Start of Days: Cortisol & Stress
Cameron Conaway

There are movies, books, songs, political advertisements, religious texts and environmental organizations that use the phrase “end of days.” As a studied poet, I’m trained to flip clichés like rocks to see what is underneath. As an MMA coach and personal trainer, I’m trained to sift through science then apply these findings to my clients.

How does the start of days – the time immediately after we wake – change our bodies chemically? What hormones are released or inhibited? How does breakfast impact these chemicals and hormones? How does our morning mindset affect the rest of our days? And, most importantly, how can we use all of this information to become better overall athletes?

I started research for this article by conducting a serious study…on Facebook. “What motivates you to start your day? (An essay will arise from this informal study. Try to be serious please.)” I posted this question as my Facebook status on Tuesday, October 26. In less than twenty-four hours, close to thirty people responded. They spoke of everything from the need to care for a pet or a child, to the wanting of food and coffee, to the readiness to improve the world through fitness or art or other forms of education.

The beautiful, deeply thought-out responses sat in my mind for a few days. There was a similarity between all responses but I couldn’t quite pin it down. Then it came to me: Fear. Fear was the thread that connected them all. Fear of a pet peeing in the house or dying from not being fed. Fear of not living up to a parent’s influence or expectations. Fear of not getting health insurance. Fear of not having time to oneself before the kids and wife wake up. Fear of not being successful in a society that views success chiefly through the acquisition of green paper. Fear of missing out on learning something new. Fear of breaking routine. Fear of not positively impacting the world. Fear of disappointing a spouse.

Fear is a powerful stressor, perhaps the most powerful stressor, and stress triggers the release of a powerful hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland. Many, many years ago, most human stress was followed by physical action – chasing an animal for food, building a better hut, gathering more berries, etc. The cortisol released then helped us better utilize the protein, fats and carbohydrates in our body so we could move…so we could survive. It allowed us to improve our memory, to reduce the sensation of pain and to help us use our food more efficiently so we could sustain our energy for longer periods of time (deer are fast, fish are agile, huts are fragile). Because we are groggy and therefore vulnerable in the mornings, our body’s cortisol levels are incredibly high upon waking.

So what? These effects seem to be of benefit to the athlete, right?

Not quite. In 2010, most human stress is long-duration psychological stress rather than the short-duration survival stress of our ancestors. With food and shelter so easy to find, our primary concern is no longer fear of survival, but fear of failure. Combine this with the fact that most of us aren’t nearly as active throughout a 24-hour period as humans were a few hundreds years ago, and we have a completely new field of study: the dangers of cortisol.

The type of chronic stress we endure daily can mean chronically high-levels of cortisol throughout the body. This can lead to suppression of thyroid function, cognitive impairment, increased blood pressure, decreased bone density, blood sugar imbalances, a weakened immune system and inflammatory responses, as well as a slower wound healing process.1

For the athlete, this means it becomes easier to overtrain, to get sick, to make a technique mistake and become injured or even to suffer a stress fracture during training.

Chronically high cortisol levels not only contribute to osteoporosis, but they are toxic to brain cells and can lead to short-term memory loss.2

When we move beyond the brain and into the body, we find that because we no longer have immediate physical responses to our high cortisol levels, cortisol makes us…fatter. Cortisol breaks down adipose tissue and moves it into the bloodstream for energy, but what happens when energy isn’t needed? Well, research is finding that instead of burning the triglycerides, cortisol causes these unused fats to be re-deposited in the adipose tissues surrounding the belly.3

Because many competitive sports often have weight classes, we want our clients to carry as much functional muscle on their frames as possible. Carrying fat around the waistline can not only inhibit movement and overall performance, but it also means our clients will have higher body fat levels, possibly weaker bones and less confidence about their bodies--not to mention the cardiovascular health risks that are associated with carrying excess weight around the waist.

So, the start of days is awfully important. When we wake, blood glucose levels are very low and this is a primary fuel source for our brains and muscles. This begs the question: How can our clients best “break the fast” so that they refuel their glucose levels and tone down their fear-induced cortisol levels? Here are ten practical tips to share with them.

(1) Pop your fish oil pill first thing in the morning. Omega 3 fatty acids can lower cortisol levels that are released by mental stress.4

(2) Laugh early; laugh often. Laughter can reduce cortisol levels.5

(3) Eat citrus in the morning. The Vitamin C reduces cortisol levels, and the fructose will help quickly refuel those low blood sugar levels.6

(4) Protein, regardless of source, has the potential to significantly blunt the morning cortisol burst.7

(5) Get your Vitamin D – from pill or sun. According to Diana Schwarzbein, M.D., "Stress contributes to decreased Vitamin D production. The stress hormone cortisol is made from cholesterol. Therefore, a body experiencing any type of stress will, preferentially, use cholesterol to manufacture cortisol, depleting the amount left to make sufficient amounts of Vitamin D."

