Is High Cortisol Stressing You Out… and Keeping You Fat?
No matter how much yoga and meditation you do, no matter how many massages you receive, hours you spend in spas, money you spend on aromatherapy, you’ll never eliminate stress from your life. It’s inevitable, and we need to learn how to manage it.
Some stress is positive. Work deadlines, flight departure times and a new romance are examples of stressors that motivate us to get things done. Quick bursts of stress are also healthy – such as sprinting to catch a child before she runs onto the road. But stress, like inflammation, is meant to be experienced in small doses.
When stress becomes chronic, it doesn’t just compromise our physicial and mental health, but it contributes to the onset of serious disease. Stress isn’t just “in your head”, and while tense shoulders may be a symptom, they’re not the cause. Stress is largely governed by the hormone, cortisol. This is a wonderful thing… when it works for us and not against us.
Cortisol, the Stress Hormone
Cortisol, the “stress hormone”, is fascinating in that it works in both powerful and gentle ways. It’s levels determine how deeply we sleep at night and whether we wake up feeling refreshed or sluggish. It helps regulate our energy levels and metabolism throughout the day. Because it increases cognitive function, heart rate, blood pressure and energy usage, it’s indispensable in high stress situations that demand maximum performance. For our ancestors, cortisol kicked in when we needed to escape predators or finish a hunt: our lives depended on it. And because all this requires access to quick energy, high cortisol levels promote fat storage – especially around the belly.
The problem is that today most of our stressful situations aren’t life-or-death, but the body/brain interprets them as being so. As such, it responds with the release of cortisol. If this becomes constant, the result is a state chronically high cortisol, and the consequences are nasty.
Fortunately, there are natural ways to lower cortisol and maintain it’s levels in a healthy range.
Understanding the interplay between cortisol and common lifestyle behaviours often imparts massive insights into health issues that people have been living with for years.
Take a look below at the ways in which cortisol impacts upon our health, and how we can regulate it.
- Cortisol and Sleep
- Cortisol and the Fight or Flight response
- Cortisol and Blood Sugar Levels
- Chronic Cortisol
- Cortisol, Belly Fat and Burnout
- Cortisol and Inflammation
- How to Reduce Day to Day Stress
- How to “Train” for Stress and Build Resilience
- How to Reduce Cortisol After a Stressful Situation
9 Ways in Which Cortisol Affects Our Wellbeing
1. Cortisol and Sleep
Cortisol levels are affected by sunlight and the Circadian Rhythms. It’s levels are highest in the morning, allowing us to wake up feeling energized and ready for the day. Then it gradually decreases. By sunset, our low cortisol levels allow melatonin, the sleep hormone, to rise. The interaction between these two hormones is essential for preparing our body/brain for a long, deep and restorative night’s sleep.
2. Cortisol and the Fight or Flight Response
Cortisol plays a key role in the Fight-or-Flight response. This mechanism evolved to promote our survival in potentially dangerous situations. It increases the functioning of every system in the body, both physical and mental. It puts us on the alert, making us attentive and responsive. In the Fight-or-Flight state we’re able to move quickly, with strength and clarity. It provides us with a blast of superpower: energy is released through gluconeogensis, whereby amino acids (ingested or stored in lean muscle tissue) are converted into glucose to enter the bloodstream in an instant.
Fight-or-Flight In Modern Times
But, as mentioned above, the “threats” we face in contemporary life are very different from those experienced by our ancestors. They’re not life-or-death, but the body/brain interprets them as being so. These situations can be positive, or traumatic, or they may just be common things which we do every day.
- A hectic day at work
- A wedding day
- The death of a loved one
- A heated argument
- Running to catch a train
- Congested traffic
- Speaking in public
- Physical Exercise
3. Cortisol and Blood Sugar Levels
While events such as those listed above may not be literally a case of life-or-death, there is another situation which does impact directly on our survival and which we may be subjecting ourselves to every day: high and low blood sugar levels.
Our blood glucose levels need to be in a healthy range. Our physiology is simply not able to sustain quantities that are too high or too low. When that healthy range is exceeded, as occurs often with a high carbohydrate diet, the body/brain correctly interprets this as an immediate threat to our survival. Cortisol will be produced as a result.
Read more about this in the post, Carbohydrates and the Sugar Burner Cycle.
4. Chronic Cortisol
If the fight-and-flight state is activated too often, for too long and with insufficient time for rest and recovery between events, it triggers a state of Chronically Elevated Cortisol. This is not a good thing.
