Cortisol gets a bad reputation because it raises blood sugar (and therefore insulin) and it has a catabolic (breaking down of tissue) effect in the body.
It is also associated with stress and no one likes stress.
And most people have a vague idea that stress and cortisol lead to weight gain or trouble losing weight.
This notion is true (especially for stubborn belly fat!) but really only for situations of ongoing stress that are not sufficiently offset by relaxation or other stress-busting techniques.1
Chronic stress can be internal such as joint damage, gut damage, or other inflammation, or external such as financial worry, long commutes, relationship problems, over-training, or other outside issues.
And of course many people suffer from BOTH internal and external stress.
Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands in response to stress.
Cortisol is very important because it is part of a cascade of events that allows the body to react properly to any stressful event.
Cortisol is actually our friend!
It has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body and actually protects us!
Cortisol stimulates the production of adrenaline, which primes the body to react to danger.
This results in an accelerated heart rate and increased blood pressure, delivering more blood to the brain for quick thinking, more blood to the muscles for fast running, and more blood to the lungs for heavy breathing.
Part of this process also involves the breakdown of fat tissue for quick energy.
This is part of the reason why some people lose weight in an extended high-stress situation.
However, (and this is really important to know) fat cells CAN become adrenaline-resistant when stress becomes chronic, which inhibits further weight loss.
And of course, cortisol also makes sure that blood levels of glucose stay elevated in order to fuel cells ready for action.
Glucose is a quick source of fuel!
In a chronic stress state, the body is forced to continually keep glucose levels elevated to meet the demand for energy.
This will, over time, lead to elevated insulin and eventually insulin resistance, which is a real doozy when it comes to blocking weight loss!!
Also, keep in mind that when the body is in a stress state and blood is running to the primary stress-response organs, blood is diverted from digestive and reproductive organs (gonads).
This results in less than optimal digestion and compromised reproductive function.
The body doesn’t have time to digest food or make babies when it senses it is being chased by a large animal.
The part of the brain that calls for more cortisol is unaware that the stress is not life-or-death and that it will be there tomorrow, the next day, and the one after that.
So there is no modulation in the process.
The brain doesn’t say, “Well that’s just a bad boss, not a tiger, we don’t need to take this one too seriously.”
And when digestion and reproductive functions are compromised for a long period of time this also can inhibit weight loss.
Digestion is a key aspect of weight management because the microbiome actually plays a role in regulating hunger, satiety, and how many calories we extract from food.
Chronic stress will, over time, have a detrimental effect on the microbiome.2,3,4
The role of sex hormones in weight loss is also very important.
Estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone can affect our emotions and how we interact with food, our muscle tone, our skin tone, and more.
Chronically elevated levels of cortisol can cause the body to have less pregnenolone available for making these hormones.
This causes lower levels of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, which can also play a role in difficulty losing weight.
In summary, chronically elevated levels of cortisol will raise blood sugar, raise insulin, reduce the body’s ability to burn fat through adrenaline, compromise digestive function and eventually metabolic function, reduce the ability to gain new muscle tissue, and increase hunger.
A real whopper!
How to address this:
Stress is unavoidable in life. The question is how we deal with stress.
First, an honest evaluation of your lifestyle is in order. Identify the internal and external stressors in your life.
Next, assess whether you can avoid or reduce any of these stressors.
For example, your teenage daughter might be causing you stress but are you caught up in the minutiae too much? Maybe you’re worried about too many little things?
OR another example, you’re working too hard and not giving yourself enough down-time. Assess whether or not you really need to be working that hard and is your productivity high at all times? Or maybe if you worked a little less and slept better your productivity might go up?
OR another example, you’re eating a lot of junk food that you know is contributing to inflammation in your body. Perhaps eating better might reduce inflammation, thereby reducing internal stress.
AND of course, we must mention that over-training is a very common cause of undue stress, especially with people that are trying to lose weight. Over-training and ineffective workouts can not only be unhelpful in weight loss strategies they can actually be counterproductive. Over-training increases cortisol and the wrong type of exercises can promote sugar burning over fat-burning.
Once you have cleaned up any avoidable stressors the next step is to make sure you give yourself down-time daily and at least one day a week. Although this may seem impossible to some, it is probably one of the most important changes you can make to help promote a healthy weight and overall health. This means taking at least 1-2 hours every day doing something you enjoy as well as taking one whole day of rest and fun each week. Your adrenals will thank you and over time this will be a huge step in maximizing your health. I promise.
There are many simple, to not-so-simple, tactics for “forcing” your body to stop stressing and get into relaxation mode. The stress mode is produced and managed by the sympathetic nervous system and the relaxation mode is regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system. By doing these practices you can push your body into parasympathetic mode, even if your mind is resisting it. Some examples are aromatherapy, relaxation music, sexual pleasure, breathing exercises, stretching and more.
Another way to balance cortisol is to take what are called “adaptogens”. These are botanicals that naturally help your brain regulate and respond well to stress. They help you “adapt” to stress. Some common adaptogens are ashwagandha and rhodiola, which help to improve brain function (hypothalamus and pituitary) in times of stress. Kava kava and passionflower help calm the nervous system and lower cortisol (check your salivary cortisol levels before using these, if you already have low cortisol then these might be counterproductive).
https://www.hindawi.com/journals/jobe/2011/651936/ Mindfulness Intervention for Stress Eating to Reduce Cortisol and Abdominal Fat among Overweight and Obese Women: An Exploratory Randomized Controlled Study
http://www.altmedrev.com/publications/9/2/180.pdf The Causes of Intestinal Dysbiosis: A Review.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4604320/ Breaking down the barriers: the gut microbiome, intestinal permeability and stress-related psychiatric disorders
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4202342/#B17 Irritable bowel syndrome: A microbiome-gut-brain axis disorder?