In the ongoing search for answers to the mass-building/fat loss challenges, we've heard quite a bit of press lately regarding cortisol's role in this equation. As we continue to investigate and understand this debilitating hormone, here is what we do know: high cortisol levels are profoundly catabolic, in addition to causing other mayhem. Cortisol breaks down body proteins, opposes anabolism, raises blood glucose, contributes to insulin resistance, and generally screws everything up for the aspiring muscle-gainer. All that is in addition to promoting abdominal fat growth (no small matter, especially for those of us over about age 35). And to top it all off, excessive cortisol is also involved in the overtraining syndrome. For both bodybuilders and the general population, excess cortisol contributes to obesity, insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. One study suggested that the rise of cortisol immediately after awakening might be an indicator of an "increased risk of developing serious, prevalent diseases via the metabolic syndrome."1 Stress and subsequent high cortisol levels can trigger binge eating, which results in central fat accumulation ("beer belly"). Worse yet, the hyper-cortisol response to stress persists even after successful treatment for abdominal fat, suggesting that cortisol might be a primary causal factor.2 (If you've found it difficult to maintain a good "six pack" this might be the reason!) Some researchers have suggested that activation of cortisol secretion is not an irreversible abnormality in people with abdominal fat problems, and that a good diet may help lower cortisol and help keep the abdominal fat from accumulating.3 At any rate, managing cortisol is clearly an important angle for increasing your muscle-to-fat ratio, accelerating muscle gains, and minimizing abdominal fat. This is especially true if you are a "Type A", high-stress kind of person. What is Cortisol? Cortisol is a catabolic hormone produced by the body during times of physical and emotional stress. It is synthesized and released by the adrenal cortex and can lead to numerous detrimental effects, including:
-- Conversion of protein in lean tissue (muscles) into glucose (gluconeogenesis--which breaks down muscle and decreases protein synthesis)
-- Decreased utilization of glucose and decreased insulin sensitivity
-- Increased water retention, because it upsets sodium/potassium balance in the body
-- Possible inhibition of growth hormone
-- Decreased utilization of fat and fat metabolism
-- Compromised immunity
-- Impairment of mental functioning and cognitive acuity
Corralling Cortisol with Supplementation Fortunately, there are several high-powered supplements that can help tame cortisol.
Supplement Strategy #1: Vitamin C
Linus Pauling, the late Nobel Prize winner, was correct in asserting the importance of supplemental vitamin C. Apart from the many well-known roles it plays (collagen synthesis, antioxidant action, immune function, etc), it also helps to greatly reduce and normalize cortisol levels. For example, in a study of 45 runners in the 1999 Comrades 90 km marathon, researchers divided subjects into equal groups (15 subjects per group) receiving 500 mg/day vitamin C (VC-500), 1500 mg/day vitamin C (VC-1500) or placebo for 7 days before the race, on the day of the race, and for 2 days following completion. Researchers discovered that the immediate post-race serum cortisol was significantly lower in the VC-1500 group than in the placebo and VC-500 groups. The investigators stated "the study demonstrates an attenuation, albeit transient, of both the adrenal stress hormone and anti-inflammatory polypeptide response to prolonged exercise in runners who supplemented with 1500 mg vitamin C per day when compared to < or = 500 mg per day."4 Several other studies have shown similar results. All that is not to mention the general importance of vitamin C for athletes--such as the fact that hard training causes oxidative stress and increases requirements for antioxidants like vitamin C.
Supplement Strategy #2: Omega-Rich Fish Oil
In addition to vitamin C, fatty fish and fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids) are also potent cortisol fighters. In a three week study of seven human volunteers who consumed placebo or 7.2 grams daily of fish oil, plasma epinephrine, cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure were all significantly blunted in the fish oil/omega-3 group.5 For cortisol reduction and overall health, make it a point to include fatty fish (wild salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines) in your diet, and find a top-quality fish oil supplement to get plenty of the omega-3 fatty acids.
