The Cortisol-Exercise Connection (Exercising For Your Hormones)
Exercise is essential to our health; there are so many benefits to daily movement and activity for both the body and the mind.
Regular exercise has been shown to help manage healthy blood sugar and insulin levels as well as blood pressure and triglycerides.
Exercise is also essential for our muscles and bones; after the age of 30, we can lose as much as 3-5% of muscle mass each decade. Age-related muscle loss is called sarcopenia and we did an entire show on it with our friend Dr. Jack Tips.
Exercise is important for our mental health. Clinical studies show that it improves depression as well as reduces feelings of anxiety.
Simply put, exercise is a form of good stress and naturally stimulates the release of the catabolic (breaking down) hormone known as cortisol, which is made by our adrenal glands.
We must have cortisol to survive, it is absolutely necessary.
However, high levels of cortisol can kickstart widespread inflammation in the body and lower immunity, including raising blood pressure and lowering white blood cells, which are our body's defense system.
If cortisol remains elevated in “fight-or-flight” mode, our body can get stuck in this mode which leads to sex hormone imbalances and thyroid suppression while impeding the digestive system from working properly.
Exercise And Cortisol Levels
Exercise has been valued for many years as a way to release emotions and trauma from the body. It is also a great way to stop our bodies from living off of stress hormones as energy.
For some, exercise—specifically cardio, can serve as stress-relief and be a form of healthy exercise. However, for those who have a delicate hormonal system or are already dealing with high stress levels, cardio can be detrimental to their health.
Exercise and cortisol levels can be easily linked: normal levels of cortisol are released in the morning and naturally decline over the course of the day.
Cortisol can also be released during exercise.
Simply put, certain forms of exercise can increase our stress hormones and the effects can manifest in our body depending on our genetic makeup and our nervous system.
When this happens, our hormones can be thrown off and no matter the exercise or duration we still cannot lose weight, build muscle or reduce our blood pressure. This is often due to the cortisol enhancing effects of cardio exercise.
For those struggling with hormonal imbalances including hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s and adrenal dysregulation, exercise can often leave you feeling tired, shaky, and weak—sometimes for hours afterward.
For some, exercise—even mild exercise, can deplete our bodies and deplete our metabolic reserves—which is basically our energy storage system.
When we continue to exercise and fight off the symptoms of extreme fatigue or weakness, our body responds with muscle-wasting, weakened immunity, and exacerbated symptoms of hormonal imbalance due to increased stress hormones.
For those who experience these symptoms with moderate to intense exercise, incorporating much more gentle movement into your routine can get you the results you want by clicking off fight-or-flight and clicking you in to what’s called parasympathetic dominance because that puts you into rest-digest-and-heal mode which is the place from which your body is able to create hormonal balance.
Why Gentle Movement Might Be Better Than Rigorous Exercise
Gentle movement includes restorative exercises such as deep breathing, yin, restorative and gentle yoga or pilates, foam rolling, and light walking. For those who have a bit more energy and sense of calm, light resistance training and yoga flow can be a good choice.
This is all individually dependent on our own biochemistry and current hormonal reserves, meaning we should not all avoid doing intense workouts for long periods of time to achieve results such as weight loss.
The right type of movement should energize you and make you feel refreshed. So tune in to your own body and let that be your guide.
While movement is an essential piece of healing, the key is to find the right type of movement to meet your body where it is in the healing process.
If you push yourself to the point of exhaustion, you are compromising your thyroid and continuing a pattern of adrenal dysfunction and nervous system revving.
When trying to find a balance between movement and healing, there are some tips that can be helpful, which include:
Let The Breath Dictate Movement: Do any movement at an intensity that you can maintain breathing through your nose. If you have to breathe through your mouth, then the exercise is too intense for your current state of glandular health.
Take Your Temperature And Pulse 30 Min After Movement to determine whether or not your workout is supporting you or breaking you down. If your pulse skyrockets, the exercise choice was too intense. If your temperature drops, re-evaluate your pre and post-exercise nutrition because your hormones need more support.
Build A Nutritional Foundation: Make sure you have a solid nutritional foundation that supports your physiology so you are able to meet the needs of the added demand of exercise on your system. While there can be benefits to fasted workouts, it is important to eat something before and after your workout, especially if your hormones are not balanced completely. Exercising on an empty stomach or in a depleted state can lead to the breakdown of protein (called gluconeogenesis) and have a catabolic response (breakdown and inflammation) in the body, negating the effects of that said workout. We typically recommend carbohydrates and protein following an intense workout, such as a piece of fruit or a root vegetable with a hard-boiled egg or half a smoothie.
