NOTE: This is a guest post by new fellow biohacker Chris Black who blogs at attainyourpotential.com.
This week I went deep into often overlooked things that undermine our quest to improve ourselves, making us feel like when we climb up the muddy hill of self-development we often slide back down. I realised that many of the pitfalls of our lifestyle had one thing in common: they lead to an imbalance of cortisol. This is exemplified in two common problems: industrialized food, and the tendency of people to over-train.
The Effects of Cortisol
Cortisol is a hormone that has become hyperactive in most people due to the modern lifestyle. Our bodies are designed for short, sharp bursts of cortisol in emergency ‘fight or flight’ situations. But instead factors in today’s world, like stress and diet, lead to chronically elevated levels of this hormone. This imbalance can wreck the body.
Cortisol’s primary effects are increasing blood sugar and supressing the immune system. Cortisol also opposes testosterones effects by breaking down muscle and promoting adipose tissue (fat) as well as killing bone formation (YS Chyun, 1984). It is even suspected to even suppress circulating testosterone levels (DC Cumming, 2013).
And…you will also see that cortisol is associated with an over-arching feeling of depression. It has not been determined whether high levels of cortisol is the cause or result of such mood disorders, but if you have it, it ain’t good! It would not surprise me if cortisol is partly responsible as the effects of hormones tend to hit you on many different levels.
The Modern Food Chain
As I have said before, there is cause for concern about oestrogens in non-organic meat (and related dairy) products that are injected into livestock to enhance the body weight of the animal (along with a healthy dose of antibiotics!). This problem is exacerbated by the poor treatment of the animals which gives them a stressful life: cramped conditions and no opportunity for them to fulfil their natural desires. This leads to a build-up of cortisol in the animals, just like it does with stressed humans. This is passed on up the food chain adding to the high levels of cortisol caused by the stressful modern lifestyle (if not properly managed).
The best way to avoid this is to eat organic as that guarantees that the animals you eat will have had a certain quality of life. There are minimum standards that a farmer has to abide by to sell food labelled organic food: animals must be ‘free range’ with access to fields with plenty of space – as well as avoiding the old antibiotic and hormone injections! (http://www.soilassociation.org)
Overtraining also increases the dreaded hormone cortisol as well as destroying the wellbeing you get from healthy exercise (PJ O’Connor, 1989). Overtraining is understandably a common tendency for those who strive for excellence but this is another example of how effort is not linearly related to results: you have to be intelligent and wise about how you develop yourself. This is a pattern I notice in many other areas of self-development, whether it be the classic fighting with your own thoughts in meditation or working long hours and not taking time off which kills your creativity.
For me, it comes down to your level of consciousness, because if you can’t recognise these self-defeating patterns in your life, then you can’t do anything about them! The Tao Te Ching, one of the oldest spiritual texts in existence, observes this age old pit fall in human endeavour: ‘Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt’.
The best thing to do, whether you are into endurance, heavy lifting or even crossfit is to realize that real progress and the strengthening of the body, happens when you rest. I always give muscle groups a minimum of 48 hours or two nights sleep worth of rest to ensure complete recovery and that seems to be enough to avoid fatigue.
Chyun YS, Kream BE, Raisz LG, 1984, „Cortisol decreases bone formation by inhibiting periosteal cell proliferation“, Endocrinology
DC Cumming, 2013, Acute Suppression of Circulating Testosterone Levels by Cortisol in Men, Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism
PJ O’Connor, 1989, Mood state and salivary cortisol levels following overtraining in female swimmers, Journal of Psychoneuroendocrinology