Cortisol (Stress) and weight gain: Explained

Hello readers

To lose weight we must first understand why we are gaining weight. And while there are umpteen hypotheses which have confused the masses for ages, the fundamental science always remains the basis of any fact. We gain weight mostly because of hormonal imbalances (so while overeating and calorie counting do affect hormonal imbalances, they do NOT paint the comprehensive, or even close to comprehensive picture). Via a series of blogs, I will spread out the information of fat storage hormones and fat burning hormones. You can check out the first blog here. This blog is about stress and how it affects fat storage. At the end I leave you with how to manage cortisol levels better by listing what spikes it and what brings it down.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the outside of the two adrenal glands located on top of the kidneys. Adrenal secretes many hormones such as cortisol, sex hormones, and controls other things such as immunity and response to disease. However, this blog is just about fat storage and impact of cortisol on it. Hence, will avoid talking about all functions of adrenals.

But two side notes to remember-most adrenal hormones come under the classification which has the term “corticoids” at the end, meaning fat/steroids. Hence you NEED DIETARY fat to make those hormones, and second, cortisol is under the classification glucocorticoid, indicating it also has impacts on glucose, and that is what is of importance to us here.

How does cortisol function?

In normal conditions, whenever we are in a situation of stress (stress is physical and mental) the body wants to prepare itself against this stress. So it secretes the stress hormone-cortisol. This cortisol stops certain things like food digestion so it could use its energy on dealing with the stressful conditions, like pumping more glucose to deal with the situation in hand (if a lion is chasing you body needs glucose to run away). So stress comes, cortisol goes up, person runs away from the lion, stressful situation goes down, brain sends signals to adrenals to stop with all this extra cortisol, adrenals stop, situation restores. This is the normal mechanism of what happens.

Modern stress is different. There is no lion yet it never goes away. The cortisol stays up for most people, most of the time. As a result, the body senses more glucose coming in to deal with stress. To prepare for the glucose, body will secrete insulin. And insulin is the primary fat storage hormone. Insulin is critical for the body, but too much is not, it will lead to a condition of insulin resistance and fat storage. So two messages to take away here. First, insulin levels are directly proportional to cortisol. The more you are stressed, the more insulin resistance you will have. The more you are stressed, the more fat you will store. And second, in periods of stress, you tend to store more fat .

BOTH cortisol and insulin store fat around the vital organs, in a hope that the person would need energy and hence they store the glycogen and the fats closer to the liver. But most people never gets to those stored repositories, neither does the insulin nor the cortisol levels come down. As a result, more fat keeps storing. Around the belly and upper body. Also, because almost all vital organs are present in the upper body, the fat stored by these two hormones is dangerous and that’s why the belly fat is dangerous, because it presses those vital organs.

What causes spike in cortisol?

1. Stress. 2. Injury 3. Accidents 4. Getting fired from job 5. Relocating 6. Personal loss 7. Ageing 8. Sugar 9. Alcohol 10. Refined carbohydrates 11. Too much strength training without recovery 12. Too much aerobics without recovery (cardio creates MORE stress than strength training)

How to bring cortisol levels down?

1. SLEEP (most powerful tool) 2. No sugar (No sugar means less insulin which spikes something called insulin like growth factor (IGF)-a fat burning hormone I will cover in another blog, IGF is kind of opposite to insulin) 3. No alcohol 4. Work out recovery (1 day of heavy exercise followed by till the soreness goes) 5. Slow, long walks 6. Meditation (need to unwind, need to get the clutter out) 7. Strength training (helps release stress ONLY when you go into deep sleep later, so strength training plus recovery is the complete point) 8. Controlled cardio 9. Potassium 10. Magnesium and calcium-they have similar effects to potassium and while they might not really calm adrenals like potassium, they will help you relax which will mean less cortisol 11. Ashwagandha-Ashwagandha is an adaptogen. What is an adaptogen? To put it in perspective of adrenals and cortisol, it means ashwagandha will increase or decrease your cortisol levels depending upon how much they were or simply, RESTORE levels back to normal. 12. Vitamin B1 – again, not responsible for adrenal relaxation BUT helps you sleep. Found mainly in sesame seeds, peas and spinach. 13. Sun 14 And lastly, acupressure and massage, both CRITICAL tools to release stress.

I hope you liked this blog on cortisol. To discuss more on this, please leave a comment below.

 

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