Cortisol, Stress, And Your Weight
Cortisol, a steroid also known as the "stress hormone," is produced in your adrenal glands. This process can be triggered by any stress your body perceives, physical or emotional.
This is not always a bad thing, since the body needs some cortisol to function; extremely low cortisol levels like those that are are seen in a condition called Addison's disease can cause fatigue, dizziness, and dangerously low blood pressure.
Cortisol also helps prepare your body to deal with a perceived threat by putting you into an amped up "fight or flight" mode. Glucose is thus released into the bloodstream, so that your body has a quick source of energy if you do have to run for your life or defeat an attacker.
However, since most modern stressful situations involve no actual physical threat, insulin is instead released to convert that glucose to fat, leading you to experience an energy crash, which in turn can lead you to dip into your candy drawer to recuperate. The extreme form of this cycle that can ultimately lead to full-blown metabolic syndrome.To make matters worse, cortisol encourages the body to store fat in your midsection, which is not only particularly annoying to see in the mirror but constitutes a particular health risk. Cortisol also signals the body to produce less testosterone, which can lead to decreased muscle mass and sexual problems in men.
High cortisol levels can also cause fatigue, poor bone health, memory problems, lowered immunity, depression, poor digestion, and poor thyroid function. So what can you do to lower your levels of this pesky little hormone?
For one thing, relax! Massage therapy, meditating, relaxing music, and deep breathing have all been shown to lower cortisol levels. Even something as simple as laughing could do the trick, so don't feel too bad about all that time you spent looking through funny memes on the internet!
Though you should give yourself plenty of chill time, you also shouldn't be a hermit: Cortisol levels can also be lowered by supportive, affectionate interactions with other people, especially with a romantic partner. But if you happen to be short on human connection, don't despair; try getting a dog! Pets are even more beneficial to cortisol levels than humans are, which makes sense: who's more likely to judge you, a friend or your fur baby?
Interestingly, the animals will show similar reductions in their cortisol levels after these interactions, with suggests that the connection with their beloved human is beneficial to them as well. Interpersonal conflict, on the other hand, will often result in a short-term elevation in cortisol, which is why you may find yourself headed to pantry for comfort after a fight with your spouse.
Positive hobbies have also been shown to lower cortisol levels, especially those that take place outdoors, like gardening. Reconnecting with your religious roots may also help; studies have shown that developing spiritual faith can lead to lower stress and cortisol levels even after the social support most churchgoers receive from their religious groups was accounted for.
A lot of general health advice will also help keep your cortisol levels down. Be sure to get the right amount of sleep, stay hydrated, and eat an antioxidant-heavy diet of healthy foods. You should also avoid skipping meals and eat adequately; restricting your calories too severely will raise your cortisol levels, which will probably result in you breaking your diet and more of the calories you eat getting stored as belly fat when you do.
But what about exercise? While high intensity workouts can temporarily raise cortisol levels since your body doesn't realize you're running on a treadmill and not from a hungry bear, those levels will usually decrease afterwards, and exercise also releases many positive biochemicals that counter some of cortisol's nasty effects. However, it is important to avoid over-training, especially if you already live a stressful lifestyle. If you want to skip the spike altogether, you could stick to a lower intensity and more relaxing exercise like a simple walk or some beginner's yoga.
Cortisol can also be increased by negative emotions such as shame or guilt, which is one reason that cycles of overeating and self-reproach can be so hard to escape. Try to accept yourself in the moment rather than beating yourself up over every slip-up, and to deal with your emotions more mindfully rather than going straight to the fridge. Of course, this is much easier said than done, and it might be worth looking into professional help if you're having a particularly hard time.
Finally, some supplements like fish oil and and the Indian herb ashwagandha have been shown to reduce cortisol levels. However, you should beware of commercial supplements that claim they can block cortisol. Most of these products lack enough research to prove they actually have an effect, and the makers of a few of them have even gotten sued because of it!