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Cortisol: Optimising The Stress Hormone To Combat Burnout

In today’s world, burnout is an all-too-familiar feeling for athletes and non-athletes alike. You might not consider yourself Type-A, but modern stressors and the complexity of leading a stable life can easily have you acting like it. 

Fortunately, we have hormones to deal with just such stressors. Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, is our first line of defense against such things. It gets a bad rap, but this is an absolutely essential piece of our biology. 

In small doses, cortisol is great for our health. Unfortunately, this normally acute hormone has become a chronic one, and bad things happen when it’s constantly in our system. We can go for months and even years without burning out completely, but a constant state of cortisol secretion blunts other hormones, and when we run out of cortisol, we’re left with none of the benefits and all of the pitfalls. 

By first understanding Cortisol, we can begin to understand how our body responds to stress. From there, we can modify our routines, shift our focus, and use a host of techniques to support a healthy cortisol rhythm. The result? Happiness, health, and resilience in the face of a stressful modern world. 

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is most commonly referred to as “the stress hormone” and it plays a critical role in the fight-or-flight response. Cortisol is not in-and-of-itself a bad thing. In fact, it serves many important functions, such as blunting the pain response, lowering inflammation, and increasing your sense of sight and sound so you can better identify sources of danger. 

Basically, when hunting a buffalo or fleeing a lion, cortisol is your best friend. The problem is, we don’t really have lion encounters anymore. Instead, our biology responds to work deadlines, traffic, and one too many gym sessions all the same. So what? If cortisol has all these benefits, what’s so bad about producing it all day.

For one thing, cortisol is a bit of a bully hormone. It blunts other hormones from being released, which is why it is crucial to have low cortisol at night. Sleep is prime time for anabolic hormone production, especially Human Growth Hormone. If your cortisol is high at night, it will block other hormones like testosterone, HGH, estrogen, or pregnenolone from doing their work. 

The second half of the puzzle is that norepinephrine, AKA adrenaline, is released simultaneously with cortisol. Cortisol helps negate the negative effects of adrenaline, but cortisol is expensive to make and you can run out. When cortisol is depleted, you end up releasing only adrenaline. The result? Feelings of anxiety, heart palpitations, and other issues with none of the benefits. 

Chronic cortisol secretion becomes a one-two knockout punch of bottoming out your other hormones and then leaving you anxious and wired when cortisol itself eventually burns out too. 

Varying levels of cortisol depletion have different names. At one end, overproduction is Cushing’s disease, and at the other is Addison’s disease (zero production.) 

However, cortisol dysfunction really sits on a spectrum. Most functional medicine practitioners refer to sub-optimal cortisol function as adrenal fatigue. Most of us are living with some level of adrenal fatigue. At the mild level, you can probably recover from workouts, but you have a stressful life and don’t support your cortisol with recovery habits or supplements. You’re fine right now but you may not be in a few years. 

Others have dealt with full-on adrenal burnout. One workout too many, or big stress like a family emergency sent us over the deep end. Since then we’ve dealt with years of deeply uncomfortable symptoms ranging anywhere from anxiety to full-blown panic attacks, not to mention fatigue and brain fog. Late-stage cortisol dysfunction is kind-of like diabetes but with stress instead of sugar. It can take years for your body to begin producing cortisol again, and even then only with the support and an optimal environment. 

The good news is that supporting your cortisol is easy. You can lead a very active and busy life without burnout. Making a schedule, expressing gratitude, sleeping well, recovering from your workouts, and a whole host of other tools can help you optimize your cortisol. If you are at some level of burnout, tactics involving your diet, certain herbs, and work with a functional medicine practitioner can all be valuable assets. 

The Evolutionary Workweek

Humans who live in hunter-gatherer societies are one of our best tools for guessing what optimal social interaction, diet, activity, and stress levels would be. One of the most powerful ways to understand burnout in modern society is by understanding how different the workweek of a hunter-gatherer is. In studies since the 1940s, it has been observed that even in harsh climates, modern hunter-gatherers work closer to 15 hours a week. This is based specifically on the actions of foragers, who probably work the longest, and other roles may work even less often. Compared to the 40-hour and climbing workweek of civilized humans, hunter-gatherers have significantly more leisure time. 

Yes, when tribal people do face hardships, it is sometimes much harsher than anything we’d ever face, but that’s what cortisol is designed for acute stressors that happen occasionally. 

The rest of the time, hunter-gatherers such as the Hadza are observed to rest long hours. 

Even in the most conservative estimates, which take household tasks like cooking and tie them into “work” hunter-gatherers work at most 75% to 80% as much as their western counterparts (and I personally dislike these estimates, since westerners have household tasks to do on top of their work as well.)

