Cortisol also known as the "stress hormone" is a critical hormone with many actions in the body. Cortisol is normally secreted by the adrenal glands in a pattern called a diurnal variation, which means that levels of cortisol in the bloodstream vary depending upon the time of day (For example, cortisol levels are highest in the early morning and lowest around midnight for a normal person whose day is based on a 7am-9pm day). Cortisol is important for regulating blood pressure and the release of energy for the body. Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy, and stimulates insulin release and maintenance of blood sugar levels. The end result of these actions can be an increase in appetite. Cortisol has been termed the "stress hormone" because excess cortisol is secreted during times of physical or psychological stress, and the normal pattern of cortisol secretion (the diurnal variation thing I mentioned above) can be changed. This change in pattern of cortisol secretion may not only promote weight gain, but it can also affect where you put on the weight. Some studies have shown that stress and elevated cortisol tend to cause fat deposition in the abdominal area rather than in the hips. This fat deposition has been referred to as "toxic fat" since abdominal fat deposition is strongly correlated with the development of cardiovascular disease including heart attacks and strokes.
Whether or not a particular individual's stress levels will result in high cortisol levels and weight gain is not readily predictable. The amount of cortisol secreted in response to stress can vary among individuals, with some people being more "reactive" to stressful events. Studies of women who tended to react to stress with high levels of cortisol secretion have shown that these women also tended to eat more when under stress than women who secreted less cortisol. Another study demonstrated that women who stored their excess fat in the abdominal area had higher cortisol levels and reported more lifestyle stress than women who stored fat primarily in the hips.
Chronic stress and cortisol can contribute to weight gain in the following ways:
- Metabolism -- Do you feel like you're prone to putting on more weight when you're stressed, even if you're eating the same amount of food as you always have? Too much cortisol can slow your metabolism, causing more weight gain than you would normally experience. This also makes dieting more difficult.
- Cravings -- OK, you're stressed. Do you reach for a nice salad or a pint of Ben & Jerry's? I'll bet on the ice cream, or chocolate! People experiencing chronic stress tend to crave more fatty, salty and sugary foods. This includes sweets, processed food and other things that aren’t as good for you. These foods are typically less healthy and lead to increased weight gain.
- Blood Sugar -- Prolonged stress can alter your blood sugar levels, causing mood swings, fatigue, and conditions like hyperglycemia. Too much stress has even been linked to metabolic syndrome, a cluster of health concerns that can lead to greater health problems, like heart attacks and diabetes.
- Fat Storage -- Excessive stress even affects where we tend to store fat. Higher levels of stress are linked to greater levels of abdominal fat. Unfortunately, abdominal fat is not only aesthetically undesirable, it’s linked with greater health risks than fat stored in other areas of the body.
Stress is certainly not the only reason having for abnormal levels of cortisol. A number of diseases and conditions can result in abnormal levels of cortisol in the bloodstream. Like Cushing's Syndrome which is a term used by doctors to describe a condition in which various medical problems result in very high levels of cortisol, leading to changes in the body's appearance and function. (Read More Here)
Fortunately, there are things you can do to reverse the pattern of weight gain and actually reduce your stress level and waistline at the same time. The diet industry has attempted to make money on findings from these studies by promoting dietary supplements claiming to lower cortisol and enhance weight loss. No independent studies published in respected, peer-reviewed medical journals have shown that these supplements have any value in cortisol reduction or weight loss. In fact, exercise is the best method for lowering cortisol levels that have risen in response to stress and has the added benefit of burning calories to stimulate weight loss. For staying fit when stressed, I recommend the following:
You can stop the damage caused by chronic stress with the regular practice of relaxation techniques. These can trigger the relaxation response, which stops the cascade of changes that can occur when you’re stressed, including changes that contribute to weight gain. Some of my favorite relaxation techniques include yoga, martial arts, journaling, laugher and PMR. (Okay, and sex.) Here’s a more complete selection of relaxation techniques you can use to reduce your stress level and your weight gain.
When stressed, many people tend to eat more, and crave foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat. If you find yourself prone to the munchies when you’re feeling the crunch of stress, if it seems too hard to control your cravings, you can really help yourself by switching to more healthy snacking. I have learned to not keep those foods in the house, if they aren't here I can not eat them! The best snacks?
- Carrot sticks have a satisfying crunch, and are good for you, too. Dipped in low-fat ranch, they’re packed with flavor and aren’t too bad for your body.
- Edamame, a type of snackable soy bean, is delicious, healthy, and fun to eat, if you get the variety that’s still in the pod.
- Sunflower seeds (try low-salt or unsalted varieties for better health) have protein and nutrients, and are pretty yummy. If you get them in the shell, they give your hands something to do, and it’s hard to eat too many when you have to shell each one.
- Rather than popping open a can of soda, which is packed with empty calories and sugar, which can send you on a downward spiral of mood swings later, opt for sparkling water; you’ll feel like you’re getting a treat, and your body will, too.
- There’s always gum. If you’re a discreet chewer, you can turn one of those snacking sessions, the ones where you’re really not hungry but want something in your mouth, into guilt-free flavorful fun. There are a lot of fun flavors out now!
Another reason busy, stressed people tend to gain weight is that they more often eat fast food; after a busy day running around, you may not have time to come home and cook something from scratch. But meals you make are usually much better for you. And cooking at home can save you money, too, which may indirectly decrease your stress level by putting you under less financial strain. And it’s easier than you think.
Do you want to work out, but find yourself short the extra hours a week it would take to go to the gym? You may be able to remedy this with time management techniques, or you can work exercise into your life by finding simple ways to move more. Taking the stairs rather than the elevator, for example, or going for a walk during your lunch break are easy ways to do this. You can also park further away from wherever it is you go, forcing yourself to walk a little more before you get to your destination. You can even stop, drop, and do a few sets of push-ups every hour or two to keep your blood moving and slowly build muscle. You can get more exercise at home by doing active housework, playing active games with your kids.
Turn Off The T.V or at least be selective. Rather than chilling in front of the tube because you’re too exhausted to do anything else, only to look up hours later and realize you’ve wasted most of your evening and didn’t get much lasting benefit from the experience, see if you can unwind with some soothing music. Chances are, you won’t spend as much time listening to music as you would flipping from show to show, and you might end up doing something more creative or productive with your time, like journaling, calling a friend, or spending quality time with your kids or spouse. (Next time you think about things you wish you had time to do, remember the time you could free up with less television!) If there are shows you really don’t want to miss, at least record them ahead of time, so you can watch them at your convenience, fast-forward through commercials, and then turn the T.V. off.
Once you incorporate some or all of these simple strategies into your life, staying fit when stressed should be much less of a challenge. And, best of all, you can experience less stress and better health in the process! GOOD LUCK! AND RELAX A LITTLE!