Chronically Elevated Cortisol
- suppresses immune function
- suppresses the production of adaptive hormones
- has a catabolic (destructive) effect on muscle tissue
- promotes the storage of fat, especially in the abdominal region
- increases appetite by affecting the appetite hormone, leptin
- causes hypertension
- gluconeogenesis can create cravings for sugar and induce hyperglycemia
5. High Cortisol, Belly Fat and Burnout
The relationship between elevated cortisol levels and abdominal fat is ingrained in our DNA. When confronted with a fight-or-flight situation, the body/brain thinks, “Whoa! That was scary. I better store all the energy I can in case it happens again tomorrow.” Since the cortisol receptors that promote fat accumulation are more concentrated in the abdomen, the fat increases right there.
Remember that our genes respond to protect us in the here-and-now, regardless of the long-term consequences. This is great when we need to burn a little emergency fat every now and again – such as if we sprint once every 10 days. It’s a whole other thing when cortisol is constantly high through chronic stress.
At some point, hormone production my fail to keep pace with the stress, More than just sheer exhaustion, the condition known as “burnout” is a state of complete physical, hormonal and emotional collapse.
6. Cortisol and Inflammation
As another consequence of the fight-or-flight response, the body activates a rapid repair process in order to prepare tissues and organs for the next high-stress situation.
Inflammation is the body’s way of creating the optimum conditions for healing. Chronic cortisol production thus promotes Chronic Systemic Inflammation, which, as we know, underlies most health problems, from colds to cancer and heart disease.
7. How to Reduce Day to Day Stress
“Resilience” has become a key word since the onset of Lockdowns and Smart Working. Stressful times require the mastery of stress management strategies.
The first thing we need to do is look at how we can reduce subjecting ourselves to stress. .
Food and diet are so important. By switching our metabolism from Sugar Burner to Fat Burner, we’ll avoid the physiological roller-coaster of high and low blood sugar levels. This has an incredible calming effect
We can be attentive to our relationships and personal growth. Setting personal boundaries, limiting our time in conflictual situations, learning to say “no” and living according to our core values will all reward us with less stress.
We can also choose pacifying lifesyle habits to balance the day to day life stressors that can’t be avoided. Dimming the lights in the evening and going to bed early will promote a healthier flow of hormones. Spending time in nature, in silence and in meditation will all activate the “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system. Hugs, massage, patting your dog or cat, gardening and being creative are pleasurable ways of generating a calm and relaxed state. Easy aerobic exercise and spending time in the sunshine will stimulate the release of feel good hormones.
In these ways, the fight-or-flight mechanism can be managed and realigned according to the expectations of our DNA.
8. How to “Train” for Stress and Build Resilience
Remember that intermittent, short-term and high-intensity stressors are healthy. When there’s enough rest and recovery between events, these bursts can strengthen us for future situations.
The physical exercise recommendations of the ancestral health model are ideal for ‘training’ the body/brain for strength. Strength exercises such as Primal Essential Movements if practiced just two or three times a week allow enough time for healing and regeneration. A sprint once every 10 days prepares the body/brain for situations in which we truly need that release of cortisol.
Psychologically, we can also train ourselves for stress by reformulating our perception of what a stressful situation is. Public speaking is a classic example of perception based stress. An experienced speaker is calm and confident in front of a crowd, while a beginner will shake from head to toe as he walks onto the stage. But through practice, the body/brain learns that public speaking is neither terrifying nor a threat. In time, confronted with similar situations, the instinctive response will be clarity and calm, as opposed to fight-or-flight.
9. How to Reduce Cortisol After a Stressful Situation
After a situation of physical or psychological stress it’s important to reduce cortisol production as quickly as possible. Relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, lying in the sun, hugs and repeating positive affirmations are all simple but powerful ways of returning the body/brain to a calm, parasympathetic state. Because we learn through repetition, these techniques should be practiced so often that they become – and continue to be – automatic. That’s why we refer to them as “practices”.
Cortisol is an important hormone that needs to be respected and protected. We really need to integrate time for relaxation and calming activities into our daily life.
The sad thing is that relaxation never used to be a “technique” that needed to be “practiced”. It was natural. Now it’s all go-go-go.
Even the health nuts are exercising themselves into a state of chronic cortisol, chronic inflammation and chronic stress. We’ll look at this in the next post.
Omega 6 & Omega 3 – The Necessary Balance – Why you might need an Omega 3 supplement.
Leaky Gut, or the Hyper Permeable Intestine – When it’s leaky, what should stay out, get’s in. Not a good look.
Inflammation is Healthy… Until it’s Not – Symptoms and Signs – Why you want to avoid Chronic Systemic Inflammation at all costs.
Watching Sunset Photo by Paul Gilmore on Unsplash | Dark haired woman Photo by Kyle Broad on Unsplash | Woman Jumping into Water Photo by Ian Wagg on Unsplash | Mother with 2 kids Photo by Vitolda Klein on Unsplash | Woman in Tunnel Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash | Woman with Dog Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash | Woman Speaking Photo by Etty Fidele on Unsplash | Women hugging Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash