6 Tips for Reducing Stress, Lowering Cortisol and Losing Weight
Cortisol – the “stress hormone” – has become a dirty word due to its role in causing weight gain, suppressing the immune system, raising blood pressure and more. But is cortisol really the offender we’ve made it out to be?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland and serves many important roles in the body. This hormone helps regulate blood pressure, blood sugar, and insulin levels. Cortisol also assists in the metabolism of fats, carbohydrates and proteins.
Cortisol is present in the bloodstream at all times and fluctuates throughout the day to meet the specific requirements of the body. Cortisol increases in crisis situations providing extra needed energy and focus. In the midst of an extremely distressful situation—like a car accident—cortisol reduces inflammation and suppresses pain. Clearly, it’s a hormone we wouldn’t want to be without.
However, we might liken cortisol to red wine. While a daily glass of red winemay be beneficial to our health, too much wine causes serious damage. Wine itself is not the culprit, but its abuse.
- Suppresses the immune system, so we get sick more easily and more often
- Changes the neurotransmitters in the brain, leading to depression and anxiety
- Causes insulin resistance that can cause to or exacerbate type 2 diabetes
- Makes us resistant to leptin, so our body doesn’t know when to stop eating
- Stimulates the production of ghrelin making you hungry especially for sugar
- Prevents the use of fat for energy creating fatigue and hypoglycemia
- Raises blood pressure
- Causes memory loss and impairs learning
- Inhibits the formation of collagen
- Decreases bone density and muscle tissue
Cortisol and Weight Gain
Chronic stress leads to perpetually high levels of cortisol in the bloodstream, which contribute to weight gain. The reason for this is that cortisol signals the body that it needs more calories to fuel the current emergency (i.e., the stress that triggered the release of cortisol).
And because cortisol blocks leptin (the hormone that tells us to stop eating), we continue to eat high-carb foods.
This is why chronic stress and cortisol lead to over-eating and weight gain. Logically, we might think that a simple solution to weight gain would be blocking or lowering cortisol. And in recent years, a number of companies have manufactured and marketed cortisol-blocking drugs as weight-loss wonder pills.
Alas, if it only were that easy! Take a pill and lose weight. Interestingly, the Federal Trade Commission has charged and fined some of the companies making these cortisol blockers with making false, unsubstantiated claims.
The reality is that the effects of stress on our behaviors and lifestyle extend far beyond cortisol. For instance, many people “cope” with stress by eating. Cortisol is not the culprit here, but a learned response to stress in which we try to comfort ourselves. The other problem with stress-related eating is that we tend to reach for junk food—chips, sweets, alcohol and the like, all of which are high in sugars and calories.
Another way that stress contributes to weight gain has to do with our mood. Typically, under stress, we become depressed. As a result, we neglect our bodies, practicing unhealthy habits and failing to engage in good ones like exercise. We either sleep too much, or not enough. We may also isolate, which often accentuates bad habits.
In addition to the elevated levels of cortisol due to chronic stress, all of these other stress-related behaviors collaborate to make us fat.
The point is that trying to block cortisol with a pill, only deals with a symptom, not the cause. Furthermore, that pill will have no effect on poor eating habits, lack of exercise, depression, or poor sleep.
The solution to elevated cortisol is to alleviate and manage stress, which goes hand-in-hand with healthy lifestyle choices. Although many factors contribute to why a person gains weight, reducing stress can have a profound impact on our health including weight-loss.