The Cortisol Paradox & Why Sometimes Less Is More

The Cortisol Paradox & Why Sometimes Less Is More

By Dr. Catherine English - Co-Founder/President

Working out more frequently, for longer periods, or for shorter periods with more intensity does not always equate to better or faster health and fitness results. 

Dare we say it....

Working out less and resting more while focusing on managing other stressors in your life may yield better results.


Whether fitness has been a steadfast part of your lifestyle or even if you’re new to it, REST is a vital component for the body to recover, repair, and progress from all the stresses it encounters on a daily basis.  Stresses can come from multiple sources, work, relationships, daily routine activities, foods/beverages we ingest (i.e. processed and refined foods, caffeine, and alcohol), finances and exercise.

Why is rest so important?

Rest is when the body repairs itself from the demands we place upon it.  Rest can include many components such as quality sleep, proper nutrition, and stress management, and all of these variables can impact our biophysiology (e.g. growth, morphology, and physiology of organs) which ultimately is our hormones either facilitating or impeding the benefits we want from exercise.

Stress & Hormones

If our bodies do not get enough rest due to chronic stresses such as lack of sleep, poor nutrition, too much exercise or improperly applied exercise “programming,” it will be in a constant state of STRESS.  And, when our bodies are in a constant state of stress our biophysiology can get out of sync with over and under production of various hormones.  One such hormone that is vital to helping the body respond to stress is Cortisol

Let's talk about Cortisol for moment.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that can regulate a wide range of processes in the body from regulating metabolism, reducing inflammation, controlling blood sugar levels and decreasing the immune system response.  When you exercise, the hormone cortisol is released to manage protein, fat, and carbohydrate metabolism for fuel.  Cortisol is a positive hormone in this process as it triggers other hormones to take action., cortisol is good. OR, is it bad? I'm confused?

Where cortisol gets a bad wrap is when excessive amounts of it gets released from chronic stressors brought on through exercise, lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and environmental stressors.  In these instances, too much cortisol creates an imbalance in the regulatory systems responsible for managing metabolic hormones, sex hormones, and thyroid function. This imbalance creates a down-regulation of hormone production and can be described as HPA Axis Dysfunction (sometimes inaccurately called “adrenal fatigue”). HPA Axis Dysfunction symptoms can look and feel like:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Inability to fall asleep of stay asleep (tired & wired)
  • Brain Fog
  • Increased body fat
  • Decreased libido
  • Depression

The Cortisol Paradox

Prolonged cortisol exposure increases inflammation. Increased inflammation decreases insulin sensitivity leading to a litany of issues: heart diseases, diabetes, CVD, the list goes on.  Too much cortisol triggers the down-regulation of sex hormones and thyroid function. And, before you know it, all the exercise you’ve been doing to create for fat-loss-adaptation sends you into HPA Axis Dysfunction.

When you’re training intensity and/or frequency supersedes your body’s ability to recover, you’ve created an additional demand for recovery beyond the recovery-deficit your body is most likely in. Simply stated, you’re under-rested versus over-trained.

Key Take-Aways

Exercise purposefully and with a plan; sometimes less is more.  Goal specific training programs are rooted in understanding that specific stressors will illicit specific adaptations.  The stress component of these programs (e.g. frequency, set, reps, loads, tempo, rest) is the exciting and fun part if implemented properly, and the physical adaptations you seek will happen with positive biophysiological reactions and adaptions. 

Simple Guidelines

  • Exercise intelligently
  • Get quality sleep
  • Focus on proper nutrition with quality food - macro and micronutrients
  • Rest more
  • Learn to manage the other stressors in your life  

And, remember, it’s ok to ask for help.