Controlling Cortisol with Natural Supplements
The main difference between a personal trainer and a contest prep coach is that one trains you in a gym and the other helps to manage every possible aspect of your life that could potentially be playing a role in how your physique ends up looking on competition day. One of the most common factors I routinely assess when working with a client, in addition to training, diet or cardio, is stress. In a chronically stressed client, with elevated levels of cortisol, the body is essentially working against you – holding onto bodyfat, limiting lean muscle growth and negatively impacting several other key systems of the body including digestion and nutrient absorption. This can be extremely frustrating for any client that seeks to obtain that stage or photo-shoot ready look when they’re otherwise working their butts off in the gym and following their diet. What’s even more troublesome is that 90% of clients completely overlook the stress-cortisol connection as a factor and just assume that training and diet is supreme. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. I like to say – you’ll never win a battle against hormones. They’re just too powerful and can’t be outworked, no matter who you are. Outsmarted – yes, and I’ll get into that in this article.
Let’s call this part one and get into what’s probably the most simple and basic way to win the fight against chronically elevated cortisol – supplementation. Here is a list of natural supplements that have shown promising results in scientific research when it comes to maintaining normal levels of cortisol and preventing against the negative effects of the ‘c’ word. (Note: don’t forget that some cortisol is actually good and plays key roles in many physiological processes and overall health. It’s when it gets out of control that it becomes a problem.)
Natural Cortisol Support Supplements
- Phosphatidylserine (PS)
What is it?
A naturally occurring phospholipid found in cell membranes throughout the body that contains both fatty acids and amino acids. It serves to maintain cell function but most importantly is a key building block for brain cells. For us bodybuilders however, the mystical power of phosphatidylserine lies in it’s potential to supress the release of cortisol when taken after a workout. PS is also considered a nootropic supplement and has demonstrated some impressive cognitive enhancing benefits as well, including preventing short term memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
600-800 mg daily split over two doses typically taken in the post-workout period or after intense activity.
Not the cheapest cortisol support supplement, but on my own trials with clients, it does seem to provide some great results. I usually gauge this by how full and hard a client’s muscles stay while dieting over a period of a month, as well as changes in abdominal fat distribution. Natural Factors uses Sharp-PS® GREEN phosphatidylserine, which is derived from non-GMO sunflower lecithin and is 100% soy-free. You can find it at Healthy Planet.
What is it?
A naturally occurring androgenic hormone that works in a balance with cortisol. You can think of it like this – normal DHEA levels help keep cortisol in check, but as we age, DHEA levels tend to decline and this takes away from it’s protective benefit. Supplementation can help to keep the ratio of dhea:cortisol in the normal range while maintaining the opposing effect of DHEA on cortisol.
25-100 mg/day. It is possible to experience side effects on this supplement. Watch for androgenic side effects, start low and increase dose only as tolerated.
Because this is considered a hormone, you would want to test your own DHEA levels before even considering supplementation to see if it’s even needed. Anyone under the age of 35 should have plenty of DHEA still and it’s more for the 35 and older demographic that could see the greatest benefit from this supplement to restore optimal levels.
- Vitamin C
What is it?
Water-soluble vitamin with antioxidant properties that can protect against damage caused by free radicals. A lesser known benefit is that Vitamin C as been shown in research to blunt the cortisol response post-workout and assist in the recovery process when taken prior to the exercise.
1-2 grams per day, with one dose about an hour prior to training.
Vitamin C should be a staple in any bodybuilder’s arsenal for the wide range of benefits it provides. Many aren’t even aware of it’s cortisol suppression abilities!
What is it?
B-vitamins can be depleted during intense periods of training and can make us more susceptible to the effects of stress and cortisol. Maintaining normal levels of b-vitamins has a protective effect on the adrenal glans and our reaction to stress.
B-complex 50-100 mg once per day or split into two doses taken with food.
You can have your b-vitamin levels checked in any routine physical. I’d suggest doing this before starting on any b-vitamin supplement.
What is it?
Chronic stress can deplete magnesium levels from the cells and make you more vulnerable to the effects of fight or flight reactions. Supplementing with magnesium can help to maintain your reserves and have a protective effect against stress and cortisol.
300 – 600 mg/day as magnesium glycinate, gluconate or citrate.
Magnesium is one of the most important minerals in a bodybuilder’s supplement cabinet. It helps with muscle contraction and relaxation, protein synthesis, atp production, increased anabolic hormones and helps maintain healthy blood pressure.
- Adaptogenic Herbs i.e. Rhodiola, Ashwagandha, Relora, Astragalus Root
What is it?
I’ve clustered together this group of natural herbal supplements, known as adaptogens. Adaptogenic compounds increase our body’s ability to handle stress and strengthen our physiological reaction to it. It’s like giving your body some extra weaponry when you go into battle so you’re more prepared. You’ll find many of these ingredients in adrenal support supplements, which has many crossover benefits for buffering cortisol.
Rhodiola – 200 -500 mg /day
Ashwaganda – 300-500 mg/day
Relora – 150 -400 mg/day
Astragalus Root – 30 mg/day
These ingredients have become a staple in my post show protocols or when I get a client that’s been using too many stimulant-based fat burners for an extended period of time. They help to strengthen adrenal function and restore the body’s natural ability to combat stress. You can either purchase all the ingredients individually, or you can just get a ready-made blend – such as ATP Lab Adrenergik – Adrenal Health Formula.
What is it?
Most of us already know that consuming carbs during and/or after your workout can effectively lower the cortisol response from training, but with the ongoing popularity of ultra-low carb diets, and carb-fearing competitors running rampant, it never hurts to give a reminder. At the very least, get your carbs in post-workout or you’re just breaking down what you worked for.
Highly variant and dependant on the individual client. Anywhere from 20-70 grams of carbs intra or immediately post-workout is the typical range for my clients. Usually followed by one more meal of solid food carbs an hour or so later.
My preference has been for the supercarb – Karbolyn for it’s easily mixability, pump enhancing properties and insulin response – which is beneficial for the peri-workout period.
- Omega 3’s
What is it?
Polyunsatured fatty acids, typically extracted from fish or flax, with a wide range of health benefits including the ability to reduce cortisol levels and calm the central nervous system.
2-5 grams/day. Increasing dose as tolerated.
Improving insulin sensitivity has always been my favorite benefit of omega 3’s but lowering cortisol is a very close second.
In part two, I will go over some of the other, non-supplemental ways to control cortisol including things like : avoiding overtraining, quality and duration of sleep, avoiding excessive stimulant intake and managing stress through your day. Hope you enjoyed part 1, stay tuned for part 2 in an upcoming blog.
Sean Tierney B.A. (Kin)
Head Coach, Team T-Rex