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The Cortisol Conundrum


Know as the "stress hormone," cortisol, we demonize it from the very start. Stress—any stress—is primarily viewed as something harmful and to be eradicated. The logic goes something like this: Stress releases cortisol, preparing the body for fight-or-flight. However, if neither a fight nor a flight takes place, the effects of cortisol keep exerting their influence. Over time, this perpetual discharge of cortisol, with no fight or flight release valve, wreaks havoc on the body.

Of course, that is an overly simplistic version of the story. As with many things involving the human body, the truth is more nuanced. Some cortisol is needed—even necessary—to prepare us for battle, be that skirmish in a race situation or a board room. The release of cortisol triggers a flood of glucose into the bloodstream, which serves as an immediate energy source. Cortisol also suppresses immune and digestive system activity, an action that is temporarily desirable during a confrontation. Heart rate increases, and blood pressure elevates in response to a threat, such as the sound of thunder or a competitor overtaking you in the finishing chute. In these situations, cortisol readies the body for action. Damn it; I am not getting passed up! Your body surges; go cortisol.

After the triggering event has passed and you’ve won the race or closed the deal, cortisol levels return to normal in an ideal scenario. But in our modern world, threatening occurrences are everywhere. Races rarely go as expected, and deals fall apart more often than are made. Exacerbating the problem, pick up any paper, or flip on the news, and impending doom and destruction are the main headlines (and when it comes to scrolling through the internet, forget about it). Perceived risk and danger seem woven into our social fabric as a part of our daily existence. The cortisol lever remains perpetually switched on when living in this heightened state of alert.

What can we do? The ideal solution would be for the whole world to mellow the heck out! Good luck with that. The tensions of modern living aren’t going away any time soon. Given this reality, the ideal strategy would now seem to take matters into your own hands. Control what you can control. Rather stoic, I admit (hey, I'm Greek).

A good starting point would be to know your current cortisol status. Companies such as InsideTracker analyze your cortisol levels from a blood sample. The results are one of many tested biomarkers. There are also at-home tests with saliva or urine specific to cortisol exclusively. All of these tests are available without a doctor’s order, so they’re easily obtained. I can feel my stress levels lowering already.

With results in hand, it’s time to formulate a strategy to bring cortisol under control (unless somehow your cortisol levels are normal, which means you’re a monk living on Mt Athos). But if you're like most of us, staring at a screen all day, your cortisol levels are likely spiked—along with your hair. It’s all so overwhelming.

That's where running comes in. Instead of fighting cortisol, put it to use. Some of my fastest runs and most vigorous workouts have come during times of crushing stress. And the effects are lasting. Would I suggest keeping a treadmill and kettlebells in your office? Sure, good idea.

Another good idea is using supplementation to manage cortisol. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown beneficial in regulating cortisol. Hammer Nutrition's ENDUROMEGA is an ideal source of concentrated Omega-3's. Magnesium also helps with normalizing cortisol levels. And ESSENTIAL MG combines five forms of highly bioavailable magnesium, making it my top choice.

Other valuable supplements—primarily for their calming and relaxing properties—include REM CAPS and Hammer Nutrition CBD softgels or tinctures. Getting good quality sleep is tremendously beneficial in controlling cortisol—and not getting good quality is equally detrimental—both REM CAPS and CBD improve deeper sleep cycles. I've experienced these benefits firsthand. Cortisol be damned!

Read more about improving your sleep.

Lastly, learning ways to control your everyday stressful events takes practice and mindfulness, but it can help control the cortisol response. I've never been good at either. But, again, that's where running comes in. John Meynard Kenyes once said: "In the long run, we'll all be dead." If that’s the case, I’ll opt for the long run over stress any day.


Hammer Nutrition global athlete Dean Karnazes is an ultramarathoner and NY Times bestselling author. Dean’s the 3x winner of Competitor Magazine’s Endurance Athlete of the Year crown and a recipient of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition Lifetime Achievement Award.

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