As a catabolic hormone, cortisol gives bodybuilders sleepless nights. Not only does it inhibit muscle and strength growth, but also counteracts testosterone, causing accumulation of the unwanted fat tissue. How to lower cortisol?

There is cortisol and cortisol

Cortisol reducing medications have been known for years, wherefore it seems that it is easy to suppress the hormone’s production by the body. In practice, however, the problem turns out to be way more difficult to solve. For one, cortisol plays a major role in the homeostasis, i.e. maintaining a stable internal environment, a process that needs a systemic hormone, produced by the adrenal glands and released into the blood. For two, it is also produced in the adipose tissue, leading to accumulation of fat reserves. Cortisol synthesis is performed in the fat tissue by an enzyme known as 11β-HSD.  Observation shows that the activity of the enzyme in obese persons is significantly higher.

In the human body,11β-HSD or, more specifically, 11β-HSD2, converts cortisol into cortisone, which is 300 times weaker and has virtually no hormonal activity. This process prevents accumulation of excess cortisol in the kidneys, excess water and sodium retention and hypertension, and seems to be beneficial to the figure, too. Unfortunately, inactive cortisone permeates through the kidneys to the circulatory system and goes mainly to the fat tissue, where it is already ‘awaited’ by 11β-HSD1and re-converted into the super-active cortisol. More than 2/3 of the whole cortisol originating from outside of the adrenal glands is produced as a result of the activity of 11β-HSD1. Such cortisol acts at the site of production, in the adipose tissue, where it facilitates the accumulation of reserve fat, and in adjacent tissues, e.g. the muscle tissue, hindering protein production and inhibiting muscle development.

Blocking the stress hormone?

When researchers blocked 11β-HSD in murine adipose tissue, the animals demonstrated uncontrollable gluttony and devoured huge amounts of calories, but did not put on weight or fall sick. Will it be the same with humans? Blocking the activity of both forms of the enzyme (i.e. 11β-HSD1 and HSD2) will suppress the production of cortisone in kidneys and of cortisol in the adipose tissue. Then, cortisol concentration will grow in kidneys, with simultaneous drop in the adipose (and muscle) tissue. Reduction of stress hormone levels enhances significant growth of anabolic adrenal androgens, i.e. male sex hormones similar to testosterone including, in particular, DHEA. DHEA facilitates fat reduction and development of muscle tissue.

All in all, blocking both forms of 11β-HSD will be beneficial for the figure, as the fat level will drop with simultaneous growth of muscles. Unfortunately, it will not be so good for the blood pressure, as hypertension may develop. Given the above, researchers have been searching for selective 11β-HSD1 inhibitors that would only act on this very form of the enzyme, and only in the fat tissue.

11β-HSD inhibitors

The first natural 11β-HSD inhibitors were identified some time ago already, but they acted on both forms of the enzyme. The glycyrrhetinic acid (found in liquorice) and carbenoxolone (synthetic ester of the acid used as an anti-ulcerative drug) were the first to be discovered. Although these compounds improved certain health parameters in the metabolic syndrome, they were also found to favour hypertension and had no significant effect on fat reduction.

Other non-selective inhibitors were found among flavonoids obtained from citrus fruit and green tea. The most active of them was naringenin, mostly found in citrus fruit. Naringenin supplementation caused major weight loss and fat reduction, but it also produced side effects such as blood pressure growth and a very high (double) increase in DHEA concentration.

Omega-3 fatty acids in action

The first selective 11β-HSD1 inhibitors discovered were unsaturated omega-3 acids, which are contained in fish. Research showed that DHA was particularly active, favouring fat disintegration and death of fat cells. In her research of 2004, Ruzickova fed two groups of mice. Group one received high-calorie diet rich in fat, with limited supply of omega-3 acids, while the diet of group two was the same, with the only difference being that the supply of omega-3 acids was high. The acids were discovered to prevent obesity through reducing fat accumulation in the adipose tissue (they suppressed the development and reproduction of fat cells).