Then there’s the element of group identity and happiness within a tribe. In Sebastian Junger’s book “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” Junger makes powerful connections between the life of a hunter-gatherer and the happiness of tribe members. Social connections and sense of purpose and place are strong in hunter-gatherer groups, whereas loneliness and depression from lack of social connection are pervasive in modern society. 

We all likely have at least mild cortisol dysfunction. Unless you live like a hunter-gatherer, with a robust and truly connected community, simple straightforward work mainly involving your hands, lots of leisure time, and little need to worry or think deeply about the future, then you are under more stress than you are biologically optimized for. 

That’s ok. The modern world has many benefits, including a higher likelihood of survival from injury, a lower chance of ever running from a predator who wants to eat you, and all the wonders of pursuing knowledge, improvement, and the betterment of society. We just need to accept that we’re already starting at a handicap when it comes to stress. This way we can notice the places we can optimize our recovery and do our best to bulletproof ourselves. 

Identifying Burnout

So while we all have some level of stress, how can we more specifically Identify it? Even with mild cortisol dysfunction, most people can recover enough to maintain their lives and even improve. We still want to supplement our lives with as much cortisol optimizing tactics as possible, but you can think of it like maintenance if you are doing well generally. 

One of the most reliable ways to monitor your stress is by monitoring your HRV using devices like the Oura Ring or WHOOP. Heart-rate Variability, or HRV, is a measurement that directly reflects the function of your autonomic nervous system. HRV scores that are consistent, high, and generally improving mean you’re probably doing well. Scores that are inconsistent, low, and/or generally declining are signs of burnout that will eventually lead to issues if not addressed. 

Beyond HRV, we can guess at our cortisol status by observing symptoms of stress in our lives or by observing lifestyle patterns. Any and all of the following can be signs of burnout. The more of these you have, the poorer your cortisol rhythm is likely to function, though different people will have different capacities.

Signs of Cortisol Dysfunction:

  • Anxiety

  • Tense muscles

  • Depression

  • Fatigue

  • Restlessness

  • Difficulty going to sleep or staying asleep

  • Waking up tired

  • Feeling inflamed, achy, sore, etc. 

  • Excess body fat

  • Too little salt in your diet

  • Sugar cravings

  • Panic attacks

  • Mental health problems

  • Energy and mood fluctuations

  • Brain fog

If your cortisol rhythm is relatively healthy, meaning you’re managing the stress in your life over-all, a small few of these symptoms may come and go. If you have severe symptoms from the list above, many of them, or have had symptoms for a long time, you’re probably more burned out. 

Thankfully, most people have a lot of low hanging fruit available for quickly optimizing their cortisol to a massive extent. Many of the tactics in this guide can be a huge boost to your cortisol health for absolutely free. One of the biggest, for example, is sleep. 


If you only act on one section of this article, it should be this one. Sleep is one of the most important bodily processes we have and is also one of the most poorly kept. Considering sleep is absolutely free, while also being so incredibly important for health, I recommend optimizing one’s sleep schedule as the first and foremost tactic for improving any aspect of your life. 

How important is sleep? Well, this is the only time your body activates the glymphatic system, whereby the brain is washed with lymph fluid to remove toxins and heal. Not convinced that’s such a big deal? Sleep is also when memories are processed and categorized. This process which occurs during the rapid-eye-movement (REM) portion of sleep seems to be the most important part of the night. 

People can survive and thrive without the other parts of their sleep cycles, but missing REM sleep has drastic effects on the brain and body. Sure, sure, there’s the American myth that less sleep is necessary to achieve any real success. After all, time is money, right? Wrong. 

Not one, but two men who’ve held the title of richest man alive both prioritize sleep. Jeff Bezos of Amazon has said that sleeping less in order to have more time is almost always not worth it due to work quality losses, and both Bezos and Bill Gates prioritize 7 to 8 hours a night. And you might guess this is pretty important for avoiding burnout too. Sleep is the keystone of your hormone rhythms. A stable and high-quality sleep schedule is one of the best ways to optimize your Cortisol, so we start here. Now, sleep is a huge topic and there are as many tactics for better sleep as there are minutes in a day. With that in mind, we’re gonna focus on some of the easiest and most powerful tactics I’ve used for better sleep. 

1. Sleep At Consistent Times

Research on shift workers clearly shows that a consistent sleep schedule is more important than total hours slept. Workers who have unstable sleep schedules suffer far higher rates of disease and dysfunction than those who sleep at consistent times, even when those people sleep at odd hours 

It also seems that waking up at a consistent time is more important than when you go to bed. Generally, try to wake up at the same time every morning and go to bed within 1 hour of the same time at night. When should these times be? This has flexibility based on your chronotype. Some people genuinely do their best sleeping at late hours and others are true early risers. 

