Did you know that elevated cortisol levels can be the cause of the stubborn weight around your belly? That’s right! Studies show that weight gain, fatigue and increased belly fat are commonly linked to high cortisol levels in many individuals.
Belly fat can be frustrating, but did you know that it’s also the most dangerous place to accumulate the extra kilos?
Visceral fat is the excess weight one carries around their midsection, particularly deep beneath the surface of the abdominal wall. This type of fat is dangerous because it is stored around (and can literally suffocate) our vital organs such as the liver, pancreas and intestines.
It also plays havoc with our hormone function. Visceral fat secretes a protein called retinol-binding protein 4 (RBP4) which increases resistance to insulin. Carrying large amounts of visceral fat can lead to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes.
Why is insulin resistance a big problem for your waistline?
Our blood sugar levels are the traffic controllers for our appetite and mood. Our bodies regulate our blood sugar levels by producing the hormone, insulin. Insulin’s role is to regulate our blood sugar by lowering or elevating it. Consuming a high-sugar or high-carb meal elevates your blood sugar levels, which isn’t healthy. Therefore your brain signals your pancreas secretes insulin to normalise them.
The trouble is that insulin is a ‘fat-storage hormone’, and when it’s present in the blood it triggers fat storage. The more simple sugars, starches (bread, pasta, baked goods etc.), and refined carbohydrates we eat, the more insulin we produce, the more fat we can store, and the hungrier we feel.
That is why we crave more sugar. This can turn into a never-ending vicious cycle.
When your body has gotten pretty good at storing body fat but not so good at burning it, recurring cycle is experienced.
Over time your cells lose sensitivity and stop responding to insulin, which leads to a condition called insulin resistance. This is a big problem, because this triggers the production of even more insulin, leading to more weight gain.
Insulin also affects your adrenal glands, which produce stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones have a direct effect on our energy, hunger, weight, mood and stress levels.
Today many people live demanding and fast-paced lives, of which stress is an inevitable part of.
Of course some stress is normal, however, whether we are exposed to acute and chronic stress, makes a big difference. To understand acute stress, think of a situation that suddenly frightens you and your body responds with an instant adrenaline rush to get you out of danger, for example manoeuvring your way out of a car accident that just took place in front of you. In this instance, your body primarily produces adrenaline, which causes you to dilate your pupils, increase your blood pressure, shut down digestion and rush blood to your muscles so you can get away from the danger fast.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is a lower-level ongoing worry that your face on the reoccurring basis, such as worrying about an ill family member, financial stress or about food and your weight for instance. In this case, your body primarily secretes the stress hormone cortisol.
Acute stress is inevitable and most of the time unexpected, while chronic stress is ongoing and can be easier to be managed. Chronic stress can be a big contributing factor to excess body fat, especially stubborn fat around your midsection, also known as belly fat.
If stubborn belly fat is something you are struggling with, it is important to find ways to manage your stress levels and therefore reduce cortisol levels.
What is Cortisol and Why Does It Matter?
Cortisol is a stress hormone (glucocorticoid), that the adrenal glands produced during times of fear, stress and anxiety. Although cortisol is important for certain body processes, such as the regulation of glucose and insulin in the blood or post-workout reduction of inflammation, too much cortisol over a long period of time can be dangerous. The ‘cortisol switch’ occurs when your body ceases to register that cortisol is positively affecting the body. Instead, the cortisol released by the glands begins to cause adverse effects, such as jitters, low blood sugar, and fatigue.
Untreated high cortisol levels may lead to long-term complications and increase the risk of certain diseases, such as diabetes, Graver’s disease, Cushing’s Syndrome, and more. Not only is high cortisol linked to these conditions, it can also increase your risk of visceral adiposity, and obesity. The fat cells in the stomach have four times the amount of cortisol receptors compared to fat cells in other areas of the body. This means that stomach fat cells are highly receptive to cortisol, and remain reinforced during periods of high cortisol release.
Stressed and suspecting high cortisol levels? GP or an integrative healthcare professional can get you tested.
If you have already been tested for it and are suffering from abnormal levels, it’s time to learn the strategies to reduce cortisol. There are a variety of methods to help reduce cortisol levels, including lifestyle changes, changing nutritional habits, practising anti-stress/anxiety strategies, and more. Read on below to find out the top seven ways to naturally reduce cortisol.
The perception of good nutrition has diversified over the past few decades. With the multitude of information out there, it can be difficult to know which is the correct opinion to follow.
However, getting your nutrition on the right track is quite simple. The secret is that there is no secret. Consume a balanced diet, consisting of mostly whole foods. As a rule of thumb, focus on consuming real, whole foods from plants and animals. By that, I mean that you should limit processed foods filled with additives, chemicals, enhancers and preservatives.
Cortisol stimulates gluconeogenesis (production of glucose or sugar within the body).
If your cortisol levels are high, it signals your brain that you are in danger and need fuel to get away from it. Therefore, cortisol triggers glucose production, which is instant energy for your brain and muscles to help get you out of trouble.
If you are suffering from high cortisol, it is important to reduce simple and refined carbohydrates and large amounts of starchy foods.These type of foods increase blood glucose (sugar) levels. As you read earlier constantly elevated blood glucose levels stimulate weight gain, visceral fat, and risk of diabetes.
