I know, it’s a stupid title for an article, but in this case, I’m challenging you to know your enemy. This is simple advice we’d all do well to follow, but in bodybuilding it’s easier said than done. The hormone cortisol is a prime example. Ask any bodybuilder—even the top guys in the world, I’d wager—and they’ll swear up and down that cortisol is a terrifying “death hormone” they want nothing to do with. Why? Because cortisol breaks stuff down, and the last thing any bodybuilder wants is for some destructive hormone to be running wild through his body, leaving a massively catabolic environment in its wake. As with everything, however, there’s much more to the story.
It turns out cortisol may not be as evil as conventional wisdom’s been trying to tell us all these years—and after talking to John “Mountain Dog” Meadows at length about this, I think it’s time someone explained why. John, who’s a brilliant guy and an absolute beast of a bodybuilder, thinks people should stop bitching about long (two hour) training sessions and the associated cortisol response. He’s right, and I’ll explain why. Cortisol, ironically enough, might just be a good thing.
Cortisol is one of a class of hormones called glucocorticoids (GCs), and it’s important to note that nearly all GCs share the properties I’m discussing here. GCs are essential hormones in your body because when they’re released at the proper time and in the proper amounts, they regulate immune function, may help to repair tendons and ligaments, and may even accelerate the fat burning process.
Positive aspects notwithstanding, there are reasons everyone’s been petrified of cortisol for so long. First off, it’s able to waste away muscle tissue quite effectively. Even relatively short bursts of GCs can cause this to happen. When GCs are elevated for long periods of time—or at inappropriate times—things get even worse. Over these long periods, GCs can suppress your immune system, prevent your body from burning fat, and increase hunger.
As if these negatives aren’t enough, GCs will then continue their long-term assault by targeting other hormones. They adversely affect the fat mobilizing ability of leptin, as well as potentially wiping out the hunger control benefits of ghrelin—and they’ll even decrease your testosterone levels. When examined in this light, there’s essentially nothing good that can come from long-term elevated cortisol levels. This is why the bodybuilding community has viewed cortisol in such a negative light for so long.
The trouble with our perception of cortisol is that aside from anointing it as this horrific “death hormone,” most people know little to nothing about what it actually does, so they fear it. Most diet books offer no useful information other than using changes in cortisol levels as evidence that what they’re telling you is helpful—assuming, of course, that higher levels can only be a bad thing. These books won’t tell you what any of it actually means.
Under normal conditions, cortisol rises rhythmically throughout the night, and peaks first thing in the morning. Your cortisol levels are also elevated during your training sessions. Again, because of what you’ve been told, you’re likely thinking these situations are nothing but negatives. You’d better hurry up and eat breakfast to stave off the catabolic environment cortisol’s putting you in, right? Wrong.
When you first wake up in the morning, your body is primed to start burning fat before you eat, and cortisol is a key part of this process. At this point, your body is operating in the absence of both carbs and insulin—and when there’s no insulin around, cortisol doesn’t go after your muscle. See, the term catabolic doesn’t cover strictly muscle. It simply refers to the tearing down of more complex tissue in the body for a different use. When acting without insulin, cortisol triggers the breakdown of triglycerides into free-fatty acids (FFAs) for metabolization—a process known as lipolysis. In other words, without insulin, cortisol is an incredibly effective fat burner. To take advantage of this, simply lay off the carbs at breakfast. Better yet, as I’ve written here previously, just skip breakfast altogether.
So what about elevated cortisol levels during your training sessions? Well, this isn’t exactly the bane of our existence, either. New research in the European Journal of Applied Physiology has shown that the higher the cortisol response you elicit from training, the greater the anabolic effect of your session will be. Additional research in the Journal of Applied Physiology and Chronobiology International showed that it’s okay to have high cortisol flux during training because it lowers cortisol levels during inopportune times—i.e., in the presence of insulin—for up to 24 hours.
Of course, it’s not all good news. Returning to the case of long-term elevation, your GC levels become elevated in response to both mental and physical stress—and chronic stress will keep your GC levels high for long periods of time. By chronic stress I’m referring to both emotional stress and excessive physical activity. This is especially important to note when you’re dieting, because dieting can be both mentally and physically stressful, causing GC levels to elevate throughout the course of changing your nutritional regimen. When you’re trying to lose body fat, your stress levels can make things rough for this reason. Avoid this situation by avoiding extremes—my Carb Back-Loading™ plan is tailor-made for stress-free, simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain.
The bottom line? First, by timing your workouts correctly—training in the evening causes a lower cortisol response than normal, while leaving other anabolic hormones, like testosterone, the same or elevated—and avoiding breakfast until your cortisol levels return to normal, you can use Carb Back-Loading™ to essentially pick and choose which cells (muscle or fat) get bigger and smaller.
Finally, all that stuff you’ve heard about limiting your workouts to an hour or less to mitigate your elevated cholesterol levels? Well, the research says extending your sessions—and your elevated cortisol response—will actually boost the anabolic effects of your workouts. With this in mind, maybe it’s high time you reconsider who your enemies really are.
By Josh Fletcher
Bau and colleagues (2011) investigated the effects of 60g of ethanol ingestion on HRV in young men. HRV was measured before and during the following 17 hours after ingestion. Compared to the control group, the ethanol group saw a decrease in all time domain indices of HRV that persisted for 10 hours.
Koskinen et al (1994) tested the effects of ethanol consumption (1g/kg) on HRV in healthy young males (n=12). HRV was measured prior to ethanol ingestion and once each hour for 3 hours after ingestion. A significant decrease in RMSSD and HF was observed compared to control.
In healthy volunteers Weise et al. (1986) observed an immediate reduction in HRV after alcohol consumption (0.7 g/kg) with no change in HR or blood pressure.