However, I try to follow my ancestral roots as best I can, so I sleep and wake with the sun by being in bed by 10 and stopping my use of devices and electronics even earlier (approximately 8:30 pm for me.)

Why the suggestion about devices? I’m glad you asked:

2. Leave Your Phone in Another Room By Sundown and Stop Using Electronics


Everyone loves to dive into the latest piece of expensive sleep gear or try the fringe tactic, but the best thing I’ve ever done for my sleep is to leave my phone in another room. 

Research shows that people who use their phones in bed stay up later and suffer lower quality sleep. This is likely due to the many distracting elements on a phone, but we also know that the blue light from your screens interferes with circadian rhythm and delays sleep onset. 

Journaling before bed is also linked to better sleep quality. Want to boost the effect even more? Write a detailed to-do list of your plans for the coming day. It doesn’t matter if you adhere to these plans, just write them down. This study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that the more detailed a to-do list before bed, the better one’s sleep outcomes.

It makes sense. Instead of a head filled with worries and concerns, you have a plan. In having a plan, you can naturally relax. 

3. Turn Down The Thermostat

Lower core temperatures aid in the release of sleep hormones. Generally, a room that is 16 to 19 degrees Celcius is considered optimal for sleep, with higher temperatures associated with poorer sleep quality. 

Want to go the extra mile? One of the single-most recommended tools in Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans is the ChiliPAD. Out of hundreds of top athletes, millionaires, and top performers, this device came out on top. 

The ChiliPAD is a mattress cover that has cold water run through it by a device they call the ChiliPAD Cube. The result? Total bed-time temperature control, even if you share a bed. 

It’s a little on the pricey side, but if you’re going to invest in sleep gear, this is where I’d do it. 


Beyond sleep, I believe movement is the next great domain for improving our cortisol rhythm and avoiding overtraining. Though the modern world is full of chronic low-grade stressors, it contains far less acute high-grade scenarios. 

This might seem like a good thing, but you actually need some stimulus to train and improve your fight-or-flight response. In my opinion, this is one of the main benefits of exercise. 

However, like many things, lots of people overdo it and then don’t properly recover. That’s where mobility comes in. 

Mobility offers the opportunity to literally relieve stress held in your body, not to mention improving the health of your nervous system. Foam rolling and tissue mashing has been associated with improving Heart Rate Variability scores in the short term. This means you can use such work as a stress mitigator throughout your day. 

Minimum Effective Dose: 15 Minutes A Day

At a minimum, I suggest 15 minutes of mobility work with at least one tissue mashing MOB every morning. This is based on Dr. Starrett’s suggestion in “Becoming A Supple Leopard.” When it comes to mobility, consistency wins out over intensity, and this also holds true for stress management. 

Having a daily mobility practice means also having a daily nervous system recovery practice. The benefit of this cannot be overstated. If you can, I also suggest an exclusively tissue-mashing practice before bed. 10 minutes of foam rolling is great for winding down the nervous system before hitting the hay. Combine this with the tactics mentioned earlier and you’ll sleep like a baby. 

Ideal: 3 or more 1-hour Mobility Sessions A Week

One of my favorite anecdotes is that of Navy Seal, ultra-marathoner, and pull-up record holder David Goggins. Goggins is the image of mental toughness. A man who defeated an abusive childhood to become a Navy SEAL, and who entered the world of ultra-marathon by doing a 100-mile qualifier the day after a hard weight-training session and with no recent running training (it also nearly killed him.)

If there’s an example on this earth that willpower can be built to conquer any challenge, it’s David, but even for him, the life he lived took a toll. Years into ultra-marathoning, David began experiencing symptoms of chronic disease. From fatigue to swelling and fainting, his body was breaking down. 

David had always had large knots of tissue on his hips and behind his skull, and he noticed they’d enlarged alongside his symptoms. Remembering a seminar in the Navy by a mobility specialist, David began stretching for 2 hours a day. Over time, the knots began to disappear, as did his symptoms. 

This is why I recommend 3 to 5 long mobility sessions a week, for 6 to 8 weeks. Every athlete could stand to make mobility their prime directive for at least the length of one training cycle. 

The fascia tissue in our body connects every muscle, organ, and bone to every other, and this tissue builds and holds tension alongside our stress levels. I believe this tissue literally holds stress related to memories and trauma, and anecdotal evidence supports this theory. 