For your carb sources, focus on consuming complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, oats, quinoa, and sweet potatoes.
Avoid these foods to reduce your cortisol levels:
- Trans fats: Trans fats are artificially processed fats, which appear as ‘hydrogenated fats’ on food labels. Watch out for these, as they can increase your risk of heart diseases, as well as elevate your cortisol levels.
- Refined sugars and starchy foods: Cortisol stimulates gluconeogenesis (production of glucose within the body). If you are suffering from high cortisol, it is important to reduce refined carbohydrates from your diet.
- Alcohol: Long-term alcohol use may contribute to hormonal imbalance, inflammation, increased risk of liver disease, and more.
- Saturated fats: Consuming a diet rich in saturated fats can elevate cortisol levels even further. Saturated fats are found mostly in animal products and some plant oils. Saturated fat is found mainly in animal foods such as meat and dairy products including fatty beef, lamb, pork, chicken with skin, whole milk, cream, butter, cheese and ice cream. Instead, opt for leaner cuts of meat and poultry.
Focus on consuming a diet rich in these foods to reduce cortisol:
- Non-starchy vegetables: Leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli, zucchini, celery, cucumber, green beans Consume at least 5 portions of these vegetables a day.
- Protein: Protein is the building block for our muscles, and it is essential for healing, muscle maintenance, hormone production, detoxification and stabilising blood sugar levels. Consume at least 15-20g of protein per meal each day. (approx 100g chicken contains 20g protein) Essential fatty acids: found in oily fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, and chia & flax seeds. These are anti-inflammatory and can reduce the inflammatory effects of cortisol.
- Water: It is essential to keep hydrated, to detoxify your cells. Dehydration can lead to inflammation and lack of ability to cleanse your system.
Studies suggest that consuming too much caffeine may cause spikes in cortisol. It is important to limit your intake of tea and coffee to a minimum or better yet eliminate it completely if you want to reduce cortisol levels. I’ve written an article on the effects caffeine has on our system and cortisol levels. Instead of coffee, opt for herbal teas, pure water, green juices, kombucha and home-made smoothies.
While exercise is great for lowering stress levels, too much training (particularly cardio) can further increase cortisol levels. With exercise, follow these guidelines in order to achieve the benefits of exercise without overdoing it:
- Cardiovascular exercise: Limit endurance training. When I work with a client who has abnormal cortisol or adrenal profile, I advise them to stop cardio training altogether and have them focus on resistance training or restorative forms of exercise such as yoga. Reduce the intensity of your training, get plenty of rest between sets, and consume a complete post-workout meal including complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, quinoa or sweet potatoes.
- Increase restorative exercises, such as yoga and pilates: These forms of exercises force you to focus on deepening your breath. They are wonderful for reducing stress and anxiety levels because they make you concentrate on practising slow deep breathing.
Establishing a regular sleep pattern is critical to get enough good quality sleep every day to reduce stress on your body. Sleep before 10 pm and get 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep so that the function of the adrenal glands in reducing cortisol levels will be restored. If you suffer from high cortisol levels, you may experience restlessness at night, and fatigue during the day. Aim to stop using any device that emits artificial blue light for at least half an hour before bedtime. This includes tablets, laptops, phones, televisions, etc. Artificial light suppresses melatonin – the main hormone involved in signalling for the body to sleep. By reducing artificial light, reducing caffeine and practising meditation, you can try to reset your circadian rhythm and re-balance your hormones.
How to Reduce Cortisol and Manage Stress:
There are many ways to reduce stress/anxiety levels, including meditation or mindfulness, deep breathing, spending time outdoors, or finding the source of the stress and eliminating it. Sometimes, it is not easy to eliminate stress from our lives, due to inevitable responsibilities that we have. Instead, focus on the following strategies to manage stress levels:
- Meditation: Practicing yoga, mindfulness, or meditation can have significant effects on cortisol. There are tons of meditative methods out there, including step-by-step videos, books, and more. Utilize these resources, and practice meditation daily for at least 15-20 minutes.
- Deep breathing: When stressed, our breaths tend to be shallow which can result in insufficient oxygen reaching the cells. This can cause low energy, fatigue and more stress. Performing deep breathing exercises can stimulate the body’s natural relaxation response. By practising just a few minutes of deep breathing each day, you can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system response. This relaxes your body and reduces your stress levels.
- Spend time outdoors: According to studies, physical settings play a large role in stress levels. If locked up indoors, without fresh air and sunlight, it is much easier to feel overwhelmed, stressed and anxious. Aim to walk outside for at least 10-15 minutes a day on your lunch break. Whether you are strolling through a park, the bush, by the ocean, or in your backyard, being outdoors for a portion of the day has many positive effects on the body and mind.
Obesity is one of the most pervasive and escalating worldwide epidemics. It affects over 600 million adults on a global scale (WHO). What individuals are not aware of are the alarming consequences of obesity and its’ adverse effects on our health. Around 2.8 million individuals die every year due to being obese. Reduce stress and take charge of your lifestyle habits. Manage your weight and reduce your risk of developing life-threatening conditions.
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