Cortisol Levels - How Caffeine Intake Affects Stress Hormones
have all heard the word cortisol and belly fat used in the same
sentence. But what exactly is cortisol? Does it have any positives?
Or is it merely a hormone that increases during times of stress
and encourages our bodies to hold onto and even create additional
Is there anything we can do, aside from learning how to manage
our stress levels to keep this hormone and it's nasty adverse effects
from affecting us? Do we need to move to a secluded island far from
anything that may raise our blood pressure and cause an increase
in this hormone?
What about nutritional supplements? Can they have a positive or
negative effect on this hormone and our stress levels? We have all
probably heard how caffeine can cause a rise in this hormone. Does
this mean we need to give up our coffee? Or even one of our pre-workout
supplement drinks that helps us get through our workout when we
feel like we can't get through it?
Let's take a closer look. Maybe I can shed some light on the topic.
I will try my best to make sense out of it all and I will try to
keep it simple and avoid going off on a tangent.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone which is produced by the adrenal gland.
It is released in response to stress. Cortisol, although it has
earned a bad reputation, is very important. But just like anything,
having too much or too little can cause problems.
As previously mentioned, cortisol is secreted by the adrenal gland.
It is involved in proper glucose metabolism, regulation of blood
pressure, insulin release (for blood sugar metabolism), and it is
involved in our inflammatory response and immune function. Generally
speaking, our highest levels of cortisol are in the morning and
the lowest are at night.
Stress is not the only reason for an increase in cortisol and it
does have some pretty decent positive effects. It can improve or
heighten memory functions, give you a shot of increased immunity,
decrease your sensitivity to pain, give you a surge of energy (hence
it being titled the flight or fight hormone) and can help to maintain
homeostasis, or balance, in the body.
All of these things seem great, so long as the stress, or the stressor
dissipates and we can return to a calm state and allow our bodies
to return to normal. The only issue is as the years pass, and events
such as our recent economic crisis, we seem to be a world surrounded
by constant chaos and stress. Our bodies never return to a normal
state, or when they do the moments are too few and far between.
It seems that more and more people are dealing with a consistently
elevated level of cortisol along with all of the issues that come
with these increased levels.
Some of the symptoms of elevated cortisol are fatigue, excess body
fat and the inability to lose body fat (regardless of diet and exercise).
These symptoms don't occur overnight and you may have had years
of accumulated stress and it finally caught up with you. Cortisol
raises the level of glucose. Excess glucose stores body fat. So
now you are fatigued, carrying around excess belly fat (among other
places), and can not seem to lose weight no matter what you try.
This is not a good position to be in!
years of stress have wrecked your system, your glucose levels are
out of whack causing you to gain weight which is contributing to
even more stress which could be elevating your cortisol even more.
So, since you are so tired you might turn to caffeine for help.
It is easy, cheap, and gives you the energy to get through the day
and even your workout. But, here is the problem (that is keeping
you going in this vicious cycle). Caffeine triggers some pretty
damaging effects in regards to cortisol. Let's take a look at them.
First, when you drink that cup of coffee you are generally sitting
at the table, dragging yourself out of bed, or sitting at your desk
at work. Caffeine is a stimulant and induces stress within which
can induce a cortisol rise. A rise in cortisol will create a reaction
in your body releasing amino acids (from muscles), glucose from
your liver, and fatty acids into your blood stream to which you
will produce tons of energy.
Unfortunately, we are usually sitting in our cars, behind our desks
at work, or on our couch at home so we do not have the ability to
use up all of what has been released which essentially is a form
of stress. Then we carry on with our day that has more than enough
stress already. So, now can you see how we just don't get a break
from the rise in cortisol?
The combination of caffeine and cortisol can cause gastrointestinal
problems. It is common knowledge, or it should be, that the high
acidity in coffee can cause heartburn. Additionally, when caffeine
elevates cortisol this rise causes energy to be taken away from
our gastrointestinal tract which lowers the amount of enzymes we
need to produce to digest the food we consume which then reduces
the minerals and nutrients we absorb. High acid plus low minerals
equals a good chance of developing osteoporosis.
Another negative is that stress can cause a decrease in the calories
you burn. Cortisol can reduce your body's ability to release fat
from its fat stores which would be used for energy. This can cause
an accumulation of fat in the abdominal region, an area that doesn't
look or feel good, but is also cause for many health concerns. So,
since caffeine can stress your body it can cause an increase in
your cortisol levels.
Second, your emotional well-being can be impacted. Anxiety, depression,
and having mood swings are all direct consequences of elevated cortisol.
Cortisol has an adverse effect on serotonin and dopamine production.
Cortisol may actually increase short-term memory for a short time
(we are talking 30 minutes or so) and elevated cortisol reduces
blood flow and glucose delivery to the brain. Combine that with
caffeine's ability to constrict blood flow to the brain which reduces
oxygen by up to 30%, and you may start to understand why you get
headaches when you try to quit caffeine.
Interesting study: college students who studied late
on caffeine find that their short-term memory is non-existent the
next day during their exam.
Third, the lack of sleep causes a very sharp increase in cortisol
levels. This would draw you to the caffeine which would cause all
of the other things mentioned previously. So, the lack of sleep
equals more coffee which equals higher cortisol which equals a vicious
Last, (there are many other points, but I figured this would be
enough to scare the coffee out of you), caffeine dehydrates you,
causing skin issues, wrinkles, and a decrease of collagen. Tell
me that won't cause some stress?
So, how do we lower our cortisol and stay away from caffeine (since
they seem to really work well together in a bad way)?
Here are some very simple steps:
- First, eliminate your caffeine intake (this includes diet sodas
and tea). You may need to do it slowly since the headaches may
- Exercise. Beside giving you energy and lowering cortisol levels,
the benefits are countless.
- Keep your blood sugar stable. This means avoiding table sugar.
Eat complex carbs low on the glycemic index.
- Take supplements that may help with stress levels, blood sugar,
energy, and loaded with antioxidants. These include A-lipoic acid,
CoQ 10, calcium, magnesium, rhodiola, vitamin C and B's, chromium,
and what I believe to be one of the most important which is vitamin
- Try yoga, meditation, or anything to relax.
- Sleep! This may be the one thing that will make the biggest
difference! Make sure it's deep, uninterrupted sleep. If you have
issues falling asleep or staying asleep, there are lots of natural
sleep aids to try.
This certainly does not cover it all but I hope I have shed some
light on this topic and not caused more confusion. I guess I could
just say to keep it simple and put the coffee down, take a yoga
class and get more sleep!