Cortisol - The Stress Hormone

You’ve got into healthy eating patterns, you’re now exercising frequently but the weight doesn’t seem to be moving? You’ve followed the advice and it isn't working? I want to give you a tip off as to what it could possibly be that’s holding back your results…

You may or may not have heard of the word ‘Cortisol? Maybe read a bit about it in the ‘wellness’ section of the weekend papers and didn’t quite understand its relevance in your life. Well I am here to tell you that this cheeky little hormone could indeed be the sinister culprit that is stopping you from dropping fat.

In fact, you could invest hours each week eating clean and hitting the gym but the benefit of all that good work will be minimised if you don’t understand the role of cortisol and take steps to proactively manage it.

What is Cortisol?

A steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands; these are the small glands that sit just above your kidneys; the same glands that also produce adrenaline – a hormone you may be a little more familiar with because it’s talked about more – “I felt my adrenaline kick in!”

Let’s dig a little deeper on some definitions:

  • What is a hormone? These are the body’s little chemical messenger cells that along with the nervous system, control what happens in the body – where you put on weight, when you go through puberty, how you feel emotionally and how hungry you feel, are all functions coordinated by hormones.
  • Cortisol is a type of steroid hormone but what is a steroid hormone? Well this is a class of hormones, chemical messengers that are all made from a common base compound – can you guess it? It’s cholesterol. So contrary to everything you read about cholesterol being bad, it’s actually a critical compound for proper human functioning.
  • As a steroid hormone, cortisol falls into the same category as testosterone, estrogen, progesterone and growth hormone. Collectively, this class of hormones tends to control the processes of metabolism and the development of sexual characteristics. As an example, the reason men put fat on their guts and women on the hips, is down to the action of the steroid hormones.
So to summarise, cortisol is a chemical messenger that is produced from cholesterol in the adrenal glands and has massive effects in controlling your metabolism.

What Role Does Cortisol Have In The Body?

  • Its secretion from the adrenal glands varies depending on the time of day but is typically higher in the morning and lowest around midnight.
  • Cortisol has a large influence in how carbohydrate and fat are used in your body and works in combination with insulin to regulate your blood sugar levels and overall metabolism.
  • Also known as ‘the stress hormone’, Cortisol is the main hormone involved in the fight-or-flight response. When you brain detects a stressful event, it sends a chemical message to the adrenal glands to produce just the right amount of cortisol, which results in a burst of new energy and strength.
  • This is awesome in the short term to help you flee from a tiger but harmful if have continually elevated levels.
  • In fact, over time, high cortisol levels may cause weight gain and high blood pressure, disrupt sleep, negatively impact mood, reduce your energy levels and contribute to diabetes onset.
  • You may have notice your appetite increasing and a craving for high sugar, high fat foods when you’re tired and stressed?  You know the things we call ‘comfort foods’ - Elevated cortisol is part of the problem there. You’re stressed and tired, you binge to get your energy back but then 3 months down the line, you’ve put on 5kg. It’s a common story!
  • Further to all of this, it’s a specific issue for men in that high cortisol generally causes the body to produce less testosterone and growth hormone, hormones that are essential to the building and preservation of muscle. And when you have less muscle, you start to burn fewer calories.

What Causes High Cortisol Levels?

We’re starting to paint a picture here of how important cortisol is in influencing our weight management and energy levels, right? So what is the primary cause of prolonged cortisol increase?

The simple answer to that is ‘prolonged stress’ however I think a more complete answer is that ‘modern day lifestyles’ are what cause high cortisol levels. It’s the combination of poor lifestyle practices that has the detrimental impact, not just stress on it’s own - The Cortisol Cluster!

Here’s an extreme left-field example to illustrate the point - the prisoners of war were no doubt, incredibly stressed – tortured and tormented, a cortisol minefield but they never had a muffin-top??

