James Free on Cortisol

by James Free, Paul Schecklman

Our good friend James Free (27 Health & Wellness, @27healthandwellness) is Nashville Fit's #1 Nutrition coach, having worked with numerous athletes in the NFL, MLB, NHL, MLB, and UFC. He is the co-owner of CrossFit Trivium and a competitive CrossFit athlete. James has been a friend to Paragon Recovery and is an avid user of Night Gains. We asked him to run a series on nutrition related to stress and tactical communities. What you'll notice is that he talks about cortisol and its role in the body as well as what foods can do to cortisol. Stress is an inherent part of being an operator, firefighter, law enforcement officer, or medic. Every shift and every day off is filled with unknown events and states of hyper-vigilance. With massive rates of hypertension, cardiac disease, chronic pain and inflammation, and diabetes in these communities, it is paramount that we understand how to become more resilient. This first contribution will give you a better understanding of cortisol, what to eat to optimize it, and why eating at certain times is important. Enjoy!

Cortisol, Carbohydrates, and Cheerios

Nutrition and myths seem to go hand in hand these days. Everyone and their brother have lost some weight and decided that the bro-science they used would be good for everyone not taking into account actual science, i.e. hormone production, Total Daily Energy Expenditure, resting metabolic rate, and input/output of an individual. While weight loss can be broken down very simply to eat less than you burn, actual health is a different story. Among those myths, breakfast carbohydrates.

Hormone ResponseWhat is Cortisol and why do we need it? Defined as produced by the adrenal cortex upon stimulation by ACTH that mediates various metabolic processes (such as gluconeogenesis), has anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive properties, and whose levels in the blood may become elevated in response to physical or psychological stress. So, there are a few nerds out there that are like, yea, I knew that but for the rest of us, this is a fight or flight hormone. It will get you running away from a bear! This is what gets you elevated for action. It has been demonized by many as the reason they cannot attain their health goals or lose weight but it is an essential hormone for survival and actually can be balanced and controlled through food. Weird huh? When it comes down to it, the majority of ailments can be at the very least helped by food. But how do Carbohydrates affect our cortisol levels?

How do carbohydrates affect cortisol?

What does all this mean for my breakfast cereal and why can’t I have it? Well, Cortisol breaks down glycogen for energy and response. If carbs are too high in the morning and blood sugar spikes, insulin is the response hormone and cortisol is lowered. That means having lower cortisol levels and in return less of a response hormone. For people who need to be alert and ready to go, the fast and easy options for breakfast or 1st meal are probably the worst for your cortisol levels. I'm not saying you do not need carbohydrates but first thing in the morning may be detrimental to those who need maximum cortisol response such as fire fighters, police, and military tactical units. The response time should be maximal and having a carbohydrate laden breakfast could cause that to dull. That’s the sugar or carb coma you get after breakfast. That comes from a abundance of carbohydrates and the responding insulin which then drops your cortisol levels so you get that sleepy or less attentive feeling.

Why is nutrient timing important for cortisol? 

Nutrient timing is important for many reasons but in the case of hormonal response and cortisol production, it is paramount. Nutrient timing and quality of food is important because it has the ability to manage blood sugar response. If you can manage your blood sugar and keep it steady, you have the ability to raise your metabolism. If you can time your foods right, in this case, focusing your first meal on proteins and fats, then you will be able to have maximum adrenal/cortisol response time available. In life impacting situations, that could be the difference between life and death.