If you’re having trouble losing weight, you might think about food first, but did you consider how your hormones affect weight loss? Cortisol, one of your main stress hormones, can sabotage your weight loss efforts if levels are elevated in your body. Here’s how cortisol makes you fat and what to do about it.
How Cortisol Can Make You Fat
Cortisol is one of our main stress hormones, produced by the adrenal glands. The adrenals sit atop your kidneys and are the command and control center of the body. They produce and secrete stress & sex hormones and govern thyroid hormones, sleep, stress, weight, sex drive, and metabolism. Ideally, cortisol in normal levels has an anti-inflammatory effect in the body and impacts blood sugar, digestion, and immunity. But the human body is designed around the concept of survival rather than optimum health. When we are under stress, regardless of the source of stress, our system reacts with the intent of keeping us alive under whatever dire circumstances we may encounter. There is simultaneously a hormonal (endocrine) and brain (neurological) response to stress. Combined, this is referred to as the neuroendocrine system. The main stress hormone we produce is cortisol (actually named for its production location on the cortex, or outer edge, of the adrenal glands).
In the days when a saber tooth tiger would jump out of hiding and attack, we had two choices with which to respond: Pick up a spear and fight, or run really fast and try to get away. This is what is known as the fight or flight response. We are hard wired through our neuroendocrine system for this basic survival mechanism to kick into gear when threats appear. When the stressor appears (in this case, the tiger), cortisol shoots up to get you through the stressful situation. As these chemical messengers are produced, numerous body processes speed up, and others slow down. As cortisol is released, it travels through the blood stream and converts amino acids into sugars or glucose, our basic fuel needed to fuel our system to fight or run. Dopamine, adrenaline, and noreadrenaline levels go up, and these stimulating neurotransmitters motivate us, helping to bring us up to full speed—action mode. Not only does the flow of hormones and neurotransmitters shift, our blood supply also shifts. When under stress, we divert blood from non-critical functions like digestive tract organs and shunt it towards skeletal muscle so we can move. Even our sex hormone levels drop in response to increased production of stress hormones. Stress is no bueno for your sex life.
This scenario is not problematic in a situation where occasional stress occurs and there are extended periods of time for full rest and recovery to take place. Does that sound like modern day life? Uh, no. These days we are under constant stress, and the mechanism designed to fight off a tiger is invoked every morning and afternoon in rush hour traffic or during hectic days at work or a fight with a spouse or friend. When we experience chronic stress, the body is constantly churning out cortisol, and this can have negative physical side effects, causing anxiety, insomnia, increased fat storage (especially around the mid-section–“belly fat!”), poor digestion, inflammation, and lowered immunity (more frequent illness), to name a few. Cortisol is catabolic (meaning it breaks down) , so high levels can cause loss of muscle tissue. This is the beginning of imbalance in the body. Stress really is the root cause of disease.
Back to how cortisol makes you fat. When your cortisol levels remain high, your body thinks it is going through a hardship and that it may starve. It will begin to store more fat around the midsection for times of famine (a stress). This also increases insulin levels, and insulin is–you guessed it–the fat storage hormone. High cortisol increases blood sugar to help get you through the stressful situation, but high blood sugar = increased sugar cravings. Physiology is working against you–high cortisol triggers high insulin and high blood sugar, all of which cause increased fat. This was useful for our ancestors but works against us in modern life. If you’re consuming a diet high in sugar, flour, or grains that break down into sugar, you’re storing even more fat. If cortisol is high at night (it should be lowest at that point), you’re not sleeping or getting restful sleep, and the body interprets that as stress, and the vicious cycle continues: lack of sleep is a stress = high cortisol = high blood sugar = cravings. You ever notice how you crave sugar & carbs when you don’t sleep well?
High cortisol can be caused by the following:
- emotional stress
- poor diet (lots of sugar, booze, refined carbs)
- pain (from an injury, for example) & inflammation (from poor diet or eating foods you’re sensitive to, like wheat or dairy for most people)
- lack of sleep
- moving, new job, getting fired
- getting married OR divorced
Aside from increased fat storage, high cortisol wrecks your digestion, and the majority of your immune system is in your gut, so there goes your immunity. But that’s a story for another day. How do you balance cortisol?
How to Balance Your Cortisol Levels for Weight Loss
You can measure cortisol via saliva test or blood. If cortisol is high, you can also be sure that sex hormones are low and that digestion and immunity are suffering. I have very specific protocols for treating high cortisol, and I use plant based hormones. Various adaptogenic herbs work well: ashwaganda, holy basil, schizandra, for example. Also, vitamin C is a must, as your adrenals use a lot of C. A mineral complex should be taken at night, and increase your consumption: sea veggies, leafy greens, supergreens formulas with spirulina and chlorella. If you have trouble sleeping, consider taking a supplement like Seriphos at night. It contains phosphatidylserine to support adrenal function and promote restful sleep. Obviously, you need to regulate blood sugar levels through good diet (going long periods without eating or eating the wrong foods affects blood sugar, which your body interprets as a STRESS!). Targeted stress reduction like deep breathing & yoga work well, too. Chill out!
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.