My friend and RD Stacey Frattinger is back this week for part two in the series, teaching us how different hormones impact our waistline. Today, we’re talking all things cortisol.
In this article, Stacey breaks cortisol down into an easy-to-understand hormone and shares some simple tips to help you manage cortisol spikes that will positively impact your ability to handle high-stress situations reduce your waistline.
What is cortisol, and how is it linked to stress?
Cortisol is the major stress hormone in your body. If you find yourself dealing with stubborn excess fat around your waistline, unhealthy cortisol levels could be an issue for you.
It is important to understand that some degree of stress is necessary for our survival as humans. When we sense an oncoming threat, whether that is a car speeding towards us or having a conversation with a confrontational person, our brain starts to process the threats by kicking off the stress response.
Have you ever experienced a situation where you get this sudden surge of blood pumping through your veins, causing your heart to race and your face to get flushed? This is often referred to as the “fight or flight” response.
The “fight or flight response” goes something like this: Your amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions) sends out an alarm to your hypothalamus (the nervous system’s control center), triggering you to be on high alert. Once the hypothalamus is aware of the oncoming threat, it releases adrenaline and cortisol to spur you into action.
Why too much stress and cortisol is a problem?
While your body is designed to handle stressors in the short-term, it is not well-designed to handle longer-term exposure to stressors, like on-going financial, work, or relationship stress that builds over time grinds at you daily. What stressors do you find yourself dealing with more often than you’d like?
The constant pumping of cortisol into your veins, above your threshold or baseline of what you see as manageable, has a trickle-down effect on many parts of your body. Stress can:
weaken your immune system
lead to higher levels of anxiety or depression
cause headaches or tightening in the chest
lead to trouble sleeping
cause you to feel puffy or bloated
Sustained levels of high cortisol can lead to insulin resistance, too. As a result of all of these side-effects of unmanaged stress, you may also find that you suddenly cannot lose weight, or your workouts are no longer as effective. Why?
Let’s look at a few of the most common reasons why cortisol spikes, sustained over longer periods, lead to weight management difficulties:
Excess cortisol stimulates glucose production: When you have high glucose levels circulating in your bloodstream, and this glucose isn’t required for energy, glucose will be converted into, and then stored as, fat. The more fat you store, the more rapidly you can begin to gain weight.
Higher cortisol is linked to emotional eating: Comfort eating is often used to cope with difficult emotions, and stress falls into this category. Around 70% of the population reports turning to food to cope with stress, and the chances are high that eating in response to stress takes place outside of true physical hunger. As a result, you end up taking in more calories than your body requires, and weight continues to rise, and before you know it, you’ve put on 5 or 10 pounds in a short time.
You are more likely to develop insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome: Chronically elevated cortisol is linked to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome due to the impact of stress on your brain and various cells in your body. For more on insulin resistance, head to my post about insulin, where we discuss this condition in detail. Metabolic syndrome sets in once insulin resistance go unmanaged. You begin to notice abdominal fat accumulation, high blood pressure, low HDL levels (the good cholesterol in your blood), and high levels of fasting blood glucose.
How to mitigate stress and keep cortisol at a healthy level.
This is very important if you want to keep the pounds off. Give one of these three action steps a try to overcome the stress.
Become stress-resilient rather than focusing on avoidance: Dealing with stress head-on can be empowering once you learn how to manage your thoughts, actions, and stress response. Everyone will have different coping mechanisms and eventually can learn the ways that help them to manage stress best. Still, some popular techniques include meditation, hot baths, sauna therapy, calling or texting a friend or loved one, journaling, or listening to music. If you’re looking for more tips check out my post about Stree Relief Practices.
Soothingly move through stress: Leisurely walking, yoga, Tai Chi, and other low impact activities can be a helpful way to let stress move through you rather than feeling stuck in the stress. Think of fun ways to move your body as a way to release stress, keeping in mind that higher impact, longer-duration activities aren’t always ideal for an already stressed body and mind. Sometimes those intense workouts create more stress and lead to a longer cortisol surge.
Focus on rest, recovery, and sleep: Chronic sleep deprivation can increase stress or decrease your ability to cope with stress properly. Prioritize sleep, naps, or other relaxation methods as a way to let your body reset and restore itself after stressful periods.
Reduce the Stress, Increase the Bless.
Perspective can be everything, so hopefully, you have a simple understanding of why stress management is so hyped up in the world of wellness today. Being armed with this knowledge will help you to take action towards becoming a more resilient YOU.
Whether you choose to walk regularly, add in more self-care like hot baths or listening to music, or make it a habit to get to bed earlier, begin to notice if you feel more tolerant of the stress around you. Comment below with your plan for starting to tackle stress today!
Come back next week to learn all about your hunger hormones.
More about the author:
Stacey Frattinger is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Integrative Health Coach, Certified Holistic Nutritionist, and a Nationally Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach.