Stress and Weight Management: All About CORTISOL


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Feeling stressed? Filling up on carbs to curb cravings could be a double-whammy for your waistline! If you tend to reach for a sugary snack to increase your energy or boost your mood when under pressure, a hormone called cortisol could be increasing the impact of a mid-morning muffin on your midsection. Luckily, through some planning and proper nutritional choices, you can try to counter the effects of cortisol and support your body when under stress.

We all have stress in our daily lives, and it may not always be the result of “bad” things happening to us. A promotion or pay raise, for example, can lead to both financial freedom and increased responsibility, but can impart major adjustments to your daily life. Much of how the body responds to stress may be related to the way we process and react to pressures, and two people often respond to the same stressor very differently. Do you find yourself in a cycle of work – eat – sleep – repeat, or have you been swept up in a busy schedule? It is a good practice to check in with yourself and take some downtime to assess your stress levels periodically. Some signs that your stress scale is close to tipping may be sleep disturbance, headaches or change in mood and sex drive.

How Does The Body Respond To Stress?

Understanding how the body reacts to stress can help explain its impact on long-term health and weight management. When the brain perceives any kind of stress, whether a physical threat or pressure from an obligation, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated. The SNS is responsible for the “flight or fight” response to stressors, which physically prepares the body to stay and fight against a perceived attack, or escape. When we are under long-term stress, a hormone called cortisol plays a large role in this response. Cortisol is released from the adrenal glands, situated above the kidneys, and works to prepare the body for “fight or flight” by increasing blood pressure, heart rate and, most importantly, blood sugar. Although we don’t often face physical threats in which we are forced to “fight or flee”, the body cannot always distinguish between an emotional and physical stress, meaning that many situations could trigger this response. High levels of cortisol can negatively impact mood, immune system, sleeping patterns, and weight, causing many of the symptoms associated with stress.

Stress And Weight Gain

Looking closer at how stress can affect weight gain, which is arguably one of the most undesirable side effects, cortisol is likely to be the main culprit. When the SNS is activated and we are in fight or flight mode, one effect of cortisol mentioned earlier is an increased blood sugar level. This occurs to ensure that the muscles have fuel readily available if they need to jump into action. When we are under stress these days, we are much more likely to be sitting at a desk than being chased through a forest and, consequently, our bodies do not need this mobilized fuel provided by cortisol. To normalize blood sugar levels, the body then releases a hormone called insulin from the pancreas which helps this sugar back into the cells where it is packed away and stored for future use. Studies show that this process encourages the appearance of increased body fat, particularly around the midsection. Another problem is that high cortisol levels seem to decrease the ability to burn fat, which, ultimately, increases the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and even heart disease.

Don’t despair – now that you know what might be the underlying cause of your midsection troubles, you can start targeting your cortisol and eating to balance your blood sugar levels. Try some of these simple tricks today to lower your stress levels and get your body back under control!

  1. Schedule time for yourself.

One of the biggest problems in our busy lives is the lack of value given to relaxation-some of us don’t know how to relax! Try to dedicate half an hour in the evening to taking an Epsom salt bath or winding down with a book and chamomile tea. Journaling can also be a great tool if you have lots running through your mind. Try to avoid excess television or computer screen time late in the evening as the bright light can disturb your sleep schedule.

  1. Deep Belly Breathing

This fast-acting tool is great to use any time you feel your stress levels rising, no matter what situation you are in. It is thought to calm the body down by decreasing the activation of the SNS, thus lowering cortisol levels. Put one hand on your belly, breathe in deeply and slowly make sure the belly pushes out, then breathe out fully, pulling your belly button toward your spine. Try taking 10 deep breaths the next time you are stuck in traffic or are nervous about a meeting to help calm you down.

  1. Control the Caffeine

Be careful reaching for a third, fourth or fifth coffee when you are feeling frazzled. Caffeine is a stimulant that can ramp up your cortisol levels when you are consuming higher amounts than you do on a regular basis. Unless they are specifically decaffeinated, all black, green and white teas also contain caffeine. Try choosing a ginger or peppermint tea to perk you up, or even opt for a fresh citrus fruit instead.

  1. Focus on a Diet for De-stressing

Eating nutrient-rich foods that contain healthy protein, fats and fiber can also balance your blood sugar levels to prevent dips in energy that might leave you reaching for caffeine or a sugary snack. Try munching on nuts and seeds, greek yoghurt or an apple with almond butter at the office. Don’t forget your fruits and veggies – vitamins and minerals are essential for maintaining energy levels when stressed!

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