If you’re like me, you spend a good part of the week feeling stressed about something (and yes feeling “busy” is a form of stress!). It doesn’t matter what that something is. It can change by the day, the week, or even the hour.
There are several different types of stress, but they all have the same impact on your stress hormone (read below). Stress can be:
- Mental – from work, relationships, etc
- Physical – from exercise, poor health, poor diet, gut health issues, etc
- Lack of sleep – this is a HUGE stress that people forget about!
- Your lifestyle – being constantly busy, in a rush, or feeling like you always have so much to do
Stress is just a part of our daily lives and while there are ways to reduce stress, you can’t eliminate it completely.
Unfortunately, stress does more than make us anxious, frustrated, or angry. It can also play a role in weight gain. It can make you feel exhausted, unmotivated, and make it harder to get through each day.
Not fair, right?
Since stress is such a part of our lives, no matter how much we wish it wasn’t, it’s important to understand how it impacts our physical health.
THE STRESS HORMONE
Yep…there’s a stress hormone. And its name is cortisol.
Believe it or not, your body produces cortisol anytime your body is undergoing stress. Have you just done a workout? Your cortisol levels will be up. Surviving on 5 hours sleep? Your cortisol levels will be up. Busy day at work? Your cortisol levels will be up.
In small doses, this hormone is not particularly harmful, but when you’re living in a constantly stressed out state, your adrenal glands will be in a constant state of producing lots of cortisol.
HOW CORTISOL IS MADE
Cortisol is produced by our adrenal system, specifically the two glands located near your kidneys. Once you’re stressed, your adrenal glands send cortisol into your bloodstream, triggering a sensation similar to the fight or flight response you experience in high-stress situations.
Traditionally, this response helped people get out of potentially dangerous situations or to fight back if the situation called for it.
Think of it as an evolutionary trait left from our caveman days. It used to help us survive in a much more dangerous world. When cortisol is produced, you get an added boost of energy to help you get through the stressful period without struggling too much.
WHAT IT DOES NOW
Because the world we live in is inherently more stressful, it’s often produced in excess.
Think about it… we are busier than ever! Our jobs are filled with demands that one person can barely meet on their own. We push ourselves to work out, work full time, be full-time moms, look after our health and have a social life – downtime is rare.
Each day, we process more information than our ancestors did. We have access to computers, televisions, external stimuli like traffic and even social media. Even these trigger a cortisol response.
CORTISOL CHANGES THE WAY YOU BURN CALORIES, FAT AND CARBS
Stress and weight gain often go hand in hand and this is because of the way cortisol interacts with your metabolism.
When you have cortisol in your system, your blood sugar levels increase temporarily. This is what gives you the energy you need to handle the fight or flight. Your blood pressure may also increase during that short burst.
However, when stress levels continue and you have too much cortisol in your bloodstream, it causes your blood sugar levels to stay elevated for hours or even days at a time.
Over time, this can cause that unwanted belly bulge you work so hard to avoid. Worse, high blood sugar can increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and even stroke if left untreated.
When your blood sugar is high, you can’t burn through calories as easily. This then causes your cells to store food energy as fat for later use.
Cortisol causes your body to store fat, especially on your hips (the “muffin top” and lower belly. So if you’re wondering if that’s where those extra pounds come from, it is very likely from stress and your lifestyle!
THE MORE STRESSED YOU GET, THE MORE CORTISOL IS PRODUCED
Stress is the enemy of weight loss. And we’re surrounded by stressful things in our lives. The more stressed we get, the more cortisol our bodies produce, making it harder and harder to lose that stubborn weight.
What you need to do is have your cortisol levels tested by your doctor or naturopath, and work on ways to reduce stress.
THE CORTISOL TEST
Cortisol levels in your body follow a rhythmic cycle – it is highest in the morning to help you wake up and get out of bed, and decreases as the day goes on. It should be lowest at night time to help you fall asleep (see graph below).
PS – if you have trouble falling asleep, it could be due to high cortisol levels.
Cortisol can be tested through a blood test or a saliva test.
Blood tests will only test your cortisol levels in the morning before breakfast.
If you want a better picture of your health, saliva tests are the way to go. You take 4 saliva samples throughout the day to find out your cortisol “curve” – when you wake up, at lunch time, at dinner time, and before bed.
HOW TO REDUCE STRESS AND REGULATE CORTISOL LEVELS
Luckily, there are dozens of ways to reduce stress and thus the cortisol in your bloodstream. Depending on your time and budget, some will work better than others. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
REDUCE YOUR BUSY LIFESTYLE
This one is often overlooked but makes the BIGGEST difference. Think about how you can give yourself some more time in the day to relax and not feel so busy all the time.
Trying to fit in gym and dinner with friends after work? If your body is crying out for rest, don’t be afraid to skip both of those things and take time to chill!
FOCUS ON SLEEP
Getting a quality 8 hours (minimum) of sleep per night will make also make a big difference. Reducing your busy lifestyle and sleeping more is enough to reduce your cortisol on it’s own. So don’t underestimate them :)
There are many things you can do to help yourself get better sleep:
- Don’t exercise or eat in the 3 hours before bed
- Don’t look at your phone and try to avoid TV and bright lights in the hour before bed (these prevent the production of melatonin, which helps you sleep)
- Remove all distractions from your room (including your phone)
- Make your room dark and quiet – even if that means sleeping with an eye mask and ear plugs
- Take supplements – magnesium works great! Melatonin can also help but be sure to consult your doctor first before taking this.
Exercise is a great way to handle stress and help you lose weight in the process. All you have to do to get started is go for a walk. Over time, you can start trying different workouts.
Don’t worry…you don’t even have to go to the gym. All you need is your body and a bit of determination.
As a general rule, if you wake up feeling any less than a 6/10, don’t exercise that day. Your body needs rest more than it needs exercise.
START EATING RIGHT
Believe it or not, your body will be better prepared to handle stress if you start eating fresh, nutrient-rich foods.
Skip the junk food and start incorporating lean proteins, fresh vegetables, and fruit into your diet. You’ll get the nutrients you need to maintain health while also avoiding the processed ingredients that can actually make your stress levels worse.
If you are deficient in anything, eating nutrient rich foods but not be enough. Get tested for any deficiencies and take high quality supplements to address them.
A good quality Vitamin C supplement is also great for your adrenal glands!
TRY SOME YOGA
Think of yoga as a combination of exercise and meditation. During your routine, you’ll focus on your movements and your breath to maintain poses.
This intense focus combined with the endorphins found from a good workout can help you destress for hours after you end your yoga practice.
Meditation is a great way to focus on your mental health and calm your body during periods of stress. Best of all, it’s free. Sit in a comfortable position (a chair is a-okay), close your eyes, and focus on your breathing.
If your mind wanders a bit, that’s completely okay. You might find it easier to start with a guided meditation (where you have a voice to focus on).
If you want to try it, consider downloading a free app like Oak or Calm.
WHY THIS MATTERS
Cortisol may be a natural response for your body, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely harmless. When it builds up in your system, it can lead to health problems in addition to unwanted weight gain.
By controlling stress and your cortisol levels, you’ll be able to live a happier and healthier life.
Let’s be real…you’ll never be able to completely avoid stress, but you can learn to reduce and manage it. And in return, your body will be better prepared to lose that stubborn weight and keep it off for the long-run.