Cortisol America: The Fat-Storing, Muscle-Destroying, Mood-Killing Hormone We Can't Live Without

by Dr. David Minkoff October 20, 2021 4 min read

Athletic Male climbing the side of a cliff over a forest.

If you’ve ever had a shock and felt the adrenaline surge in your body then you’ve felt cortisol. It’s a wake-you-up, get-you–ready-for-action hormone.

It really is. It hits its lowest point around midnight, so you can go to sleep, and then peaks again about an hour after you’ve gotten up in the morning, getting you to wake up and get ready for the day. 

It’s nick-named the “stress hormone” because it’s released in moments of stress. So in a dangerous situation, or if you get scared suddenly, you’ll feel it. 

But… when we have too-high levels of cortisol for too long, it can make us feel stressed… even if we have no reason to be.

It’s these too-high levels that are bad, that can make us depressed, anxious, or angry for no reason. They can make us want to eat more, especially sugary, junk food, and they make us gain fat, lose muscle, and throw off our other hormones. 

While Cortisol raises our energy levels in the moment, it lowers them in the long term. Here’s how it works:

First, high cortisol makes it hard to get good sleep, which we need in order to build muscle and lose fat, as well as just for our sanity. 

Also, if we didn’t get enough sleep because of high cortisol, guess what our body gives us to help us through our sleep-deprived day… more cortisol! 

It also lowers serotonin and GABA levels (the “happy” and “calming” neurotransmitters) and so can make us feel anxious or depressed or angry. And if we don’t have something to feel that way about — we’ll find something!

It can lead to a pretty awful downward spiral.

There have even been studies done on kids on high sugar diets vs those on whole foods. The kids on the high sugar diets were more aggressive and angry in general as compared to the calmer demeanors of kids eating real foods.

Also, most of our muscle repair and fat-burning is done in the first few hours of sleep and if we have high cortisol levels at night then not only do we get poor sleep, we lose this night time fat-burn and cellular repair.

You see, Cortisol is supposed to be at its lowest at around midnight. This is because this is one of the main times we get spikes in both Growth Hormone (for muscle building and cellular repair) and IGF (Insulin-like Growth Factor, one of the major fat-burning hormones).

But if your Cortisol levels are raised at night, well, Cortisol suppresses growth hormone, testosterone and IGF.

You see, Cortisol sends messages to not use glycogen for energy (your stored chains of sugar), to not use body fat for energy, and instead… to use your muscle as a source of energy, breaking down the protein into amino acids and having these converted to glucose for energy.

So if Cortisol is raised at night, say goodbye to not only a good night’s sleep (lowered serotonin and GABA), but night time fat-burning and muscle gain as well (suppressed growth hormone and IGF).

Oh, and it also works with Ghrelin (the appetite-increasing hormone) to increase cravings, particularly for high sugar foods for fast energy.

Don’t get me wrong. If you were in a war, running to safety from enemy bullets with a half broken leg, it’s cortisol that’s making that possible. 

The only thing is… we’re not running from bullets on a daily basis. We’re generally sitting at a desk. And while your boss may stress you out… it’s just not quite the same.

But this isn’t how it’s supposed to work. Cortisol is supposed to be very short lasting and only come out a few times a day. It has exact duties and that’s it. 

It’s only when it gets too high for too long that it really causes trouble and makes losing fat, building muscle, and maintaining our overall sanity a labor of tears.

So what raises cortisol and how do we lower it?

Outside of actually stressful situations? Processed sugars, trans fats, high levels of Omega 6 fatty acids (which we’ll cover in another article), environmental toxins, and injuries, infection, or partially digested proteins..

But processed sugars like high fructose corn syrup from sodas and junk food raise Cortisol levels more than almost anything else. In fact, as covered in this article here, we see obesity rates quadruple since the introduction of this sugar.

So if we have high levels of sugar before bed, night after night, we’ll have a pretty hard time getting good sleep, burning fat, or building muscle due to the cortisol released each time.

From there, the lack of sleep itself brings further release of cortisol to keep you awake the next day, and more cravings for processed sugar for fast energy, which releases more cortisol, back and forth, all the while working alongside its best buddy, insulin, to increase fat storage and depress energy levels, muscle gains and mood.

There is more to this, including high Omega 6 fatty acids in our diets which promote stress in our cells, releasing cortisol, as well as inflammation from poor digestion of proteins, trans fats and toxins in our food and water. But we’ll cover those in upcoming articles. 

For now, one of the fastest, best ways to lower cortisol, raise mood and increase overall health is coming off processed sugars of any kind. They really do make that much of a difference. 

You’ll see.

To learn more about Cortisol, other hormones and much more about what problems different foods actually cause inside your body — and how to fix these— download your free copy of the PerfectAmino Guide to Fat Loss & Lean Bulking, which covers much, much more that just fat loss and lean bulking…

I think you’ll love it!


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*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.