Exercise Smart: Our favorite recommended movements while healing your nervous system include yoga flow, foam rolling and myofascial release, and walking.
Yoga is an excellent way to stimulate the mind-body connection, help you tune into yourself, use your breath for increased cellular energy and healing, and to train your body to stop overproducing cortisol. It is your best physical tool to recode your hormones, sending the message to the body that it is SAFE and it can RELAX.
Doing yoga three times a week can help train your system to live mostly in your parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest) and to only use the sympathetic (fight- flight-or-freeze) response when true danger is present.
You want to focus on release—starting with the neck and shoulders and then move to “wring out” the spine to stimulate fresh blood flow while also lengthening it so that your cerebrospinal fluid can more easily and completely nourish your nerves.
Gentle yoga is also targeted to support the thyroid and places special emphasis on releasing the hips and psoas muscle, as these are the muscles that get tight when constant stress is present, and they remain tight after the stressor passes, keeping you locked into the fight-flight-or-freeze mode by causing shortness of breath and shallow breathing. The hip flexors and psoas are essentially the “junk drawers” for our emotional storage and they need to be emptied once in a while. We recommend three times a week, but to start 1-2 times a week will make a positive difference.
Foam Rolling And Myofascial Release
Foam rolling is a well-known myofascial release technique, which is the application of pressure to eliminate scar-tissue and soft-tissue adhesion by freeing up your fascia. Fascia is the connective tissue that is woven around each and every muscle, bone, nerve, artery, and vein in our bodies, as well as all of our internal organs, including the heart, lungs, brain, and spinal cord.
Evidence suggests that the fascia can be damaged by both physical and mental impact and both recent studies and scientific research show a direct correlation between the fascia and our health and well-being. Our nerve endings run through our fascia. When the fascia is damaged, a blockage is created, like a dam in a river, and the energy is no longer able to flow freely. A 16th-century physician, Paracelsus said, “There is but one disease and its name is congestion.” Foam Rolling releases and disperses stored up physical and mental congestion, so your body can process and eliminate it, physically but also emotionally as well.
Many feel the results of foam rolling leaves them with a feeling of all-around wellness and even the feeling you might expect to experience when leaving an especially cathartic session with a therapist. You will find there are tender points, these can be different for everyone but be sure to work on these and pause the video. When you find a release, then resume. You could simply start with foam rolling or you can add it into your yoga routine as well. We typically recommend aiming to add in 20 minutes of foam rolling several times a week.
Walking is one of the most underutilized things you can do for your health! We love walking, as it improves circulation, strengthens muscles, and improves sleep by increasing certain neurotransmitters and decreasing stress hormones like cortisol. Walking just 30 minutes a day has been shown to also reduce fasting blood sugar levels in those with diabetes. Walking is a low-stress activity that can be great for those with adrenal dysregulation. When our body is drained and fatigued, a 15-30 minute walk can be a great form of exercise. Walking in nature will give you increased energy and allow you to be grounded and have a sense of well-being. Starting with just a 15-minute walk a few times a week can be a great starting point; you can then increase exercise capacity slowly and see how you feel.
Time Of Day For Exercise
Along with the type of exercise being performed, it is also important to look at the time of day you are exercising. As mentioned previously, cortisol naturally peaks first thing in the morning and then slowly declines throughout the day.
Exercising in the morning or mid-morning will not have the same effect on your cortisol levels as exercising in the late afternoon or evening. If you are having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, I would recommend not exercising at night as this can drive-up your cortisol levels and inhibit the production of a normal sleep-wake cycle.
Finding the right workout for our bodies can be super important to our overall health.
Go Low And Slow When Starting Your Exercise Routine
If you are going from working out every day of the week, start slow with incorporating yoga and pilates into your routine. For some, a few days of yoga and then the rest light walks work best. Those with elevated cortisol need to be especially careful when adding cardio into their routine, as this can further elevate hormones such as testosterone, insulin, and estrogen levels. When this occurs, cycles in women can come to a pause or be very light.
By focusing on supporting the nervous system with appropriate nutrition and exercise that fits our biochemistry, healing can occur.