There were also human studies, conducted by teams headed by: Smith, Thomas, Couet, Thorsdottir, Krebs, Kabir and Alison Hill, and, finally, probably the most interesting of all, carried out by Noreen in 2010. As part of the study, two groups of volunteers were given whale oil (2400 mg of omega-3 acids in total) or sunflower seed oil (placebo) for 6 weeks. In the ‘whale oil’ group, significant muscle growth and fat and cortisol reduction was reported. Additionally, it was noted that cortisol level correlates with total fat: less cortisol means less fat.

Fat burning with DHEA

Another way to effectively burn fat is by taking the DHEA hormone. Athletes usually reach for DHEA to develop muscles, as it is similar to testosterone. Plus, it is a perfect fat burner. It has been known since 1977 already, from Yen’s study in which mice with normal body mass and genetically obese mice were given DHEA. Despite eating the same amounts of food as the third control group, mice from both groups put on weight at a slower pace. Yen carried out one more study, in which volunteers took DHEA for a year. The results pointed to a significant fat reduction with simultaneous, equally significant muscle growth.

Melatonin and Vitamin B6. A well-matched pair of burners.

Another strong cortisol blocker is melatonin. In 2003, Fischer conducted a study in which volunteers were given 5 mg of melatonin 1 hour before bedtime. It was found that their maximum daily cortisol levels dropped significantly. Melatonin has a beneficial effect on the development and activity of the brown adipose tissue of adults. Unlike the white adipose tissue, brown adipose tissue does not store fat in the abdominal area and under the skin. The bigger the content of the brown adipose tissue and the bigger its metabolic activity (which is enhanced by melatonin), the slenderer the figure.

When it comes to Vitamin B6, it acts as a melatonin synthesis catalyst in the body, prolonging and enhancing its effects. Even minor deficiencies of Vitamin B6 impair the production of melatonin. When administered in therapeutic doses, the Vitamin imitates some of the effects of melatonin. Combination of melatonin and Vitamin B6 reduces prolactin and increases somatotropin concentration. Prolactin favours fat accumulation, while somatotropin acts as a strong fat burner and has a strong anabolic effect, with a potential to develop muscles.

Other substances to reduce stress hormone concentration

Omega-3, DHEA and melatonin (when combined with Vitamin B6) have one thing in common: all these block cortisol by inhibiting 11β-HSD. There are also other supplements which, as has been proved in tests, reduce this fattening and ‘muscle-unfriendly’ hormone. Stress hormone concentration is reduced by: resveratrol, soy isoflavones, glutamine, magnesium and phosphatidylserine. The first three of the above have also been proved to reduce the fat tissue.

A lean and muscular body is highly desired by many. You can reduce fat and win nicely-outlined muscles by suppressing the cortisol pool produced in the adipose tissue due to the activity of 11β-HSD1. In certain circumstances, however, adrenal glands also produce excess cortisol. This is mainly in response to stress, hence the name (the stress hormone). Intense effort (especially aerobic) and low-calorie diet (with a low carbohydrate supply) are strong stressors, and lead to cortisol increase. If combined, e.g. in weight reduction programs, these factors cause multiple growth of cortisol concentration in the body.

When starting a diet and a workout routine to shape your body, you should also start a battle against excess cortisol production by your body. To do this, professional bodybuilding performers often reach for draconian methods. For instance, they take hormones that are antagonistic to cortisol, i.e. testosterone, or anabolic steroids derived from testosterone, and somatotropin. Or they use aminoglutethimide, a strong medication that blocks cortisol synthesis in the adrenal glands, which is used in clinical practice exclusively under strict medical control. What they do is in fact a play with fire, as too strong (or complete) cortisol suppression may have very serious consequences for the health. The cortisol inhibitors described above are not harmful to humans. You can take them to enhance your training performance and build up a muscular body with no fat tissue.