Stressed Out by the Hormone: Cortisol

Natalie Snyder, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS Female Athlete Specialist

July 29, 2921


Cortisol is good to some degree because it encourages that flight or fight and encourages the body to be hyper-aware to adjust, adapt, and function at a higher level. But once we have too much cortisol in our body and brain, especially at a chronic level, it can be detrimental to our brain and physical health, affecting primarily at our ability to rest and recover.

Interestingly, women in the mornings have elevated cortisol levels to wake us up, naturally, because it’s our physiology. In men, elevated cortisol also wakes them up, but they also have elevated testosterone in the mornings. With high testosterone, men may appear to be energetic, talkative, focused, competitive, and confident. They can start the day with work, a workout, or activity fasted. They’re in an anabolic state and they thrive. Women are the opposite. With elevated cortisol, they need more time to wake up, have quiet time, have some carb/sugar morning snack to lower the cortisol level, and ease into their day then they’re able to go on and take over the day. Sound familiar?

So what happens when we don’t lower those cortisol levels and it stays elevated all throughout the day? It affects our brain processing center, our female hormone levels, and our ability to rest and recover appropriately from yesterday’s workout. Female athletes may enter into a state of low energy availability (LEA), chronic catabolism state, chronic fatigue from overtraining, and alter their body composition. For most, cortisol increases the fat storage in the belly area, men and women. For some, cortisol and constant exercising may prevent protein synthesis and muscle-building capability.

See the picture below to recognize the difference between a female athlete in the overtraining state with low energy availability (LEA) and an abrupt menstrual cycle for four years. Then compare that to the right, a true female athlete who knows how to balance training with rest and recovery, how to mitigate stress, and how to fuel up with appropriate nutrition for optimal muscle building, strength, performance, and encourage normal female physiology around the menstrual cycle.

We hear many different ways of how to mitigate cortisol levels to keep the female physiology functioning at optimal levels. Yoga, meditation, sleep, rest, adaptogens, and fueling up with increased nutrition all are critical components to get the female athlete out of the Low Energy Availability and Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports (REDS).

Understanding how cortisol affects the body and downregulates the female hormones of estrogen and progesterone is half the battle in recovering from a chronic state of stress, LEA, and REDS. Females have to train differently from men. Females have to separate themselves from comparing their own nutritional intake to their boyfriends or guy-friends. Females have to separate themselves from comparing their own size and training to other female athletes as we all are very different and we run on our own hormonal cycles every month. Those female cycles and hormones rely on different schedules of training, recovery, nutrition, and schedule to lower the cortisol and elevate our performance than men do. It’s hormones. It’s physiology.

[Left:] The Winter-Summer at my lowest weight, missed period for 4 years. Training and overtraining every day. I was not able to see any gains in muscular mass, strength or improvement in my performance. Instead, I saw a consistent decline. [Right:] July 2021 at my ideal body composition. I am balancing training and recovery. I am seeing consistent strength gains, muscular mass growth and improvement in my performance– with healthy menstrual cycles!

Take Adaptogens for Stress and Cortisol – Part 2

Cortisol is Good ONLY up to a certain extent!

  • As we have an increase in cortisol, we also get an increase in adrenaline as our fight-or- flight response. With those adaptogens, we will learn to recognize the stressors and say, “Hey there, okay no big deal,” rather than “OMG! This is too much, I can’t do this!” flooding of very stressful catabolic hormones.

Let’s talk about Adaptogens… What is it? Mushrooms.

  • Specifically: Ashwaganda, Rhodiola Rosea, and Schisandra Chinensis. Those are a class of botanicals that has been used in Chinese medicine and research that are found to increase resistance to physical, chemical, and biological stresses.
  • Targets the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis of hormone production and regulatory centers, mediating the stress response common to ALL cells in the body.
  • Adaptogens increases the body’s state of non-specific resistance in stress and decrease sensitivity to stressors by modulating cortisol and the responses.
  • Works like a drug, from a plant compound, affecting our HPA axis, affecting cortisol and affects our adrenaline, noradrenaline, steroid hormones, sex hormones, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and some effect of DHEA (which is a conversion factor between cortisol and estrogen/progesterone/testosterone). In other words, it either downgrade how much of cortisol is released or blocks the cortisol receptors.

Is it good for Peri & Post-Menopause?

  • Yes. They are very effective in peri- and post-menopause state because they affect the estrogen and cortisol, which are our steroid hormones. As you have a greater increase in amount of these adaptogens circulating, like an anti-depressant, it takes time for it to up-reach to the baseline level, and you will notice this decrease in overall stress and anxiety.
  • A^er 3-4 weeks of consistent intaking of those adaptogens, the hormonal fluctuations will begin to level off, disappear, or much more manageable. As opposed to the crazy and everywhere non-cyclic unpredictable hormonal fluctuations as we enter the stage of change in our womanhood into menopause.

Which adaptogens should I go for?

  1. Favorite adaptogen: Schisandra Chinensis.
  • Helps to flatline the hormones as you start to taper and drop off into menopause. Without estrogen, Schisandra will help to modulate some vasomotor responses by allowing the body to interact with the nitric oxide cycle and the nitric oxide response in the endothelial cells, which is what estrogen used to do.
  • Targets to work at the Mitochondria to induce oxidative response as it helps to increase the body’s response from a vasodilatory and vasoconstriction state, allowing for you to have greater temperature control, better blood pressure control and better blood flow. Thus, the aerobic capacity improves without being an ergogenic aid because you’re still doing the work and training as Schisandra Chinensis helps to enhance the body’s own responses to support the body in that adaptation.
  • Stimulates the Central Nervous System (CNS) to enhance cognition, and it incrases the neurotransmitter for awakeness, degrades serotonin and trypotphan to allow the body increase the extreme focus.

o Very effective for jet lag, brain fog from peri- & post-menopause, low sleep, and the times of your life where you need to be at par in your focus, traveling a lot, or feeling severely stressed.

  • Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera), also known as Indian Ginseng.
  • Supports estrogen and balance out the perturbation as it competes for the same receptor in the brain for estrogen and cortisol. Both estrogen and cortisol are steroid hormones and causes the brain fog, the irritability mood, and the overwhelming thinking processing. Ashwagandha can compete for the same receptor and mitigate the effects.
  • Anti-inflammatory agent as it reduces systemic inflammation to allow body adaptations to training, normal stress, and physiology.
  • Parasympathetic activator, as so much stuff that we do are sympathetic driver and we can’t seem to calm down. Ashwagandha helps to increase the parasympathetic effects to make our body relax and get into a de-stress mode.
  • Maca, known as a superfood.
  • It’s a root that is nutty in flavor. Evidences show Maca supports estrogen and progesterone production and avoids the great troughs and valleys that happens in peri- menopause state.
  • Increases Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) for bone development, which means it preserves bone density and encourages the bone turnover to modulate bone loss that occurs with aging.

4.  Rhodiola Rosea

  • Anti-fatigue and improve cognition function and lessens the effect of brain fog.
  • Increase the relaxed state; learn to adapt and respond to little things & stressors with less surge of cortisol, stress, and anxiety response.
  • Targets the receptors in the brain to prevent the enzyme that degrades the levels of Serotonin, Dopamine, and Norepinephrine neurotransmitters in the brain. Those neurotransmitters are our relaxation helps with parasympathetic system.

Stay Tuned on our Social Media @runnersedgealaska to find out what Adaptogens sources Natalie and Zuzana like to use!


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