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Exercise and the Impacts of Cortisol

Exercise and the Impacts of Cortisol

There is no denying that a good exercise routine is one of the key cornerstones to your optimal health and wellness. Not only can science back this up with undeniable research, the benefits can be felt in your body in the short and long term.

Some of these benefits include:
· Reduced risk of heart attack
· Lower blood cholesterol levels
· Lower blood pressure
· Improved energy
· Reduce risk of diabetes
· Manage body weight
· Improved sleep
· Improved mental health and mood

In clinic many patients ask me how to determine what the right type of exercise for their body will be when trying to recover from certain health conditions and imbalances. Female hormonal imbalances and fatigue-based conditions where the patient has been under stress for a prolonged period and may have been over using cortisol to manage an increased stress response.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is released into the blood stream by the adrenal glands to aid us in managing our natural energy and sleep cycles. It will peak in the morning to help us to bounce out of bed and gradually start to decline as the sun goes down.

Cortisol also plays a vital role in raising plasma glucose levels when we require more energy, such as in times of stress. As one of our body’s major stress hormones, cortisol is released when we engage the fight/flight response within the nervous system in response to a physical danger, however in our modern way of life this response is also happening when we are under psychological stress. For some people, the fight/flight response is happening on an every day basis.

Is too much cortisol bad?

There are some negative impacts in engaging the fight/flight response resulting in high cortisol. You may notice when you are stressed that you see an increase in abdominal fat, this can happen as tissue breaks down and reduced protein synthesis occurs, and blood glucose rises. You may see a loss in muscle mass and have a decrease in growth hormones and sex hormones. This will have an impact on hormonal balance and libido.

Progesterone is a key female sex hormonal that is needed to support the hormonal cycle in the luteal phase and is also needed in higher amounts to help to maintain early pregnancy. The building blocks for this hormone are like what the body needs to make cortisol. If you are in constant fight/flight the body will prioritize making cortisol over progesterone as a matter of survival (obviously not registering that you are not in fact running away from a physical danger but just about to give a nerve wrecking work presentation!) Hence you will be robbing your body of
progesterone through fight/flight potentially causing imbalance in the female menstrual cycle and impacting fertility.

The gut can also be impacted by too much cortisol. Stress can induce changes in gastric secretions, gut motility, gut lining function (mucosal permeability and barrier function) and mucosal blood flow. The gut is infiltrated by the enteric nervous system that will be influenced by signalling from the brain. That is why we may get a gut reaction in response to stress.

Too much cortisol can increase inflammation in the gut mucosa and over activate absorption channels in the gut lining due to the overactivation of an enzyme called zonulin. Leading to leaky gut syndrome. Short term stress can impact the balance of your gut bacteria by altering levels of your healthy microbiome allowing a potential increase in opportunist microflora.

Exercise and cortisol

Regular exercise can have very positive effects on helping to regulate your stress induced cortisol levels. Researched published by Harvard medical School states that regular daily exercise between 30-60 minutes, depending on intensity is one of the best ways to manage stress levels and aid normal metabolic functions.

Exercise will temporarily increase adrenaline and cortisol but will drop it back down to normal levels afterwards. This can help to train the body to cope with a temporary rise in cortisol in acute stress, allowing normal levels to regulate post stress.
If you have been under prolonged stress with constant high cortisol levels, it may not be the best idea to over train or exert to begin with. A gradual build up to cardio or short periods of high intensity which will temporarily increase cortisol could be a starting point.

It is always best to consult your health practitioner if you are unsure about what will best suit your individual needs.

Emma Tippett is an enthusiastic and caring naturopathic practitioner. As a dedicated Melbourne Naturopath she believes that finding and maintaining your optimal health is the primary focus of your treatment. Working with the principle that we are all unique individuals, Emma will tailor a realistic health plan just for you while encouraging, motivating and inspiring you to experience a healthier body, mind and soul.


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