(6) Focus on the “end of days.” A restful, uninterrupted night of sleep decreases cortisol levels and sets the stage for a better start to your day.8 50-year-olds have much higher nighttime cortisol levels (some estimate 30 times higher) than the average 30-year-old. The reason may be because the younger crowd has a body that affords them better sleep quality.

(7) Magnificent Magnesium. Like powdered Vitamin C, powdered magnesium has shown potential to reduce cortisol levels by supporting the adrenal gland.9 Stressful conditions force the adrenal gland to relentlessly produce cortisol. Side benefit: Because stressed adrenals may lead to depressive states, magnesium can serve as an anti-depressant. Natural Calm is a magnesium product highly recommended by many:

(8) Water. Simply put, a dehydrated body is a stressed body. Sleep and water work synergistically to reduce cortisol. Even slight dehydration before bed can cause the body to work harder to sleep better. Work equals stress and stress equals cortisol. Keep a glass of water by your bed and rather than waking up and sprinting to the sink in absolute cortisol-pumping dry-mouth panic, simply roll over, grab the cup, pound some water and get back to sleeping.

(9) The Trio: Meditation, stretching and the avoidance of jolting alarm clocks. Meditation and light yogic stretching allow the body to unwind and, according to Caroline MacDougall, the CEO of Teeccino, a company that creates caffeine-free herbal coffees and teas, help “the brain to promote the production of alpha (focused alertness) and theta (relaxed) brain waves.” She goes on to say that jolting alarm clocks “take you from delta waves (deep sleep) to beta waves (agitated and anxious).”10

(10) If cortisol is of serious concern, it calls for some drastic measures like cutting caffeine from the diet. Use caffeine when you want a pre-lift supplement, but perhaps look to finding a decaffeinated coffee or tea for your morning beverage. Of course, the decaffeination process often cuts many of the other health benefits of coffee and tea. But 200 mg of caffeine (one 12 oz mug of coffee) increases blood cortisol levels by 30% in one hour and cortisol can remain elevated for up to 18 hours later.

There are supplements on the market like phosphatidylserine and there are a ton of herbs that are showing promise. But maintaining healthy cortisol levels means controlling the parts of our lives that we can control (jobs, workouts, diet) and realizing the areas in life that require letting go (traffic, death of a family member or friend, hot-button political issues). That said, overtraining causes stress and elevated cortisol levels. Work deadlines (we all have them in one way or another) will do the same. So can television talking heads. The ideal life would be to live in a safe area of Tibet somewhere, to work during the day as an organic wild blueberry farmer surrounded by people with identical views who just so happen to be trained Paleo chefs, to be able to control the weather with a clap of the hands, to come home to a fully equipped Olympic weightlifting gymnasium and have a post-workout Thai bodywork massage to rainforest rhythms before falling fast asleep for nine hours in a yet-to-be-developed bed by NASA.

Let’s snap back to reality. Reflect on what motivates you to start your days. After years of thinking about this topic, I can undoubtedly say that I too am fueled in the mornings by a fear of failing others and myself. When you’ve found your reasons, try to find a thread. I think if you look hard enough you might find fear or an association with fear. Then, question your clients. Give them a few days to really explore themselves before checking back in with them. If, as is often the case, fear fuels them, it means their cortisol levels are high in the morning and possibly high throughout each day. Combat cortisol. We armor our bodies with muscle. We armor our technique with practice and good coaching. We armor our minds with research and deep thought. Now it’s time to armor ourselves against stress and the chemicals released by it. We can’t see it, and this makes the fight all the more dangerous.