Supplement Strategy #3: Phosphatidylserine
Perhaps the best of this category is a phospholipid (a type of fat with a phosphate molecule attached) called phosphatidylserine. phosphatidylserine has been shown to dampen the ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) and cortisol response to physical stress. In one study, scientists investigated the effects of soy lecithin phosphatidic acid and phosphatidylserine complex (PAS) supplementation on pituitary adrenal reactivity (ACTH, cortisol) and on the psychological response to a mental and emotional stressors. Four groups of 20 subjects were treated for three weeks with daily dosages of either 400 mg PAS, 600 mg PAS, 800 mg PAS, or placebo before exposure to the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST). Treatment with 400 mg PAS resulted in a pronounced blunting of both serum ACTH and cortisol, and salivary cortisol responses to the TSST, but did not affect heart rate. Interestingly when they looked at the psychological response, 400 mg PAS seemed to exert a specific positive effect on emotional responses to the TSST.6 Another study investigated the activity of brain cortex-derived phosphatidylserine (BC-PS) on the neuroendocrine and neurovegetative responses to bicycle exercise in 8 healthy men. Before starting the exercise bout, each subject received intravenously, within 10 min, 50 or 75 mg of BC-PS or a volume-matched placebo diluted in 100 ml of saline. They found that pretreatment with both 50 and 75 mg BC-PS significantly blunted the ACTH and cortisol responses to physical stress.7 Yet another study showed that phosphatidylserine (800 mg/d for 10 days) significantly blunted the ACTH and cortisol responses to physical exercise without affecting the rise in plasma GH and PRL.8 Another study investigated the activity of brain cortex-derived phosphatidylserine (BC-PS) on the neuroendocrine and neurovegetative responses to bicycle exercise in 8 healthy men. Before starting the exercise bout, each subject received intravenously, within 10 min, 50 or 75 mg of BC-PS or a volume-matched placebo diluted in 100 ml of saline. They found that pretreatment with both 50 and 75 mg BC-PS significantly blunted the ACTH and cortisol responses to physical stress.7 Keep in mind that this was intravenous administration. Don't try that at home! But there's more. Yet another study showed that phosphatidylserine (800 mg/d for 10 days) significantly blunted the ACTH and cortisol responses to physical exercise without affecting the rise in plasma GH and PRL.8 It should be evident that phosphatidylserine is a potent anti-cortisol agent. Certainly, the stress response to exercise is blunted. But phosphatidylserine can also improve mood. For instance, 300 mg daily of phosphatidylserine for a month was associated with feeling less stressed and having a better mood. According to the authors, "the study for the first time reports an improvement in mood following PS supplementation in a sub-group of young healthy adults."9
What Makes ProSource's Ultra PS Gold Unique?
Ultra PS Gold contains a unique conjugated phospholipid complex consisting of phosphatidylserine (PS) from soy and DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) from omega-3 fish oil. Each serving is standardized for a minimum of 45% phosphatidylserine (100 mg) and 8% DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) (17.75 mg).
-- 1500 mg of vitamin C and 7.2 grams of fish oil daily may lessen your response to stress.
-- 300 mg daily of phosphatidylserine (PS) can improve mood and help you feel less stressed.
-- 800 mg daily for at least ten days of PS supplementation may blunt the "stress" response to exercise.
I have always said that the best and perhaps only experiment that matters is whether something helps YOU. One way to find out if phosphatidylserine helps you is to take it. Take phosphatidylserine daily for a month; also stack 1500 mg of Vitamin C during heavy training periods and eat plenty of omega 3's. If you want to see if it improves your stress response to exercise, take 800 mg daily of phosphatidylserine for at least 10 days and take note of how good you feel during exercise!
BIO: Jose Antonio, Ph.D. is the CEO of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (www.sportsnutritionsociety.org). He earned his Ph.D. and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.