Hormones are powerful things; they affect everything. Different hormones, of course, directly affect different things. Here’s what you need to know about cortisol, the stress hormone.
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal gland and is released during times of stress; if, for instance, you are nearly hit by a car, your body’s level of cortisol will spike. Such spikes tend to be brief, and then cortisol levels go back down. Long-term stress, however, allows for sustained, elevated levels of cortisol in the body, and this is a key condition that must be considered by anyone trying to achieve long term weight loss and management.
How does an elevated level of cortisol impact weight? Cortisol is also a glucocorticoid, that is, a hormone partly responsible for the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins; glucocorticoids increase blood sugar.
This makes sense. Cortisol spikes when you are stressed or freaked out and it increases the amount of sugar in the blood. This gives the body a burst of energy for survival situations, gives your brain more food (glucose) to operate as effectively as possible. Cortisol also increases blood pressure and decreases your immune system, two more adaptations that help in the flight response.
But chronic stress will lead to chronic high levels of cortisol, which will yield chronic levels of higher blood glucose, chronic high blood pressure, and lowered immunity. Cortisol, by elevating blood glucose levels, spurs the body to metabolize fat for fuel, and blocks the entry of glucose into the cells so that it may be burned out of the blood stream. It’s job, to increase blood glucose, is opposite of that of insulin, which is to push glucose into the cells.
For fear of getting too technical, let me explain as simply as possible how the effects of cortisol can contribute to weight gain. The more glucose there is in the blood, the more insulin the pancreas produces. At long last, when insulin succeeds in flushing the sugar out of your blood, you crash. Crashes lead to cravings, and you eat to restore blood sugar–particularly, foods that have a high glycemic index, as those foods enter the blood stream more quickly. This is what we call stress eating. You crave and eat to restore blood sugar, but you’re still stressed out, so cortisol is also helping to increase blood sugar. This two-fold effect can be overwhelming, especially for people who are stressed out about their weight, of all things!
What to do?
Calm down. It is important to take steps to reduce stress. Many people, when stressed out, try to control as much as possible. But no one can control everything, and inevitable blips in the plan will also increase stress.
Avoid stressful situations by allowing yourself to be flexible. Employ stress management activities (such as yoga, meditation, or prayer). Physical activity (exercise!), in adequate amounts, also helps to reduce stress; but over-training increases it. Low calorie or restrictive diets (especially in response to stress-induced weight gain) also increase stress, so make efforts to eat adequate calories. Set yourself small, time-bound, attainable goals; when you achieve these goals, you will feel empowered.