Works Cited
1. [Cortisol and The Stress Connection. John R. Lee, M.D. and Virginia Hopkins Virginia Hopkins Health Watch, One-to-One Inc., 2009]
2. [Aeron Biotechnology, 2010]
3. [Epel, E.S., B. McEwen, T. Seeman, et al. Stress and body shape: stress-induced cortisol secretion is consistently greater among women with central fat. Psychosomatic Medicine 62:623-632, 2000]
4. Delarue, J; Matzinger, O; Binnert, C; Schneiter, P; Chioléro, R; Tappy, L (Jun 2003). "Fish oil prevents the adrenal activation elicited by mental stress in healthy men" (Free full text). Diabetes & metabolism 29 (3): 289–95.
5. "Cortisol and Catecholamine stress hormone decrease is associated with the behavior of perceptual anticipation of mirthful laughter". The FASEB Journal. Retrieved 2010-06-14.
6. Vitamin C: Stress Buster Psychology Today, published on April 25, 2003
9. Retrieved on 11/3/2010 from:

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Cameron Conaway, MFA, NSCA-CPT, MMACC, was the 2007-2009 Poet-in-Residence at the University of Arizona's MFA Creative Writing Program. He is the author of "Caged: Memoir of a Cage-Fighting Poet," (forthcoming Fall 2011 from Tuttle Publishing) which has received endorsements from UFC Hall of Famer Ken Shamrock and renowned writer Dinty W. Moore. He's 2-0 at 155lbs as a mixed martial artist. Cameron's book of poems, "Until You Make the Shore," will be released January 2012 from Salmon Poetry. Visit for more information.

Read more by Cameron Conaway

David Leitner 2010-12-01
The main problem with this article is it paints cortisol with too broad a brush. Cortisol is an important part of the endocrine system and to insist on lowering it at every opportunity is an uninformed opinion, despite your many citations. And someone who is motivated to change the world or feed a pet is is not motivated by fear but love.

I'm not sure if being a "studied poet" means that you have studied or that you have been studied. I admire anyone who does literature and fitness, but this article needs to be edited for tone (which is narcissistic) and content (which is vapid).
Jim Wilson 2010-12-02
The main problem with your comment is that it assures us you know better but offers so substantive evidence. It's interesting that you chose to criticize the tone of the article when your own tone is considerably more offensive with its pretentiousness and insolence.

And vapid means "lacking liveliness, zest or interest". You must be thinking of another word, because this article is certainly not lacking liveliness; it's quite passionate, in fact, and even humorous.

Next, nowhere did the author state that cortisol had no productive or necessary function in the body. If you read it, you'll notice he makes the point that modern humans tend to deal with stress of a totally different nature and duration than that for which they are physiologically prepared, as well as lacking the biologically expected counteracting physical activity. If that is the case, while it doesn't change the fact that cortisol serves necessary purposes in the body, it doesn't seem hard to imagine that average and maximal cortisol levels in most people these days are considerably higher than can be considered healthy, and far beyond any required levels at any given point of the day. This being true, attempting to lower cortisol levels "at every opportunity" seems neither radical nor uninformed.

Notice as well the article is categorized under "editorial". That shouldn't have to be explained to such a learned interwebz commentator.

You clearly don't admire anyone who "does" literature and fitness, because the preceding sentence is a limp-wristed but unmistakable insult to the author.

Your comment reads like that of a college freshman who just read a new chapter in some 101 book and is now confident is his expertise... on everything. Rather than waste everyone's time with such empty commentary, why don't you put your extensive knowledge to good use and write an article yourself to enlighten the rest of us? Or do you not have the intestinal fortitude--or perhaps content--to withstand criticism yourself?
Nicolas Warren 2010-12-02
I liked this article, especially the 10 practical steps.
David Leitner 2010-12-16
Somebody is a prickly pear!

Studies that appear to show positive effects of cortisol:
* Cortisol improves mood.
"Corticosteroid receptor mediated effects on mood in humans."

* Cortisol elevates leptin.
"Dose-dependent cortisol-induced increases in plasma leptin concentration in healthy humans."

* Cortisol enhances performance.
"Glucocorticoids: a doping agent?"

BTW, I'm afraid I came off as ungrateful for the free articles. I appreciate this site and if I find an article disagreeable in the future, I think I will keep my mouth shut. If readers have found the above article helpful, then I stand corrected.
Karlos 2013-08-15
Great article except the fear motivated aspect, my pup treats first thing in the morning have nothing to do with fear, changing the world in our own small way has nothing to do with societal expectations and more to do with self serving feel good factors

Given the MMA connection though I could understand how u feel that way as the elimination or reduction of fear in that environment is a positive thing, just not fully applicable to the world at large
Emily 2014-01-19
Great article! Question...often I teach a 6am class and sometimes do a short lifting session prior to going home and having breakfast before my longer lifting session of the day. As a female who easily stores body fat in her lower abdominal well as is looking to gain strength and increase my overall oly lifts....would you recommend having some sort of small protein meal prior to coaching/ short training...or is fasted for that time period ok?
Greg Everett 2014-01-22
Emily -

You just need to do what works best for you. Try both ways and stick with the better one.
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