For most of us, stress is a fact of life. Unfortunately, research reveals that it’s also a fact of fat. Even if you usually eat well and exercise, chronic high stress can prevent you from losing weight—or even add pounds.
Here’s what happens: Your body responds to all stress in the same way. Every time you have a stressful day, your brain instructs your cells to release potent hormones. You get a burst of adrenaline, which taps stored energy so you can fight or flee. At the same time, you get a surge of cortisol, which tells your body to replenish that energy even though you haven’t used very many calories. This can make you hungry…very hungry. And your body keeps on pumping out that cortisol as long as the stress continues.
But few of us reach for carrots in these situations. Instead, we crave sweet, salty, and high-fat foods because they stimulate the brain to release pleasure chemicals that reduce tension. This soothing effect becomes addicting, so every time you’re anxious, you want fattening foods.
With your adrenal glands pumping out cortisol, production of the muscle-building hormone testosterone slows down. Over time, this drop causes a decrease in your muscle mass, so you burn fewer calories. This occurs naturally as you age, but high cortisol levels accelerate the process. Cortisol also encourages your body to store fat—especially visceral fat, which is particularly dangerous because it surrounds vital organs and releases fatty acids into your blood, raising cholesterol and insulin levels and paving the way for heart disease and diabetes.
What Is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that falls under the glucocorticoid group. It is produced using cholesterol by the two adrenal glands located in your kidneys. This hormone is released when you experience stress, exercise and even when you wake up in the morning. It is an important hormone in your body working to maintain homeostasis by determining your energy needs. This hormone is part of the “fight-or-flight” response. It can temporarily slow processes not associated with the stressor and increases the energy produced by various metabolic pathways. When you are stressed, this hormone works by choosing the type of energy you need, whether from fats, proteins or carbohydrates, and how much you need to evade with the stressor.
Where it comes into concern is that over long periods of time where you are experiencing frequent high stress and chronically elevated cortisol, there can be a negative effect on immune function, weight/ weight gain and increased risk of chronic disease.
What happens is that you are faced with a stress and a hormone cascade is triggered and cortisol is secreted. It causes the body to flood it with glucose to supply energy for a “fight-or-flight” and keeps insulin from storing the glucose. Cortisol further narrows the arteries and your heart rate increases. Eventually the stress goes away and your hormone levels return to normal, but a constantly fast-paced life full of stresses can cause the body to frequently secrete cortisol, resulting in negative health outcomes.
Some of the negative health outcomes and associated diseases include weight gain and obesity, diabetes and blood sugar imbalances, GI problems, immune system suppression, insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, thyroid disorders, dementia, depression, fertility issues and cardiovascular disease.
Specifically for insulin resistance and diabetes, the effects of long term stress and resulting cortisol can have huge impacts. When you are stressed, cortisol causes the body to access your protein stores to make energy for you to fight or flee the stressor, but this mechanism causes increased insulin resistance because it blocks the effect of insulin. It does this so that there is energy/sugar available to be used by the muscles. This insulin resistance increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and blood sugar issues because the glucose levels in the blood remain high and insulin is not able to transport sugar to the cells that need it for basic bodily functions.
With weight gain, repeatedly elevated cortisol can cause stored triglycerides to be relocated to the visceral fat cells, primarily the ones in the abdomen and under muscle. It also causes fat cells to mature, which may result in increased amounts of cortisol produced at the tissue level. The insulin resistance is also hindering your weight maintenance or weight-loss efforts. When your cells are not getting the needed sugar/glucose to fuel them because insulin is being blocked, your brain is signaled to eat more food. This leads to a desire for high-calorie foods, overeating and the resulting weight gain. Cortisol also can affect what you are craving and your appetite by influencing other hormones and stress-effected bodily processes.
How to Keep Healthy Cortisol Levels
If you are concerned you have high stress and possibly high cortisol levels, consider having a saliva test being done at your health care provider. But probably the best way to maintain normal cortisol levels is to decrease stress in your life and improve your diet. Some people are even recommended to try a low-inflammation diet. The key parts of this diet are the elimination or reduction of alcohol, caffeine, sugar, trans fats, and by choosing low-glycemic foods. Probiotics are supported in addition to focusing on whole plant foods and regular exercise. Consult a dietitian to help you customize nutritional recommendations for your specific goals, preferences and conditions.
Myths continue to surround this very important hormone because of the many ways it can affect your bodily processes and nutrition status. How it reacts with other biochemical components, the immune system and all the related health outcomes plays a very important role for people looking to reduce illness, stress, fatigue and other health complaints. Many products are being marketed to supposedly reduce or suppress cortisol levels, but diet and lifestyle choices continue to be the most effective way to manage cortisol levels and reduce risk for illnesses and chronic disease.
6 ways to combat stress:
Stick with your fitness plans. Life happens and sometimes we need to focus on other aspects of our day in order to get things taken care of – kids, work, financial issues, emergencies all take priority sometimes. Being physically active, even just a little bit, can help pump endorphins and dopamine into your system to offset the negative effects of stress.
Eat slowly. Under stress, we tend to scarf down even healthy food. In fact, research has linked this behavior to bigger portions and more belly fat. But down, savoring each bite, and paying attention to feelings of fullness may lower cortisol levels along with decreasing the amount of food you eat, thereby shifting the distribution of fat away from the belly.
Focus on healthy choices, not “dieting”. It’s ironic, but constant dieting can make cortisol levels rise. In addition, when your cortisol levels spike, your blood sugar goes haywire, first rising, then plummeting. This makes you cranky and (dangerously) ravenous. When your brain is deprived of sugar—its main fuel—self-control takes a nosedive, and your willpower doesn’t stand a chance.
Don’t overdo the caffeine. Next time you’re under duress, choose go easy on the energy drinks and lattes. While moderate amounts of caffeine have been shown to have many benefits — when you combine stress with excessive caffeine, it raises cortisol levels more than stress alone. You’ll experience these effects even if your body is accustomed to a lot of java.
Power up on nutrient dense foods first. Deficiencies in B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium are stressful to your body. And these deficiencies lead to increased cortisol levels and food cravings. You can fight back by eating a breakfast that’s high in these nutrients. A grapefruit, or a large handful of strawberries are great additions to supply vitamin C; 6 to 8 ounces of low-fat yogurt, which contains calcium and magnesium; and a whole grain bagel or toast with a bit of avocado or coconut oil. Whole grains are bursting with B vitamins, while these healthy oil contains fatty acids that can decrease the production of stress hormones.
Sleep it off. The most effective stress-reduction strategy of all: Get enough shut-eye. Your body perceives sleep deprivation as a major stressor. Getting an average of 6½ hours each night can increase cortisol, appetite, and weight gain. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours. As if that weren’t enough, other research shows that lack of sleep also raises levels of ghrelin, a hunger-boosting hormone. The good news: A few nights of solid sleep can bring all this back into balance, and getting enough regularly helps keep it there.
Fun fact: "STRESSED" spelled backwards is "DESSERTS"