Ever wondered why stress eating is a thing? Perhaps there were times where you were so down and stressed, and the next thing you know, you gained weight? Do you find your appetite increased during tough times? the answer to those questions is within you. No, really, it literally is in you. Cortisol, aka the stress hormone.
What is Cortisol?
So what exactly is cortisol, and what does it do? It is a steroid hormone made in the cortex of the adrenal glands and then released in the blood, which then transports it all round the body. Almost all cells have receptors for cortisol, and as such, it is responsible for many actions in the body, depending on which cell it is acting upon. The adrenal glands secrete cortisol in a pattern called diurnal variation, which means that the levels of cortisol in the bloodstream will vary depending on the time of day (usually levels are highest in the early morning and lowest in midnight). Cortisol is needed for blood pressure maintenance and energy provision for the body.
Effect on Weight
Cortisol gained its title “stress hormone” because the body releases an excess of it in times of stress, along with the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine which make up the “fight or flight” response to a threat. When the threat or stress passes, epinephrine and norepinephrine return to normal levels, but cortisol levels can remain elevated for longer periods. And when the stress is chronic, elevated cortisol levels persist.
Now what does this have to do with weight, you may ask? Well, cortisol stimulates the metabolism of carbohydrates and fat for fast energy, and it also stimulates the release of insulin and maintenance of blood sugar levels. And these actions may increase appetite and cause you to crave for salty, sweet, and high-fat foods. Also, when cortisol levels are increased, the body will produce less testosterone, which leads to decreased muscle mass. And since there’s less testosterone to build muscle mass, your body will start having a decline in burning calories.
Couple that with the added appetite effect mentioned earlier, and you have a recipe for weight gain. Also, there are studies that have shown that stress and the increased levels of cortisol it brings tend to cause fat deposition in the abdominal area rather than in the hips. And that’s how elevated cortisol levels contribute to weight gain. It’s why stressful conditions such as anxiety and depression include weight gain in their symptoms.
When You Have Too Much Cortisol
If your level is too high for far too long may lead you to get Cushing’s syndrome. This can be due to a lot of factors, like a tumor that produces adrenocorticotropic hormone (thus increasing cortisol secretion), or taking certain types of meds or drugs. Symptoms may include:
- rapidly gaining weight, mainly in the face, chest and abdomen while arms and legs remain slender
- flushed and round face
- high blood pressure
- bruises and purple stretch marks
- muscle weakness
- mood swings
- increased thirst
- frequency of urination.
Having too much cortisol for a long time may also cause lack of sex drive, and in women, their periods may become irregular, less frequent or stop altogether.
When You Have Too Little Cortisol
If your levels are too little, it may be a sign that something’ wrong with your pituitary gland or adrenal gland (such as Addison’s disease). The onset of symptoms is usually very gradual, and these may include:
- dizziness (especially upon standing)
- weight loss
- muscle weakness
- mood changes
- darkening of regions of the skin
So, if you suspect that something is really wrong with your cortisol levels, it’s best to urgently be assessed or checked by an endocrinologist.
Now, since stress increases cortisol levels (which then leads to weight gain), then you‘re gonna have to deal with stress (reduce it) in order to prevent cortisol increase. Here are some things you can do that may help you regulate your cortisol levels:
- Lower your stress levels – if you want to try lowering your cortisol levels, you should aim to reduce stress. You can do this by avoiding or getting out of stressful situations (where possible) or learning how to cope with stress better. You can learn to recognize the triggers for your stress and try to manage these to reduce instances of worry or anxiety and decrease feelings of tension. If you learn how to cope when stressful thoughts arise, you’ll be able to manage your cortisol levels better. If this proves too difficult, you may consider meds which can contribute to improved stress tolerance and lower cortisol levels.
- Eat a good diet – if you’re trying to lower your cortisol levels, eating a healthy would be a great help. Also, pay attention to your sugar intake. Here are some foods that may help to keep your cortisol levels stable:
- dark chocolate
- black/green tea
- probiotics in food such as yogurt
- probiotics in foods containing soluble fiber
Also, drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration (it helps to keep cortisol levels lower).
- Sleep well – the amount of sleep that a person has may affect their cortisol levels. A bad night’s sleep, for instance, or more prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to increased levels of cortisol in the bloodstream. So, pay attention to the amount and quality of sleep you have and try to limit the chance of disruptions.
- Try relaxation techniques – Try to manage stress by experimenting with relaxation techniques, such as meditation, mindfulness, and even simple breathing exercises. These can help you deal with stress more effectively.
- Take up a hobby – Hobbies can be a rewarding and satisfying way to lead a fuller and healthier life, and they can lead to an increased sense of well-being. Also, hobbies are fun. They are sure to aid in stress reduction.
- Learn to unwind – People relax in different ways, so understanding what works on a personal level can help you. Research shows that relaxation exercises and listening to relaxing music can both reduce cortisol levels, but whatever helps an individual to manage their stress will be fine.
- Laugh and have fun – you are gonna find it hard to feel stressed when having a good time, so finding time to have fun can lower your cortisol levels. There’s even a study that showed cortisol levels decreasing in response to laughter.
- Exercise – exercise can help improve a person’s mood. Being physically active has various health benefits, and it can improve your mood. However, overdoing it can trigger an increase in cortisol levels, as this is the body’s way of coping with the additional stress that the exercise places upon it, so just don’t be too excessive in your exercises.
- Avoid caffeine at night – you should avoid consuming food and beverages containing caffeine in the evening. This is because caffeine can interfere with a good night’s sleep, and sleeping well can keep cortisol levels low.
- Maintain a good bedtime routine – good bedtime routines usually result in longer and higher-quality sleep. So get into the habit of turning off all screens and just relax before heading to bed.
- Have/maintain good relationships – stable, loving relationships with partners, friends, and family can be vital when it comes to leading a happy and fulfilled life, and they can help you get through stressful periods. If relationships are unhappy and unhealthy, on the other hand, they will cause a great deal of stress.
- Get a pet – studies indicate that having a pet can lower cortisol levels. There’s this study that measured levels of cortisol in children undergoing a standard medical procedure. Those who had a dog present during the procedure had lower cortisol levels than those who did not. There’s also a study that found that contact with a dog was more beneficial for cortisol levels than a supportive friend during a stressful situation. Though the examples are dogs, any pet would work, but just remember to take good care of whatever pet you decide on.
- Take supplements – both fish oil and an Asian herbal supplement called ashwagandha have shown the ability to reduce cortisol levels, so taking these supplements could be helpful. Just remember to take them with proper diet, as they are supplements, they’re not replacements for healthy food.
Read more: Hormonal Imbalance: Symptoms, Causes and Treatments