Today's fast-paced lifestyle is taking a toll on many of us. We are seeing more and more patients in the clinic dealing with the effects of chronic stress and "I just can't seem to lose weight" is something we hear often.
So how is stress, our hormones, and weight all connected?
The role of the Adrenal Glands and Cortisol
The Adrenal glands are two small glands, located on top of the kidneys. They secrete hormones into the bloodstream to create homeostasis in the body. Some of these hormones include cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine.
The main hormone we will be focusing on is cortisol, which plays a major role in maintaining blood sugar and blood pressure, by raising both of these metabolic processes in order to prepare the body to "fight or flee" during stressful events. Cortisol also modulates the immune system. Too much cortisol can result in an overactive immune system and eventually lead to autoimmunity if left untreated.
What causes high levels of cortisol?
Self care is something that often falls to the bottom of our "to-do" list with such busy lifestyles. It is very common to be juggling work, family, friends, chores and...well, life in general. When it comes to stress, the body can't determine the difference between running late for an appointment and say, being chased by a tiger. Stress is stress.
Certain exercise raises cortisol, for instance, running and chronic cardio. Caffeine is also a common contributor to high cortisol levels, as it also triggers the stress response. Food intolerance can also be related to cortisol problems, and therefore, it is common for us to recommend food sensitivity testing for these patients also.
Symptoms of increased Cortisol
Racing from one job to the next
Feeling "wired and tired"
Increased tummy circumference
Having a "short fuse" and being quick to anger
Getting a second wind before bed and finding it hard to wind down
Waking during the night and finding it hard to go back to sleep
How increased levels of cortisol can lead to weight gain
In order to understand how high stress and cortisol can lead to weight gain, it is important to understand that inflammation and blood sugars are heavily involved in this process.
As we experience stress, the body's Autonomic nervous system kicks in and starts a cascade of hormones. The Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) axis gets switched on. The Hypothalamus in the brain secretes Corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) which drives the body's response to stress, telling the Pituitary to release Adrenal Corticotrophin hormone (ACTH) which regulates cortisol. The Adrenals then release Adrenalin and Norepinephrine which increases respiration and the heart rate. As the body needs energy fast, glucose is used for short term fuel. Glucocorticoids are produced to break down stored glycogen from the liver and then the muscles. This is why when we are stressed it is difficult to get into a fat burning state, as the body prefers glucose. This cycle is also started when our blood sugars get too low from either lack of nutrition, or leaving it too long between meals.
Stress also causes a spike in blood sugars. Insulin is then produced by the pancreas in order to shuttle the excess sugar into the cells. If we are chronically stressed, cells become less responsive to the insulin, and blood sugars increase, which can also lead to excess Estrogen. When we are in an Estrogen dominant state, weight gain is predominantly stored around the waist, hips, belly and chest area, which is why it is common to hear that blood sugar dysregulation results in excess fat around your middle. So to break it down, high levels of stress = high blood sugar = high levels of inflammation = high levels of cortisol again, which can lead to an increase in Estrogen = high body fat.
Our top Nutrition and Lifestyle techniques to lower Cortisol and Body fat
Quality Fish Oils
Studies have shown 1 that 4g of fish oil for 6 weeks, lowers cortisol and helps lean body mass.
Incorporating exercise that is more restorative for the body like Yoga and Pilates can help lower cortisol levels. We often recommend the YouTube channel Yoga with Adriene to our patients for a great place to start. Adriene has tons of yoga videos for all fitness levels. We have linked her channel below.
Eat moderate amounts of Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are important for healthy hormones. They modulate your diurnal pattern (cortisol pattern) and are important for the adrenals, thyroid and quality of life. I recommend giving processed carbs (pasta, cakes, refined sugars) the boot and sticking with fruits and vegetables.
As we mentioned above, caffeine stimulates the stress response in the body. This doesn't mean you have to give up the coffee altogether, but being mindful of when you are having it is important. We recommend limiting caffeine intake to 1 per day, preferably not first thing in the morning as this will start your day on a stressful note.
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Macedo, D. M., and R. W. Diez-Garcia. 2014. “Sweet craving and ghrelin and leptin levels in women during stress.” Appetite 80:264–70.
NCBI. 1993. Insulin resistance of stress: sites and mechanisms. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8287639. [Accessed 21 February 2019]
NCBI. 2008. Cortisol responses to mental stress, exercise, and meals following caffeine intake in men and women. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2249754/. [Accessed 21 February 2019].
Kessler, Katharina & Hornemann, Silke & Petzke, Klaus & Kemper, Margrit & Kramer, Achim & Pfeiffer, Andreas & Ramich, Olga & Rudovich, Natalia. (2017). The effect of diurnal distribution of carbohydrates and fat on glycaemic control in humans: A randomized controlled trial. Scientific Reports. 7. 44170. 10.1038/srep44170.
NCBI. 2013. Cortisol and antidepressant effects of yoga. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3768222/. [Accessed 21 February 2019].