Therefore, I cannot think of many tactics better than dedicated mobility work for reducing stress. Meditation is up there, but as evidenced by such practices as Qigong and Yoga, movement can easily be your meditation. 


Oh, the cliche! 

Eh, I don’t even care how it sounds at this point. If you aren’t on the meditation train yet, you don’t know what you’re missing. If I were to guess though, the biggest obstacle is just not knowing how to get started. 

Meditation is tied to all sorts of mystical beliefs, bordering on the psychedelic. While you can certainly pursue internal awareness to an astounding degree, 90% of the benefit of meditation is had from simple practices performed for a few minutes a day. 

In this fast-paced world, we rarely have time to just sit and be still unless we make that time. It’d be one thing if we lived in a tribe. Hell, some of my first meditative experiences were on camping trips when I just happened to spend 30 minutes admiring nature. Good luck accidentally meditating like that at your job. 

Luckily, meditation can be quite easy, at least to get started. For the purposes of stress reduction, I’d suggest an awareness-based meditation such as box breathing or “sacred silence.” These are from the work of Navy SEAL commander, martial artist, and Yogi Mark Divine. 

Box Breathing

To perform a box breathing meditation, inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath at the top for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, and hold the bottom for 4 seconds. Breathe using your nose and count your breaths. This form of breathing focuses on learning to relax by needing less oxygen. 

Now, sit down comfortably with your back straight, close your eyes, and breathe. Do not judge your thoughts, just count your breaths and breathe.

Sacred Silence

Want to graduate a bit? You could try a “sacred silence” meditation. This one is more focused on emptying the mind, which can be simultaneously frustrating and rewarding.

To do this meditation, take 5 deep nasal breaths. When you’re done, “breathe how your lungs want to,” and do not consciously control your breathing. Imagine you are sitting at the bottom of a tranquil pond. When you have thoughts, imagine them forming into bubbles that rise to the surface of the pond and disappear. 

After an amount of time that feels natural, let the pond image fade, and see how many breaths you can take without a thought in your mind. If thoughts start to appear, see them turn into bubbles, rise to the top, and disappear. Whenever you have this occur, restart your breathing. 

Mark suggests practicing for 5 minutes unless you make it to 10 breaths without a thought. A word to the wise, Mark also claims that in his decades of practice, he has never succeeded in making it to 10. That’s not really the point. 

Resonance Training

Want to biohack your meditation for targeted stress control? You can use a device like the Emwave2 by The Heartmath Institute to actively improve your nervous system. 

It’s been found that we all have a specific breathing cadence that improves our HRV scores in the short run. Devices can be used to track your HRV and guide your breathing to optimize this cadence. Known as resonance training, this can be used both to improve your overall stress response, as well as learn how to breathe when you are out in the world. 

Gratitude Journaling

Lastly, I strongly recommend a gratitude practice in the morning. It’s important to have science backing our claims, but I worry we often miss the deeper stuff that might be truly important. 

No matter how many tactics you fill your life with, a good gauge for your stress is how generally happy you feel, whether you enjoy your life and have a sense of purpose, and how grateful you feel. 

Any lifestyle can either be celebrated or taken for granted, so I suggest thinking about what you are grateful for as an active and daily practice. 

Every morning upon waking, still in bed, I write down at least 3 things I am grateful for. Then I just sit with those thoughts and let the true feelings of gratitude wash through me. Expressing gratitude for your life and the things in it reframe your worldview. Instead of having survival-based, scarcity mindsets, you see the ways you are lucky.

Get Tactical

Sleep well, mobilise, and meditate. Do these three things well, and most people won’t ever need another stress tactic ever again. 

Still, others will have unique scenarios. Athletes, for example, often push their body’s to the limit physically. Maybe you do everything here already, but you also train hard 5 times a week.

You also may have a very high-stress job or living scenario, or perhaps you’ve had a major health crash, and recovering means doing everything right rather than just most things. 

In this part of the guide, I’ll talk about more targeted techniques for Cortisol optimization. You should still think of the first sections as the bulk and start with them. Trying a supplement or adopting ice baths when you still sleep poorly is just avoiding the real work. 

With that said, hard chargers often have uncompromising lifestyles, and Saunas, supplements, and other techniques can help when it’s impossible to improve any more on things like sleep. 

Train To Prevent Overtraining

Since most of the readers here are or have been athletic, we’ll start by addressing overtraining. Overtraining is just burnout that is primarily caused by your workouts. Some people can go months at a hard pace without batting an eye, while others need to be careful with even a few weeks. 

In general, I think every athlete should take 1 full week off from training at least every 12 weeks.