Spaak et al. (2009) investigated the dose-related effects that red wine, ethanol and water have on HRV in a mixed group of healthy folks (n=12). Essentially, one drink of either red wine or ethanol had no effect. However, after the second drink HR increased and HRV decreased (Total HRV by 28-33%, HF by 32-45%, LF increased 28-34%).
The last study I’ll discuss is perhaps the most relevant. Sagawa et al. (2011) monitored HRV and sleep quality (polysomnography) after alcohol consumption in university aged healthy males (n=10). There was a control group, a low dose (LD) group (0.5g/kg) and a high dose (HD) group (1g/kg). As you can imagine, there was a dose related effect of alcohol on HRV and sleep. The HD group saw the lowest HRV value, highest RHR and poorest sleep quality. The LD group also saw reduced HRV, increased RHR and reduced sleep quality compared to control.
Below is a screen shot of mine from over the Christmas holidays. There is a marked drop in HRV on New Year’s day following a late night of NYE celebration that included several drinks.
The data set below is a re-creation in excel from an athlete/colleague who doesn’t know how to take a screen shot with his phone (c’mon man!). The three lowest dips on the trend all occur in March after nights out drinking on the 10th, 16th and 23rd. The dip from the 12th is reported to be caused by other stressors.
For those who didn’t already know, alcohol has a negative effect on HRV and sleep quality in healthy individuals. Clearly this can impact recovery and performance and therefore should be avoided, or limited to time periods away from competition and/or rigorous training schedules.
Maybe it’s all of the talk being generated by the book Salt, Fat, Sugar: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. I know I enjoyed writing about it in the articleThe Extraordinary Manipulation of Human Beings. Or maybe it’s just a coincidence that the Institute of Food Technologists(IFT) have just released several videos in defense of processed foods.
According to their web site, the mission of the IFT is:
… advance the science of food. Our long-range vision is to ensure a safe and abundant food supply contributing to healthier people everywhere.
Founded in 1939, IFT is non-profit organization with approximately 18,000 members. It’s sponsors include Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Monsanto, Procter & Gamble,Archer Daniels Midland Company, Land O’Lakes, CanolaInfo.org, and other huge players in the food industry.
The need for such an organization is easily explained, and I’m sure its members include good people and solid scientists. However, when you follow the money trail, it would be impossible to conclude that they are free of bias. After all, the major food corporations are this organization’s lifeblood.
Here is some of their latest propaganda.
So, according to Dr. Decker, fortification is one of the ways that processed foods make our lives better. And then there’s the processing of cereal grains, so we can make something that is inedible into something that is edible. And, of course, there’s all of the time savings. With processed foods, he tells us, we can have dinner on the table in 15 to 30 minutes.
Dr. Decker says:
“From the consumer side, I really think we need to help them understand how the food processing industry has made their lives better.”
This makes me wonder if Dr. Drecker has ever looked inside a modern, mainstream grocery store. Ever?
Based on the products that are in every aisle, on every shelf, and in every grocery cart…I’m just pretty sure consumers don’t need any help accepting processed, boxed, packaged, cellophane wrapped, dyed, flavored, “foods” as a part of their diets. Unfortunately, consumers already do think that gnawing on Cool Ranch Doritos tacos has made their lives better.
And really, why worry? Apparently, we can’t decide to eat non-processed foods, even if we wanted to:
According to the video featuring Dr. Floros, everything is processed. Therefore, we can’t say that processing is bad. In fact, when you decide what you want to eat for your health processing shouldn’t even be a factor. How can processed food be bad and how can we choose not to eat it, if everything is processed?
Clever. As real-food movements pick up steam, the food industry is countering with this message that processed foods can’t be avoided, so don’t even try.
He spends some time driving this message home, and then, like Dr. Decker, he reminds us that processed foods are more convenient.
Ah, but all this talk of convenience and women and grandmothers deserves a real spotlight — a video all its own.
So processed food is THE reason why we are able to do so much. There is no denying that food abundance and the ability to store foods frees up time and makes our lives easier, but that doesn’t mean that the way we are going about it today is ideal. Yes, it beats the hell out of famine, but our system has become more corporation-centric than human-centric.
Let’s remember that the aim of the large food corporations (that sponsor the work of IFT) is to reduce their costs and to create products that consumers will crave. The more consumers eat and drink, the better it is for these corporations’ bottom lines.
Contrast the IFT videos above (assuming they haven’t removed them yet) to this piece recently produced by Canada’s CBC. In it, one woman says:
“I ate to the point that it hurt to move, and I would just lie in my bed and wish I was dead.”
How empowering and convenient. Check it out, this is worth watching:
from Phoenix Helix
1. Put all the veggies and herbs in a crock pot. (If you don’t have a crockpot, preheat your oven to 250 degrees and use a lidded casserole dish or dutch oven instead.)
2 Pour ¼ cup broth on top of the vegetables. (This small amount is intentional; the meat will release its own juices.)
3. Season all sides of the roast liberally with salt & pepper, and place on top of the vegetables.
4. Cover and cook on low 6-8 hours, until meat can be shredded with a fork.
5. When done, lift meat out of crockpot onto a plate and make the gravy: Pour the liquid from the crockpot into a large glass measuring cup (or a bowl). Add half of the cooked vegetables and puree with an immersion blender. To increase the thickness of the gravy or strengthen its flavor, add more of the vegetables. Taste as you go. (If you don’t have an immersion blender, you can use a regular blender instead.)
6. The meat cooks down quite a bit, making approximately 4 servings per 2 lb. roast & 8 servings per 4 lb. I love serving this pot roast over garlic mashed cauliflower, with gravy on top.
7. Leftovers: You can put the meat and gravy in one container, tossing to blend before refrigeration. This keeps it moist and flavorful, and makes reheating a breeze.