Cortisol: The Stress Hormone
What is cortisol?
When people start thinking about why they may be overweight, why they can’t seem to lose weight no matter what they do or try, or why they gain weight even though they eat very little they very infrequently think about their hormones. However, hormones may be one of the first things they should consider. One hormone specifically may be the primary culprit in this situation that so many people are faced with. Cortisol is a hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands and regulates stress in the body. The adrenal glands (also where adrenaline is produced and how it gets its name) rest on top of the kidneys and produce a variety of hormones, one of them being cortisol. Cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone” is the body’s response to “fight or flight” signals. When we are stressed, overwhelmed, or anxious our body does it’s best to respond the only way it knows how. This is by trying to regulate that response in our brain by releasing cortisol. Cortisol receptors exist in most cells in your body and are readily absorbed and used for various functions. Some of those uses being, regulation of blood pressure, increasing blood sugar, managing how your body uses carbohydrates, fat and protein, and controlling your sleep cycle.
How does this cause weight gain?
When we are experiencing stress, anxiety or fear our brain sends signals to our body that tell it to use the cortisol being produced to shut down various functions like digestion, reproductive or immune function so that it can focus on reducing the stress that is being presented. When the stress ends, cortisol levels should return to normal, but what if the stress never ends? This can mess with your body’s most vital systems. Elevated cortisol levels are associated with overeating, weight gain and insulin resistance, all of which can be problems for those of us who struggle with our weight. It is very difficult to maintain healthy eating habits when chronically stressed and overproduction of cortisol in the body can only make these problems worse.
What do I do now?
Manage your stress anyway that works for you. Try a yoga class or meditation, take a long bath, pick up a hobby, stay active and exercise regularly. Most of all, make sure you are getting enough sleep each night. The reason for this in particular is that studies have shown that people with insomnia produce a much greater amount of cortisol throughout the day. This potentially causes a lot of these adverse effects we have discussed and could promote stress in your life. When you are eating, use intuitive eating methods to understand why you are eating and if it is coming from an emotional place or because you truly need to eat in that moment. If you have questions or want to understand what to do to lose weight beyond these small steps you might consider meeting with a nutrition counselor or dietitian.