Stressed out? Cortisol and Creatine Kinase Play Big Roles

By Laura Ligos, RD Aug 17, 2016

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Being stressed out is a 21st century trend. If you're not stressed, you must be doing something wrong, right? If you're sleep-deprived, over-trained, and constantly busy, then you are deemed “super(wo)man.” Right? Well, that's wrong. When did this become the norm, and why do we think we can keep charging full speed ahead?

While we may tell ourselves that more is better, it is important to check in and see if our bodies can tolerate the way we are living. Ever been tired, but once you hit the bed you're suddenly wired? What about having a full night’s rest and waking up exhausted? This is not normal, despite the fact that many people experience such feelings. And we shouldn't trudge through life this way. Our stress hormone, cortisol, is a key component in these patterns, and it's important to understand what we are looking for when it comes to stress.

Subscribe To Our BlogCortisol is a stress hormone, produced by our adrenal glands (the little hats that sit atop our kidneys) and is responsible for responding to both physical and emotional stress. Creatine kinase, on the other hand, is a reflection of our body’s reaction to exercise, a certain type of stress, or a test of overall body strain.

Our stress response is meant for acute situations, like running from a predator that is chasing us, or maybe even just a fun workout. If that predator, however, becomes our commute to work, our relationship with someone, our job, or a workout that's too intense, then it becomes a chronic problem and our health takes a hit.

How cortisol works

Cortisol is an important hormone for both men and women. Many think if we just rid ourselves of it, we’d be better off. But too little cortisol actually cause other issues for our overall health. Cortisol levels are meant to follow our circadian rhythm. As we wake in the morning, our cortisol levels should be at their highest, and should fall throughout the day, reaching their lowest point around midnight, or 2 hours after falling asleep. Cortisol is best known for our “fight or flight” response, and can be essential at times of dire stress to increase energy production.

How creatine kinase works

Creatine Kinase (CK) is an enzyme that rises when muscle damage occurs. This value allows us to see how our bodies are reacting to training load and intensity.  It peaks about 2-4 days after intense exercise and returns to normal levels (< 200 units) in about the same amount of time. A chronically elevated CK will most likely result in muscle pain, weakness, injury, and more - not ideal for top athletic performance.

Here's what you can do about it...

Meditate

Everyone is different in how they meditate, but finding time to yourself to reflect on your life has been shown to be helpful. Even something as simple as taking time off of social media would be best, and could be considered a form of meditation for those that are always connected. Imagine waking up to a nature walk as opposed to your Facebook feed!

Add low impact exercise (or use it to replace high intensity/high volume training)

By adding things like yoga, swimming, and long walks on the beach (no this is not just a dating profile perk) you can see reductions in your cortisol AND your stress levels both from things like exercise, work, and relationships.

Get rid of excess stressors

While we’d love to tell you to quit your job or end your stressful relationship, that is not always realistic, and we get that. What you can change are things like a stressful commute (or maybe even just the way you react to it), avoiding the news before bedtime, or changing how you react to certain stressors, etc.

Catch more zzz’s

We think we can sleep when we are dead, but news flash: we put way more stress on our body from poor sleep habits than you may realize. Getting adequate sleep (>6 hours per night) is essential to helping your body recover and stay in tip top shape.

Add ashwagandha

Never heard of it before? Check out our post all about how this simple and natural supplement can help you reduce your cortisol. Remember there is no magic pill, but this might just be the push your cortisol needs to head in the right direction.

Physical versus emotional stress

While it is important to not push yourself over the edge, it is also important to note where your stress is coming from. Many times, athletes of all abilities are found complaining of adrenal fatigue or "overtraining." And while these are nothing to ignore or scoff at, sometimes their Internet search on their feelings is far off base.

Stress can come from all areas of life, and sometimes our bodies have difficulty identifying which type of stress they're dealing with. However, sometimes there is a big delineation between physical and emotional stress, and it’s important to know the difference, especially if you are training for a big event.

Physical stress can come from many avenues, but for the sake of simplicity, today we are going to make the assumption that it is coming from exercise or sport. This wear and tear from pushing the body to new limits is the way that we improve and work our way towards new goals.  It is an acute stress (or should be) that is combatted with sufficient sleep, proper hydration, active recovery days, rest days, and a diet rich in antioxidants.

Emotional stress may be very subjective but can cause serious issues such as anxiety, depression, poor sleep, etc. We often put this type of stress upon ourselves, and it can become a chronic issue that if left alone, can leave us both emotionally and physically drained. This emotional stress is not just limited to traumatic events, but can also come from negative self-talk and self-criticism.

While we can distinguish between the two types of stress outwardly, does our body take notice? Absolutely! It's important to see if someone who is training for a sport/event is in fact stressed out, overtrained, or not.

We like to look at blood work to determine what our bodies are telling us and what we can ultimately do about it.

Physical stress, without the presence of emotional stress, will appear in the body as follows:

  • Normal or optimized Cortisol
  • Normal or high Creatine Kinase

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If emotional stress is the culprit, we will see the opposite:
  • High or not-optimized Cortisol
  • Normal or low Creatine Kinase

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Now, if there is both physical and emotional stress going on, we will no doubt see biomarkers that are all over the place. That would be a telltale sign where the brakes need to be applied both in training and in life. 

Who cares?

You may be wondering why all this matters anyway. It matters because it is important to know how your body is handling stress. Many clients come in thinking they have “adrenal fatigue” or “high cortisol,” when in fact, they may have chronically elevated creatine kinase, low iron, B12, vitamin D, or just a perceived level of high stress and burnout. That's why checking your blood is important. If you start supplementing for a problem you do not actually have, you are not helping the root cause of your suffering and may create other problems.

On the other hand, some clients have no idea that the internal stress they are putting on themselves from worrying about the last comment they made on social media or watching the evening news is causing their body to respond with a high cortisol level and perhaps even completely out of whack blood glucose levels. They may end up bottling it up and putting the blame on themselves and not the situation and avoiding the deeper problem at hand.

Chronically elevated cortisol can lead to issues with weight, immunity, and chronic disease. Chronically elevated Creatine Kinase can lead to muscle fatigue, injury and decreased athletic performance. It is not something to guess about and also not something to ignore. Take control of your stress and figure out the root of it all by testing today and monitoring overtime.
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