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Will high levels of the stress hormone cortisol make you fat?

Navigating the intricate world of cortisol uncovers its pivotal role in your health, wellbeing, and surprisingly, weight gain. The stress hormone influences everything from metabolism to inflammation, and holds a surprising sway over how easy or challenging you find it to gain or lose body fat. Here’s how you can better control your cortisol to tip the scales of leading a fitter, healthier and less-stressful life in you favour, asks New Body Plan’s Joe Warner

Ever heard of cortisol? Bet you thought it was just the “stress hormone”. Well, it does a lot more than that. It’s a master at controlling our metabolism and keeping inflammation in check. Now, imagine getting to grips with this powerhouse hormone and making it work for you, rather than against you. You’d be striding towards a life that’s not only leaner, healthier and happier but also blissfully stress-free. Sounds pretty good, right? Buckle up and let’s dive into the world of cortisol, your unexpected passport to a breezier life!

TL;DR Known as the stress hormone, cortisol is a crucial steroid hormone produced by your adrenal glands, playing vital roles from regulating metabolism and reducing inflammation, to orchestrating your body’s response to stress. Dysregulation of cortisol can lead to health issues including fatigue, weight gain, and mental health problems. Understanding this critical hormone is key to optimal health, fitness and wellbeing.

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What is cortisol and why is it important?

An integral part of our biological machinery, cortisol is a glucocorticoid (a type of steroid hormone) produced and secreted by the adrenal glands, small organs that sit atop our kidneys. The hormone’s production is driven by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a complex set of interactions between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands.

Cortisol has many roles. It’s primarily recognised for its involvement in the body’s response to stress – hence, its nickname, the “stress hormone”. When we encounter a stressful situation, cortisol levels spike, preparing our bodies for a “fight or flight” response. This is achieved through several physiological changes: an increase in blood sugar levels for quick energy; the suppression of non-emergency bodily functions, such as digestion and immune response; and the alteration of the brain’s perception of pain.

But cortisol’s functions extend beyond stress management. It helps regulate our metabolism, aiding in the conversion of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates into usable energy. It also plays a critical role in controlling our body’s fluid levels and blood pressure and helps to modulate inflammation.

Recognising its critical importance, a study from the National Institute of Health asserts, “Cortisol is essential for maintaining homeostasis, and the body’s failure to generate or appropriately respond to cortisol has both pathological and potentially lethal consequences.”

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How does this “stress hormone” affect the body’s response to exercise?

Exercise, being a form of physical stress, triggers a rise in cortisol levels, which then facilitates the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to provide the body with the energy to power through a workout. The hormone also acts to suppress non-essential bodily functions during exercise, such as immune response and digestion, directing resources towards the muscular and cardiovascular systems.

However, the relationship between cortisol and exercise is delicately balanced. While acute rises post-exercise are normal and beneficial, chronically high levels, potentially due to persistent stress or overtraining, can lead to catabolic effects such as muscle breakdown, hindered recovery, and impaired athletic performance.

How is cortisol linked with weight gain?

It can indirectly contribute to weight gain via its influence on appetite and fat storage. When levels rise due to stress, it triggers a cascade of events that may lead to increased hunger. This is because the hormone stimulates insulin release, which in turn leads to lowered blood sugar and increased appetite. This often results in “stress eating” or reaching out for comfort foods, which are usually high in sugar and fat.

Cortisol can influence where fat is stored in the body. Studies have suggested that higher levels may stimulate the accumulation of abdominal fat. A study published in Obesity Research & Clinical Practice explains this succinctly: “Elevated cortisol concentrations during chronic stress may increase the risk of weight gain via visceral fat storage.”

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Can cortisol influence my mental health?

Cortisol’s influence extends into the realm of mental health. Its role in stress response implicates it in mood regulation and cognitive functions such as memory and learning. Under normal circumstances, it contributes to the creation of memories, especially those related to emotionally laden events, and it helps modulate mood and emotions.

However, dysregulation of cortisol – whether it be chronically high levels or a disrupted daily rhythm of the hormone – can have detrimental effects on mental health. High levels have been associated with mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. An insightful study in Psychoneuroendocrinology underlines this connection: “The HPA axis, and thus cortisol, has profound implications for mental health, including the risk and course of mood and psychotic disorders.”

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What factors can influence cortisol levels?

Your levels are influenced by a host of factors, ranging from lifestyle habits to physiological conditions. Key factors include physical activity, sleep, diet, and psychological stress.

Exercise, being a form of physical stress, naturally induces a rise in levels. However, the increase is typically transient and returns to baseline levels with proper recovery. Chronic stress – both physical and psychological – can result in sustained high levels.

Sleep is another major player. Cortisol follows a diurnal rhythm, with levels peaking in the morning and gradually dropping throughout the day. Disruptions to this rhythm, such as those caused by insufficient or poor-quality sleep, can lead to dysregulation, which may have far-reaching health implications.

Diet also has an influence.. Certain nutrients can modulate cortisol response. For instance, a diet high in sugar and fat may result in elevated levels.

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How can I test my cortisol levels?

Measuring cortisol levels can be accomplished through blood, urine, or saliva tests. However, because cortisol follows a diurnal rhythm, timing of the test is important. For the most accurate representation, tests should ideally be taken in the morning, when levels peak.

That said, testing should be undertaken under professional guidance, as levels of this hormone can be influenced by various factors, and interpretation of results should consider these individual differences.

Can my cortisol levels be managed?

Yes, levels can indeed be managed. This management typically revolves around a combination of adequate sleep, regular exercise, a balanced diet, and stress management techniques such as mindfulness and meditation.

Achieving adequate and quality sleep is crucial, as sleep disruptions can dysregulate normal daily rhythms. Regular exercise, particularly moderate-intensity training, can help normalise levels. A balanced diet can also modulate the response. High-sugar, high-fat diets may lead to increased levels, so a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains is advisable.

Stress management cannot be over-emphasised. Techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, deep-breathing exercises, and yoga can help reduce psychological stress and thus control levels.

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5 ways to better manage your cortisol levels

  1. Prioritise sleep: Ensure you are getting both adequate and quality sleep. As per a Sleep Medicine Reviews study, a regular sleep schedule supports a balanced cortisol rhythm.
  2. Exercise regularly: Regular, moderate-intensity exercise can help regulate cortisol. However, remember that overtraining can cause cortisol levels to spike, so ensure you include adequate recovery periods in your fitness routine.
  3. Maintain a balanced diet: Foods rich in complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats can help manage cortisol levels. Limit your intake of processed foods and those high in sugar and fat.
  4. Employ stress management techniques: Mindfulness, meditation, and other relaxation techniques can help control psychological stress and, by extension, cortisol levels.
  5. Stay hydrated: Some research suggests that dehydration can lead to increased cortisol. Ensuring you stay well-hydrated throughout the day can thus help keep your cortisol in check.

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