed to a number of factors but namely that by slowing down the breathing process it forces the body in a more calm and relaxed state.
There was another very notable result from this study, namely that the group who practiced diaphragmatic breathing saw a significant increase in their ability to concentrate and stay on task vs the group that did not. This demonstrates that the benefits from breathing and meditation goes beyond just a reduction in stress.
Stress can be all consuming and comes from every aspect of our lives. If you’re dealing with a lot of stress, one of the best ways to lower your cortisol levels is actually talking to someone about them. Whether that is family, friends or a professional - talking has been proven time and time again to lower feelings of anxiety and induce a more calm and relaxed state of being.
Humans have a need for connection, so when we talk it releases oxytocin which dampens down our sympathetic nervous system. In a study published in Physiology and Behavior, researchers found that changes in testosterone after a game of football were directly correlated with how connected the players felt socially to their teammates.
Social interaction truly is one of the most important strategies when it comes to reducing our cortisol levels and keeping us performing at our very best.