By Andrew Abbate, Driven Sports
The C.I.A. Exposed (Cortisol, Insulin, and Adipose aka Fat)
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the canon of brotology officially adopted cortisol as its public enemy number one, but I would trace it back to those daytime TV advertisements for Lipozene; you know, stress made you fat so kick back with a box of Cheez-Its and a free trial of fiber pills.
Truth is, insulin tips its dirty hand in a myriad of pathologies (e.g. type-II diabetes and cardiovascular disease), and cortisol and insulin are sort of like the Bonnie and Clyde of fat gain.
Let me pump the brakes for a minute here: generalizations in physiology catch on easily, especially when there’s no incentive to not believe them, so let’s add incentive: with proper knowledge and guided execution, natural athletes can use diet, training, and supplementation to maximally improve body composition and strength by gently manipulating these hormones. All it takes is a little discipline to get through a boring ass article.
Skeletons in the Closet
It’s not that I’m jealous, but the adrenal glands get so much more attention than they deserve from athletes and health enthusiasts, partially because they are the body’s steroid hormone precursor “factory”, converting cholesterol into a common parent compound for estrogens, androgens, and corticosteroids.
Does that steroid skeleton look familiar?
How about now?
Of the two diagrams above the former is cholesterol and the latter testosterone.
The cholesterol we use to make this stuff comes from low-density lipoproteins (read: otherwise known as LDL cholesterol), so intuitively, if any of you has seen blood-work from someone who has been using androgens, LDL cholesterol is high chiefly because is it is not being used to make sex hormones. I digress.
The Devil in the Details
Physiologically, corticosteroids (this includes cortisol of course) serve to spare glucose and increase blood pressure, which makes perfect sense if you relate it to a stress-mediated response. Without a stressor like emotional turmoil or intense exercise, cortisol secretion varies very little throughout the day. It’s what we call a circadian hormone, meaning it follows a strict daily schedule of increases and decreases. Cortisol is in the class of glucocorticoids, meaning it’s the one that spares glucose, and if you’re still wondering why it has so many haters, here are more reasons to wonder:
1. Cortisol is necessary for survival.
2. Without cortisol, the body cannot use the fat burning hormone epinephrine to burn fat.
3. Cortisol increases fat breakdown on its own as well.
If you stop reading right here, I have successfully propagated the loathsome generalization problem described in the intro; that is, the story certainly does not end here. Remember the little info nugget about cortisol varying only slightly in the absence of stress? Well, let’s revisit that in proper context: strength athletes are especially vulnerable to some of cortisol’s detriments due to an overall intense lifestyle, and a single daily stressor can increase its secretion 10-fold. (Becker et al., 659).
This is really the how and why behind Driven Sports’ stimulant-free fat burning product, Lean Xtreme. The dose timing is matched to cortisol’s regular circadian secretion to compensate for external stress-mediated spikes (and of course it comes with some other super-effective fat burning phenoms like forskolin). Cortisol control products in general keep goals in closer reach from a fat burning perspective and a muscle building perspective because, as you’ve probably heard from Joey Juicehead in the locker-room, cortisol is also catabolically active in skeletal muscle as part of its glucose-sparing physiology. (Juicehead et al., pp. 212-13) –just kidding.
Now, the cortisol response to exercise is no less natural than its normal circadian rhythm, but it’s entirely unavoidable and if it’s not stopping the biggest, leanest BAMFs on stage from getting there, it’s not going to stop you either. Controlling it may certainly give you an advantage, but there is no logical reason to quit before you’re out of gas because cortisol will eat your muscles. Ceteris paribus, it won’t, and there’s no existing human research to suggest otherwise.
Bonnie and Clyde
In physiology, there are really only three important ways to describe the way hormones interact with each other: additively, synergistically, and permissively. The scope of this article calls for a brief discussion of that last one, which describes how cortisol and insulin act in fat production. In short, cortisol has a permissive effect on insulin in adipogenesis, or fat production (Becker, 1701), which means that diet and lifestyle can make or break a natural athlete if he or she is really nearing a competition or another once long-term goal.
I won’t begin to preach to you about diet, because it’s really not my expertise, but look for research and work from reliable gurus like Alan Aragon and Layne Norton and try to work with ways to increase insulin sensitivity. Intermittent fasting, like the Leangains method, is actually a really cool method for the lionhearted cutthroat freaky lean psychos with the big appetites.
As a final note, keep in mind that I’m not saying cortisol and insulin manipulation is the be-all-end-all for a natural athlete to reach his or her apex, but it’s the edge, the reason we’re all here and learning. In my somewhat biased and overtly passionate opinion, objectivity in physiology is important if you want to really edge out your competition, so read, be humble, ask questions, and train your ass off without worrying about the cortisol spike.
Becker K, Bilezikian J, Wellington H et al. Principles and Practice of Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: J.B. Lipponcott Company, 1999.
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