Yet compare that to the ‘first world stressed' guy or girl – he or she works 12-hour days in an office, sitting all day on their butt, surviving on lattes and café takeaways, trying to be popular across 42 social media platforms and sinking in financial debt. All of a sudden, the stress-induced high cortisol levels become a big problem.

The stress causes your tired, crappy lifestyle; your lifestyle causes you to gain weight; feeling fat causes you anxiety and stress and what’s the best way out of that? Comfort food – the vicious cycle continues… in this circumstance, Cortisol is the conductor in an orchestra or poor health practices!

The Need For A Pattern-Break

I know first hand, how hard balance is to achieve. In fact, I am convinced that the reason I am not completely shredded to bits is because of my cortisol levels, due to a high-stress lifestyle. I’m ambitious, I demand a lot of myself and the bills don’t stop coming!

BUT, despite the drain and surviving on around 6 hours sleep per day, I eat so well and exercise most days and so I avoid the effects of the Cortisol Cluster.  I prioritise my health.

I believe having a child is the time when many men start to head down the wrong path – when their health becomes a secondary priority behind the kids, finances, and their work, they’re not able to offset the stress anymore and so they give up and turn to food and alcohol as a short cut to numbing their stress.

So what the hell do we do? We need what I call a ‘pattern break’ – A deliberate interruption to our current habits.

So much of what we do is habitual – we act out of repetition and don’t really think and realise, we DO indeed have a choice.

I for one know that if I were better at saying ‘no’ to some things, slept an extra hour a day more and worked less, I’d see a much improved return on my time invested in eating well and exercising.

I experience an interesting thing every time I go away on holidays – after 3-4 days of just chilling out, eating whatever, sleeping and not-training, my body starts to look better. I put this down to a ‘pattern break’. I take the foot off the gas for a bit and tend to my stress levels by relaxing and just chilling out and my body responds by lowering cortisol and this seems to reflect in how I look.

Practical Tips For Minimising Cortisol

It’s not always practical or financially viable to just take a holiday. As such, we have to look to more natural, lifestyle ways to reduce the impact. These could include:

  • Getting adequate sleep – all of the science supports sleep as a natural means of lowering cortisol. As such, setting up for a high quality sleep, especially if you are a shift-worker will be a priority strategy. I will address this in an upcoming post as there are many practical means of optimizing sleep.
  • Being active – Whilst high intensity exercise itself causes a short-term spike in cortisol to cope with the energy demands, cortisol levels bounce back better at night in fitter people.
  • Seeking relaxation – activities like deep breathing, massage, mediation and listening to calming music cause a reduction in cortisol levels which improves with habitual practice.
  • Engaging in fun activities – laughter and other activities that cause happiness are shown to clearly push back the stress-induced cortisol response.
  • Adopt a healthy eating plan – this is consistent with lowering cortisol levels. Healthy diets are high in antioxidants which help to combat the stress response. It’s the same advice principles I am always preaching – variety, colours, low sugar and adequate hydration that is best!
  • Develop your spiritual side and practice mindfulness yourself and in relationships – there is a large difference between religion and spirituality. I define the later as embracing activities that are good for your soul. Being more mindful, being more kind and investing in your relationships are an excellent way to minimise cortisol levels because they contribute to a sense of wellbeing, forgiveness and positivity.

In Summary

There is absolutely no doubt that stress levels are at an all-time high and I know that personally, this is a big topic for me. Reaching the point of burnout seems normal, and even revered and saluted in today’s society. When this happens as part of the Cortisol Cluster, your health is sure to be negatively affected.

You owe it to yourself to treat you better.

Making this video has been especially introspective for me because I know that I cannot continue to operate at the pace I do forever and not do damage.

And before I go, let me share a piece of advice that the pet-lovers have known for years – get a dog, a cat or a horse for that matter. Caring for a pet is one of the most effective cortisol-lowering strategies. There’s something about that unconditional affection that does wonders for your soul.

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Love you all!!