“I’m so busy”, “I’m so stressed”, “I’m so overwhelmed”…have you ever said any of these? I am sure you have, more regularly than you would like to admit. These feelings are regulated by a hormone called cortisol. This hormone is a steroid released by the adrenal glands to help regulate your metabolism and stress response. If both metabolism and stress are being regulated by the same hormone, they are very much related. Unregulated levels of cortisol could be what is causing your stubborn belly fat or general weight gain.
What is cortisol
Cortisol is basically working totally with you, or totally against you. It is the hormone that regulates the “fight or flight” response, meaning it releases more of the hormone to help you “survive” in a life-threatening situation. But the issue is that cortisol doesn’t know the difference between you being stressed at work or you being stressed running from a bear, both are perceived as the same thing, a threat. When you are stressed your pituitary gland recognizes it and sends a signal to your adrenal glands to trigger the release of cortisol.
Almost every cell in your body contains receptors for cortisol. Therefore, it can help with a lot of different body functions, outside of just a stress response. Cortisol can also help control blood sugar levels, act as an anti-inflammatory, memory formation, controlling salt and water balance, and controlling blood pressure (stress response).
Cortisol is controlled by 3 communicating regions of the body, the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal gland. This is known as the HPA axis. These 3 regions all secrete different hormones, but work together to create a balance within the body. You never want your cortisol levels to be high, or low, and this axis is what regulates the correct amount. That is, unless, you are constantly stressed or overworked and then the “fight or flight” phases never ends. This causes the body to constantly release cortisol over and over again, and this can lead to a lot of hormone imbalances. Does cortisol cause weight gain…?
How does Cortisol affect weight loss
Research has shown that if you have unwanted belly fat or your weight is increasing no matter what you do, you likely have a hormone imbalance of some sort. Cortisol specifically is a big culprit of the unwanted “inner tube” around the belly. Cortisol is a very important hormone that our body needs to survive, but it can also be easily thrown out of wack if we are not careful about our day to day routines.
Insulin resistance and high cortisol levels
When cortisol levels are high, the body also increases blood glucose levels so that it has enough energy to get through the stressful situation (it takes a lot of energy to run from a bear). When insulin is restricted from sending glucose to the cells for a long period of time, the cells become resistant to it and we therefore are then storing the glucose as fat instead of preparing to use it for energy. During this stressful situation, cortisol also signals a release of glucagon (stored glucose in the liver) to release more glucose into the bloodstream. This means we have a HUGE SURGE of glucose in our bloodstream to get used up as energy. But if we are not actually in a situation that we need this much energy for, the body is going to store it as extra fat (usually around the belly). And if day after day we are raising our stress levels and increasing glucose release, we are going to end up with a lot of insulin resistant cells and stubborn fat that does not want to budge.
Increased rate of fat storage and high cortisol levels
As I said before, if we are stressed day after day the body is just going to continue to release cortisol to help you survive. And if we release cortisol day after day we are also releasing excess glucose. This glucose is going to get stored as fat because your body expects you to need it the next time you have to “fight” for your life. If this happens everyday, your body will start to become accustomed to storing this fat because cortisol levels are never coming back down to normal. This excess cortisol and weight gain stomach cause you to become more stressed and therefore cause a vicious cycle. When we are stressed, we stored fat. And if we stress out because we are storing fat and panicking about the weight gain, we are going to continue to gain fat. Stress HAS to be lowered in order to get cortisol levels normal and start to see fat loss around the stomach.
Brain function, cravings and high cortisol levels
When cortisol and stress levels are high, so is your appetite! Your motivation to get out of the stressful situation is increased, which means so is your appetite! But it is a little contradictory beca
use your digestion shuts down during this stressful time so your energy can be utilized elsewhere. Anyways, this increase in the release of ghrelin, hunger hormone (whether you are actually hungry or not) is what causes the high calorie food cravings. And the more sugar and sweet things you crave (because your brain is tel
ling you that is what you want) the more addicted you become. Read more about sugar and its effect of the body and the brain here. This rise in hunger and sugary cravings is going to also lead to excess stored fat because you are more likely to over-eat your calories!
Signs and Symptoms of high cortisol levels
There are a few tell-tale signs that prove you have high stress levels and therefore too much cortisol. This causes you to never leave the “fight or flight” phase and therefore causing you to spiral into a cycle of gaining weight and eating too much sugar.
• Back pain
• Poor sleep habits
• Tired even after 10 hours or longer of sleep
• Gaining weight, especially around the belly.
• Decreased immunity (aka you get sick A LOT)
• Little to no sex drive
• Constantly crave sugary/crappy foods
• Your guts are iffy (stomach cramps, heart burn, diarrhea/constipation)
• Anxiety and depression signs
Cortisol and weight gain
Just because you are gaining weight, doesn’t necessarily mean something is seriously wrong. It can be something like over-eating high calorie foods like nuts, oils, and butter. It can mean doing the same exercise routine over and over again, to which you have adapted to and the body is not being challenged enough. Working out is more than just going to the gym and moving your body after awhile, you have to make a point to push yourself out of your comfort zone and try new things! But if you have evaluated your nutrition and know you are eating in a caloric deficit (but not too little) and your exercise routine is programmed out for progression, then cortisol is likely the culprit. This can be found out by simply getting blood tests done to see all of your hormone levels. Once you know your levels you can either address high/low values or you know 100% that your missing piece lies somewhere else.
Cortisol weight gain is most common among women, but can happen for men as well. Females suffer the most because of the different hormones we have within our bodies and that we tend to take on more stress than males. This is because we are usually running around helping everyone except ourselves and putting ourselves last for everything. Males can have high cortisol levels mostly from eating foods that cause internal stress and inflammation, like processed foods and beer. Your body does not discriminate between different types of stress (internal or external) and is going to respond in the same way. So lowering cortisol and weight gain is going to start with decreasing internal and external stressors.
How to reduce cortisol
If you find yourself experiencing a few of these symptoms, have no fear there is a cure! (see what I did there, haha). The number one tip I can give you….reduce your stress. Stress is the reason your body is “stuck” in the fight or flight response. You can reduce your stress by going major like quitting a job you hate, moving to a place you love, dropping a few of those extra circulars. It can also be smaller things like adding in daily breathing/meditation, doing more of what you love (walking in nature, painting, singing etc), taking natural herbs and supplements (great blog post on natural supplements here) or even trying acupuncture or yoga! Two other options that I am a HUGE fan of are diet and exercise!
Eating a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods is extremely beneficial for decreasing cortisol levels. This is because inflammatory foods (like refined carbs and sugars) can cause a different type of stressor on the body. So making sure you are eating whole foods like fruits and vegetables is going to be a big factor in decreasing cortisol. Exercise can be an interesting one. Yes, exercise can be a stressor on the body and cause more stress, but some exercise can be gentle and a great stress reliever. Any kind of physical activity is going to stress the body (and raise your heart rate) but if you do it for shorter periods of time and give yourself enough recovery time, it can be beneficial!
Make a point to decrease your stress levels. Sit with yourself and really feel what your body is doing. Having high levels of cortisol for a long duration can be extremely detrimental on the body, so take action now!