This tactic, known as over-reaching, helps athletes break through stagnation and plateaus while simultaneously recovering. The harder you train, the more necessary this is. 

The other tactic is to train far less often in general, but train harder. I’m talking 2 or 3 workouts a week tops. Instead of training hard 5 days a week, train really hard 2 or 3 times a week, then prioritize recovery and mobility on the other days. 

You’ll still make progress and gains on a program like this, but with a much lower risk of injury or overtraining. I find that people tend to fall into two categories with this: People who exercise for fun, and people who exercise for health. 

If you love training often, it may be easier to stick with the first tactic. Exercise and athletics can offer a welcome reprieve from things, and you shouldn’t deprive yourself of your hobbies. 

If your focus is more about health, exercising less often at a higher intensity may actually be more effective. Exercise breaks your body down, then you improve while you recover. Some of the best results I’ve ever seen were from programs that involved as little as one workout a week. By making sure I was always recovering fully, gains were smooth and consistent.

Cold Thermogenesis

Cold thermogenesis means using the cold to recover faster. Even simple cold showers have been shown anecdotally to improve HRV scores for long periods of time. You can augment any lifestyle for better stress control by swapping your regular showers for cold showers. 

For beginners, try alternating between hot and cold every 10 to 20 seconds, and always end with cold water. A few rounds of this is plenty. 

For those who are more interested or just braver, there is a growing community of hardcore icemen and women who are jumping into frozen lakes, doing daily ice baths, and wearing little to no clothing during their winter runs. 

The benefits? At least anecdotally speaking, everything from controlling Parkinson’s disease to accelerated wound healing. 

There appears to be a deep biological process inside all of us that can activate to adapt us to the cold. If you’d like to learn more about this, I strongly suggest looking into the work of the Wim Hof Institute. Don’t just go jumping into frozen rivers and expecting to turn into superman. Your body needs to build up to it, and breathing properly is a major component, but cold therapy activates what is for most of us a long-dormant piece of our metabolic health. 

This is not to be confused with icing your injuries. Cold therapy is about your metabolic health and activating a dormant part of our physiology. Using cold to reduce inflammation, especially by icing an injury, may actually slow the repair process.

Get Your Diet Right

Food sensitivities cause cortisol responses to stop inflammation. It’s been my experience both personally and observationally that the more burned out an individual, the more food sensitivities they tend to have. This may be due to too little or too much cortisol when they eat inflammatory foods. 

Diet is a deep and personal topic. Almost every healthy whole food is a sensitivity to someone, but you can start by eliminating foods that are unhealthy for everyone. I strongly recommend avoiding unstable vegetable oils. These are in almost everything, so I’m basically asking you to forgo all pre-packaged and processed foods. 

True avocado oil and extra virgin olive oil are good, but these are often cut with bad inflammatory oils. Saturated fats like coconut oil or grass-fed butter and ghee are also fine. 

For the most part, everything else is a highly oxidized oil that is foreign to human diets and causes inflammation without fail. Dr. Cate Shanahan does a great job opening this topic in her book Deep Nutrition. 

Beyond vegetable oils, avoiding excess sugar and processed sugar is smart. Then staying away from the most common food sensitivities such as grains and dairy is a good choice too. You’ll have to play around with it to find out what is optimal for you, but these are some of the top sources of dietary inflammation for everyone. 


While hunter-gatherers may face larger occasional stressors than societal man, they had much more leisure time and the problems of the day pertained to only that day. This is nothing to mention the robust community support and sense of purpose further reducing their stress burden. 

So while we try to build complex, far-reaching lives, we also run through our hormonal resources. Even the most chill among us likely have some level of cortisol disruption.

To optimize your cortisol and avoid burnout means optimizing our ability to weather stress, relieve tension, and recover. Considering sleep is one of the recovery bedrocks of our hormonal biology, start there. 

Beyond sleep, a deep mobility practice can relieve literal tension from your tissues. Anecdotally, the body stores traumas and tension in your physical body can manifest as stress-related disease. Taking the time to literally roll out your body with proven mobility techniques is an invaluable asset in the modern world.

Finally, finding gratitude through practice and meditation is so important, I think it should be taught in schools. You don’t need to connect to a spiritual world, just practice a few minutes of stillness every day. 

If your lifestyle restricts you from optimizing things like sleep, or you want to add in other tactics, things like avoiding inflammatory foods, cold thermogenesis, and avoiding overtraining in your athletics can all work wonders for Cortisol as well. 

Lastly, if you have deep burnout that feels like a true chronic condition, you can use all these techniques but you should also work with a functional medicine practitioner to test your hormones and see if you need extra support. 

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