We all have days where life just goes wrong. On those days I tend to forget about all my health goals and reach for a bag of crisps, and yes, I’ll have some dip with that as well, thank you very much.
And it works a charm. I feel better. But the effects are devastating. Stress has a vast effect on our weight – some of us eat more when stressed, others can’t eat.
But it goes deeper. What is cortisol’s role in all of this?
What is cortisol?
US endocrinologist Disha Narang describes cortisol as a steroid hormone made by your body. “If someone has a backache or infection, doctors will administer steroids to decrease inflammation.”
“Cortisol is your body’s own way of doing that internally.” Apart from this, cortisol is responsible for quite a few things in the body.
It manages how your body uses carbohydrates, fats and proteins, regulates your blood pressure, increases your blood sugar and controls your sleep/wake cycle.
Cortisol is also nature’s built-in alarm system. It is the body’s primary stress hormone, triggering the fight-or-flight response. When we perceive danger, cortisol surges in the body.
This causes those nasty symptoms that tell us loud and clear that we are in panic mode: increased blood pressure, increased heart rate and muscle tension. Sometimes we even experience nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.
The effects of cortisol aren’t fun, but they serve the purpose of self-preservation. In order to get rid of the symptoms, you have to get rid of the perceived threat. In this way, cortisol contributes to survival.
After the perceived threat has passed, your cortisol levels should go back to normal. Your heart rate and blood pressure returns to normal.
Cortisol is produced by your adrenal glands – small, triangle-shaped organs at the top of your kidneys.
Your body has a clever way of regulating your cortisol levels. Your brain can tell if your blood contains the right level of cortisol.
If it’s too low, your brain adjusts the amount of hormones it makes by letting the adrenal glands know they need to produce more.
Most of the cells in your body act as cortisol receptors that receive and use the hormone in different ways.
What happens when your cortical levels are too high or too low
Experiencing abnormally high levels of cortisol over a long period of time points to a condition called Cushing’s syndrome.
Cushing syndrome can be caused by the following:
- Taking large amounts of corticosteroid medications for the treatment of other conditions. These include prednisone and dexamethasone.
- Pituitary gland tumors that produce adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).
- Neuroendocrine tumors in your lungs can cause high cortisol levels, but this is rare.
- Adrenal gland tumors or excessive growth of adrenal tissue can lead to elevated cortisol production.
With high cortisol levels, you will experience the following symptoms:
- Weight gain, especially in your face and abdomen.
- Fatty deposits between your shoulder blades.
- Wide, purple stretch marks on your belly.
- Muscle weakness in your upper arms and thighs.
- High blood sugar, which can lead to type 2 diabetes.
- High blood pressure.
- Excessive hair growth in women.
- Weak bones and fractures.
Various treatments exist for Cushing syndrome, depending on the cause.
If the long-term use of corticosteroid medications is the cause, your doctor can help you control the symptoms by reducing the dosage of the drug over a period of time, while still managing the condition you take it for.
Don’t attempt to reduce your dose of corticosteroid drugs on your own – the process needs to be supervised by a medical professional.
If Cushing syndrome is caused by a tumor, it can be removed surgically or treated with radiation. If these treatments are unsuccessful, medication is an option.
Having consistently low cortisol levels means you could be suffering from Addison’s, which is caused by:
- An autoimmune reaction which causes your immune system to attack healthy cells in your adrenal glands.
- An infection or blood loss can damage your adrenal glands.
- An underactive pituitary gland or a pituitary tumor can limit ACTH production. This is the substance that tells your adrenal glands to make cortisol.
Therefore, too little ACTH means limited cortisol production.
Lower-than-normal cortisone levels could see you suffering from fatigue, unintentional weight loss, poor appetite and low blood pressure.
Addison’s disease can’t be cured, but it can be treated with medication.
|How to naturally lower your cortisol levels|
If you have Cushing syndrome, you will need treatment to manage your condition. But, as with many medical conditions, a few lifestyle changes can already make a significant change.
Get quality sleep. Battling issues such as sleep apnea, insomnia or even working shifts can mess with your cortisol levels.
Regular exercise is a must. It will help you sleep better and fight stress, reducing your cortisol levels.
Learn to manage your stress. Be mindful of your breathing and those negative thoughts that plunge you into a downward spiral.
Laugh – even if it’s a fake laugh. Laughing makes your body release endorphins and suppress cortisol. The same happens when you take part in activities that you enjoy.
The connection between cortisol and your weight
When your cortisol levels are out of balance, weight loss becomes even more challenging. There are various ways in which cortisol can interfere with your very best intentions.
Cortisol and sugar cravings
It’s debatable whether this is good news or bad news, but there is some science behind emotional eating.
When you are stressed, your body thinks it needs energy to keep up that elevated heart rate. Sugar supplies the body with quick energy – hence the cravings.
Now you have a problem, because the body tends to store sugar, especially after stressful situations. And it stores it in your belly. Many of us know, belly fat is hard to get rid of.
Before you know it, you are stuck in a vicious cycle: you stress, release cortisol, crave sugar, gain weight, stress again, crave more sugar, gain more weight.
Cortisol and metabolism
But wait, there’s more. Even if you manage to stay away from foods loaded with fat and sugar, cortisol slows down your metabolism, making it harder to lose weight.
Stress and your weight
Apart from the direct effect of cortisol, stress also contributes greatly to weight gain. Emotional eating, as already mentioned, gives us comfort, if only in the short term.
Other stress-induced unhealthy habits include:
- When life is already presenting you with one challenge after the other and your stress levels are high, it’s unlikely that you will have the time or mental energy to plan and cook healthy, balanced meals.
The result? Fatty fast food of course.
- A busy, stressful life leaves you with little time to exercise. Many people spend hours in traffic, only to be followed by hours at a desk. We don’t move much at all.
- Sometimes you forget or simply don’t have time to eat, and you skip the meal. Skipping random meals might not necessarily help you to lose weight. In fact, it might lead to a large, unhealthy meal later.
Our bodies need fuel in the form of healthy food throughout the day.
- Not getting enough sleep can be disastrous for your weight, and many people battle to sleep when they are stressed. Research has linked sleep deprivation to a slower metabolism.
Furthermore, feeling too tired can affect your willpower, causing you to make unhealthy choices.
Consistently abnormal cortisol levels need medical attention, but when it comes to stress, there is much you can do to break the chains that keep you stuck in a pattern of weight gain.
It comes down to taking good care of yourself, no matter how hard it is. Force yourself to make time to exercise. Drink a lot of water. Learn a few techniques to manage your stress.
The rewards will make it worth the battle.