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    Cortisol - how to beat this health and performance wrecking ball

    Posted by Warren Pole, 33Shake co-founder on

    As a hard-charging go-getter you like nothing better than setting big goals and smashing them. This rocks. It also makes you very prone to overdosing on the stress hormone cortisol 

    This is really bad for a two big reasons.

    First, cortisol is catabolic 

    This means it destroys muscle, as opposed to something that is anabolic which builds muscle. 

    So while it's unlikely that as a reader of this blog you're in training for the Mr Olympia World Championship of Bodybuilding, there's no doubt that muscle absolutely matters for your running, cycling and swimming performance, which is why you put in loads of great training and awesome nutrition so you can get stronger and faster. 

    Unfortunately, if you then let cortisol take the upper hand it will destroy all your hard-earned work faster than you can say 'bugger'. 

    Cortisol - health and performance catabolic

    You want this muscle cortisol? You'll have to get past me first. Unfortunately it doesn't work this way, no matter how macho your stance

    Second, cortisol is a killer

    Quite literally. 

    Elevated cortisol levels are linked to everything you don't want from lowered immune function and depression to higher blood pressure, obesity, reduced bone density and more, all of which will speed your path to an early bath from life in general. 

    Cortisol - it's all about fight or flight

    In terms of evolution, cortisol has done humankind an incredible service. 

    When something really scary and truly life-threatening happened to us back in caveman times - like a woolly mammoth trying to turn us into its dinner - our bodies' ability to react by producing cortisol and sending us into a hyper-alert and energised state was invaluable in helping us escape and live to fight, and reproduce, another day. 

    Hooray for cortisol. 

    But with woolly mammoths now long gone, and modern life generally being about as dangerous as a soft play area, our ability to produce cortisol is backfiring, with all manner of non life-threatening stresses from traffic jams and delayed trains to the wrong coffee at the coffee shop now triggering cortisol release. 

    Once triggered, instead of being burned off as we run away at light speed from a woolly mammoth attack, our cortisol simply shoots around our body wreaking havoc as we seethe silently at our desk/steering wheel/coffee shop table. 

    Ironically, the same thing that once turbo boosted our performance and saved us is now taking a wrecking ball to our performance while quietly killing us. 

    How to beat the cortisol curse

    The good news is no nasty drugs or expensive treatments are needed to dodge the cortisol curse. 

    All we really need to do to ensure we keep our training gains while also optimising our lifelong health is to CTFO (Chill The F** Out). So use these strategies and skip merrily into the sunset leaving unnecessary cortisol behind:

    Sleep well

    Anyone who says 'I only need five hours' sleep a night' is probably lying. Surveys show that almost all of us need 7-8 hours and when we get less than that we unravel like a cheap watch. 

    So while late nights, all-nighters (partying, work, running or otherwise), early mornings and the like are part and parcel of a life well lived, the key to keeping cortisol in check is catching up on this lost sleep with power naps, great sleep hygene, and good sleep hours the rest of the time. 

    This post on sleep for athletes goes into all the detail you need


    We are really lucky it's not the 1970s anymore when meditating meant hanging out with sandal-wearing nutjobs with poor personal hygene and came with a good chance of ending up in a cult because meditation absolutely rocks for performance, happiness and health, destroys cortisol, and can be easily accessed today via all manner of apps - no nutjobs or cults required. 

    Cortisol health and performance - meditate

    Meditation - excellent. Water and sunset optional, it works just as well on that old chair in your spare room

    This new accessibility has made a once exclusively beardie-weirdie practice into a very cool thing to be doing. So, cast aside your preconceptions, and remember - meditating is really easy. 

    All you have to do is take five minutes to yourself, sit quietly (in a chair is fine), close your eyes and focus on your breath while breathing normally. Your thoughts will then wander, when you notice this has happened, return your focus to your breath. 

    And that's it. You are now meditating, and your cortisol is going down while your brain is being rewired in all manner of highly beneficial ways. Congratulations. 

    For added meditation help, check out the app Headspace. There's a free 10-day trial you can repeat as many times as you like which works as a great intro. 

    Don't eat stressful food

    The usual suspects will all increase cortisol so processed foods, high-sugar foods, and anything with artificial sweeteners in it is out, while alcohol and coffee also need reducing or removing. 

    Swap the above for loads of fruit and veg, buckets of water, and a side order of herbal tea. 

    To then blow cortisol into the weeds completely, add adaptogenic herbs.


    Adaptogenic herbs are plants that contain potent amounts of adaptogens, which naturally help the body adapt to changing stresses so while they can help you adapt to your training more powerfully, they can also help you naturally reduce cortisol while also reducing blood pressure and inflammation. 

    Excellent adaptogens for both training power and cortisol reduction include reishi mushroom and cordyceps, both of which you'll find in our legendary Pre and Post Workout Shakes

    Cortisol health and performance 33Shake pre and post workout shake

    33Shake Pre and Post Workout Shakes, pure delicious powerhouses containing the 33 most potent athletic superfoods, including some of the finest adaptogens so you can smash cortisol. Boom! 

    Related content

    Better sleep for athletes

    Coffee and performance

    How to increase testosterone naturally

    Best weight loss strategies for racing and training

    Booze and your performance - the health effects of alcohol

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