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Cortisol & Your Weight: Is stress worse than a giant pizza?

In the fast-paced world we live in, stress has become an inevitable part of daily life. From demanding jobs to personal responsibilities, many of us find ourselves constantly battling stress. While we often associate stress with mental and emotional strain, its effects extend far beyond our minds. In fact, stress, and the hormones that are produced because of it, can significantly impact our physical health, particularly when it comes to weight gain. 

Lady Stress Eating

According to a medical journal published in the National Library of Medicine, “Stress, whether acute or chronic, has a deleterious effect on the function of the cardiovascular system” In addition to affecting our cardiovascular health “it should also be noted that nutrition patterns have effects on the stress response, and this suggests a bilateral interaction between nutrition and stress.” While these kinds of quotes can be alarming (and cause more stress), it is also comforting to note that you can also improve your health by taking steps to reduce your stress (which there are).  

Many disorders originate from stress, especially if the stress is severe and prolonged. The medical community needs to have a greater appreciation for the significant role that stress may play in various diseases and then treat the patient accordingly using both pharmacological (medications and/or nutraceuticals) and non-pharmacological (change in lifestyle, daily exercise, healthy nutrition, and stress reduction programs) therapeutic interventions.

Understanding ‘The Stress Hormone’

Cortisol, often referred to as the ‘stress hormone’, is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. Cortisol plays a crucial role in the body's fight-or-flight response, helping us navigate challenging situations, historically these would have been man-eating lions or bears looking to attack wary cave people but now stress can come in all shapes and sizes - think childcare, careers, working all hours of the day and night, financial stress and so on. The problem here is our body's adrenal response to stress does not differentiate between the man-eating lion and the looming work deadline, your cortisol (and other stress hormones) respond the same. Thus putting our minds and bodies under a lot more stress than we were designed to carry, think how many times we would have realistically been chased by a lion ( even when living in the wild) in relation to just how many life stressors the modern human faces today. Prolonged or chronic stress can lead to excessive cortisol production, disrupting our body's natural balance and triggering a cascade of negative effects.

Cortisol and Weight Gain

One of the most significant ways in which cortisol affects our bodies is through its impact on metabolism and appetite regulation. When cortisol levels are elevated, it can lead to increased appetite, particularly for high-calorie, comfort foods. A study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behaviour concluded that their test subjects with high cortisol levels “consumed more calories on the stress day compared to low reactors, but ate similar amounts on the control day. In terms of taste preferences, high cortisol reactors ate significantly more sweet food across days.” 

Thus high cortisol levels from external stress can result in overeating and weight gain, particularly around the abdominal area. Additionally, cortisol promotes the storage of fat, especially visceral fat, which is associated with a higher risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Another study concludes “Chronically elevated cortisol may result in appetite stimulation, particularly for fatty, sugary, and starchy foods, resulting in weight gain with increased visceral and truncal fat deposition.” So while there is no shortage of evidence that your stress levels are affecting your waistline, what other health implications can stress cause: 

Other indicators of prolonged elevated cortisol include:

  • weight gain

  • high blood pressure

  • fatigue

  • changes in mood

  • irritability

  • flushed face

  • thinning skin

  • difficulty concentrating

  • insulin resistance

Managing Cortisol Levels

Fortunately, there are several strategies we can employ to manage stress and keep cortisol levels in check.

Regular Exercise

Physical activity is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress and lower cortisol levels. This is confirmed by De Nys. et al., whose article states “Cortisol regulation and sleep quality are intertwined, and physical activity programmes could improve both in several ways.” The mindful movement practices in Pilates can further reduce stress by calming the mind and focusing our attention on our body. However, on this note, overtraining or stressing your body with challenging movements can elevate your cortisol levels in the short term, due to the stressful nature of the challenge but it does not necessarily lead to the chronic cortisol effects discussed above. 

Mindfulness & Breathing Techniques

Practising mindfulness can help calm the mind, reduce anxiety, and promote relaxation. Dedicate a few minutes each day to mindful practices or breathing to reap the benefits. A study suggests “that mindfulness is positively associated with psychological health, and that training in mindfulness may bring about positive psychological effects.” By bringing awareness to each moment we can develop greater understanding and control over our cravings for unhealthy foods and simultaneously lower our cortisol levels. 

Mindfulness is commonly defined as the awareness that arises when paying attention to the present moment non-judgmentally.

Adequate Sleep

Sleep deprivation is one of the worst culprits of elevated cortisol levels and hormonal imbalances. One of our top priorities should be getting enough sleep each night. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night to support overall health and well-being. I know what it is like to be either too busy to get quality rest or unable to get into deep sleep when you do attempt to sleep but this can be assisted. Certain nutrients from our diet can help gain more restful sleep, in addition to diet, you can also make use of essential oils, eye pillows and other items which can enhance your sleep. 

Balanced Diet

Fuel your body with nutrient-rich foods that support optimal health and energy levels. Focus on whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats, and limit processed foods and sugary snacks which are known to increase cortisol levels. Some essential nutrients are even known to help reduce cortisol levels in the body such as; phosphatidylserine which can be found naturally in egg yolk, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, folic acid, fish oil and taurine can all help reduce stress. One of the most notable cortisol-reducing elements was Black Tea extract ( please note this is different from drinking your tea black ) and Oolong tea both of which were proven to aid in cortisol reduction. It should also be noted that caffeine plays a role in increasing cortisol levels.  

Social Support

Surround yourself with a supportive network of friends and family who can offer encouragement and help you navigate life's challenges. Sharing your feelings and experiences with others can provide a sense of connection and belonging. In addition to having a support network, you may also think about reaching out to a psychologist if you are experiencing high levels of stress or anxiety. 

By incorporating these strategies into your daily routine, you can break free from the cycle of stress and weight gain and reclaim control over your health, eating and well-being. Remember that small changes can add up to significant improvements over time. Prioritise self-care, listen to your body and be kind to yourself as you work towards a healthier, happier you.

*Please remember that I am not a medical professional, and the information provided in this blog article is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice. If you have any concerns about your health or well-being, please consult with a qualified healthcare professional.

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