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Cortisol and Intense Physical Exercise


Cortisol is a hormone that has received much attention via the media, primarily in regards to its contribution of increasing extra body fat. Generally referred to pharmaceutically as hydrocortisone, it is closely related to cortisone in its physiological activity. It also regulates a number of metabolic steps, including inhibiting the inflammatory response.

It is important to remember that this hormone, along with the other glucocoticoids, re-establishes homeostasis after physiological stress. The more stress induced to the body, the greater the cortisol response.

Extreme physical exercise is an activity which is increasing in popularity. The term “extreme” here denotes the level which may prove to be possibly harmful for our bodies. We all understand that certain forms and amounts of exercise assist in providing a healthy lifestyle, so it may be important to recognize the point in which we actually overburden our systems with too much intense physical stress. Intense physical exercise can induce the same stress on our bodies as other major traumatic events, such as the death of a close companion or an emotional devastating event.

As we partake in intense physical exercise regiments and continue to do so in a deliberate and repetitive fashion, the effects of cortisol spikes may manifest in the following ways; 

Reasonable activity is important for bone health. 

However, contrary to popular belief intense physical exercise can actually promote bone loss. This occurs due to cortisol’s influence on the calcium ion fluxuation in the intestinal tract. As we stress our systems harder, not only does the serum pH drop, requiring more calcium ion support from the bones to stabilize the buffering for correct pH levels, but the uptake of this ion from the intestinal tract is diminished due to the cortisol spike. 

Since cortisol influences the phase in which our own T-cells are produced, this can greatly inhibit our immune response to various factors. T-cells are a class of white blood cells which are critical for the function of our immunological tolerance. Studies have indicated that those who indulge in intense physical forms of activity are more likely to experience a greater delay in recovery from immunological types of sicknesses. 

The hippocampus is a major component within our brains which is responsible for a participation in memory. Continued exposure to elevated cortisol levels may consequently damage the cells of the hippocampus, resulting in a possible reduction in the learning capacity. Contrary to a popular belief that the political arena tends to elevate cortisol, there is no valid proof at this time that this is what affects politicians. 

Even more intriguing is the effect excessive cortisol has on collagen. Collagen has a unique composition which is made up of three amino/imino acids. Of these acids, one is greatly affected by cortisol. Serum glucose levels rise in adjunct with a spike in cortisol levels and this glucose increase is due to the secondary degradation of the amino/imino acids found in the collagen matrix. It is understood that loss of collagen from the skin from increased cortisol levels is at least ten times greater than any other tissue in the body. It is interesting to note that when we observe the physical appearance of most high intensity athletes, they almost always appear older than their age. Cartilage is also a type of collagen which is adversely influenced by high cortisol levels in the same manner as skin. 

True adrenal fatigue would be the diminishment of secreting the anti-inflammatory glucocorticosteroids, which essentially would manifest as the complete inability of dealing with inflammation (Addison’s Disease). It is often misunderstood or misdiagnosed as fatigue, which is not always the case. 

If we choose to continue a lifestyle of extreme exercise, there are certain ways in which we can help manage these cortisol spikes. Since only the free form of cortisol affects receptor sites, it is tangible to bind cortisol to certain proteins in order to reduce excess cortisol levels in the blood. Most of these protein types can be administered orally and upon digestive degradation, 60% can be utilized effectively as binding agents. This protocol should be used when excessive physical stress has occurred and generally not under normal circumstances. However, these proteins may be of value in other conditions associated with cortisol excess, such as depression, anxiety and pain.


By Kevin Meehan 


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