So what is cortisol?
It’s a hormone that can help save you during life and death situation. It teams up with hormones like adrenaline to play an important role in the “fight or flight response”. Cortisol will help you battle your way through, or conversely, escape life-threatening situations. So thank you, cortisol!
When cortisol is doing its job, it makes fighting or running for your life a top priority. That means that everything else goes on the back-burner. Digestion goes on hold, detoxification moves to the side and everything else deemed non-essential comes to a grinding halt. Think back to mankind’s more primitive days. Primitive man didn’t have bills to pay, he wasn’t trying to climb the corporate ladder and he certainly didn’t stay up nights worrying if he would fit into his size 2 jeans. When he was stressed and releasing cortisol, he was probably fighting for his life.
Modern stress + cortisol = weight gain
So, when you’re experiencing modern stress because someone just hacked into your Facebook account and spammed your 2000 pseudo-friends, your body interprets the cortisol secretion that follows as a signal that you life is literally in danger. See, as mankind became more advanced, the human body failed to modernize. If only our bodies could be updated with new software every time there was a change to civilization. Or if babies were born with human millennial software already installed. But no such luck. We are dealing with the same body model we had in 500 B. C. Talk about outdated technology! (Check THIS out to learn more about stress and how to better cope.)
As cortisol is secreted and your body readies itself for battle, certain things happen. Sugar is released into the bloodstream for extra energy. The metabolism shuts down as the body holds onto energy in preparation for a long fight. But, the body doesn’t see this as potentially problematic because this reaction should be temporary. Once the battle is over, all the systems that have shut down will start up again and all will be well. But wait a second.
Stress in the 21st century is pretty much a 24/7 thing.
Many of us are stressed all the time, not just when going into battle. And this is when a temporary life-saving hormone can start to cause big problems to the waistline. As metabolism stays in a perpetual slowed down state, the pounds can start to pack on. But the problem doesn’t end there.
Long-term elevated levels of cortisol have an impact on many different hormones in the body. Specifically, it can increase levels of insulin, the hormone responsible for storing fat. And remember how I mentioned that stress increases blood sugar levels. Well, this can increase levels of insulin in the body as well. More insulin = more fat. But the problem doesn’t end there.
Cortisol & insulin working together help you gain weight
Insulin has direct communication with leptin, te hormone that tells the brain that it’s full. When insulin isn’t working correctly, leptin will start to falter. Want to do nothing but eat when stressed? Well, of course you’re hungry when the signal telling your brain that you are full is broken. And as a side note, those who stop eating when stressed don’t have it much better. This usually means that stress signals have started wrecking habit with the digestion process.
Many of us don’t even remember what it feels like to not be stressed. Yet most diets seem to ignore this very important aspect of the obesity epidemic.
So how do you help being stressed 24/7?
Breathing exercises –
Try Dr. Weil’s great breathing exercise. Exhale completely through your mouth. Then inhale through the nose to the count of 7. Exhale with a whoosh sound to the count of 8. Do this 4 times total to aid relaxation.
Put things in perspective –
Think back to when something like this stressed you out in the past. Did the worst case scenario happen? If so, did you get through it? It is helpful to write down feelings in a journal when stressed. You can re-read it next time you’re in a similar situation which can help put things in perspective.
Develop a meditation practice –
I’m convinced that meditation is one of the most overlooked and undervalued tools for weight loss. Don’t worry about hitting some unreachable place of zen. Just develop a practice, do your best, and keep showing up, even if you don’t think you’re doing things perfectly.
Many of us just want to shut down and hide from the world when stressed. But exercise not only reduces stress from an emotional level. It also actually helps balance hormones. So all those hormones that have been thrown out of balance from stress will receive a boost in the right direction from a regular exercise routine.
Listen to music, watch a funny movie, dance –
Do an activity that is a release for you. Some people have a favorite song while others have a beloved favorite movie. It doesn’t matter what works for you. It just matters that you do it. All of these choices have been shown to reduce stress.
Call a friend –
Many of us don’t want to burden the world with our problems. Don’t suffer in isolation if you don’t have to. Pick a trusted person and call them. Even if you don’t talk about your problems, finding a connection with another can provide relief.
Cortisol is something not to be overlooked when trying to understand a weight problem. Getting cortisol under control is just as important as getting diet under control. So pick one of the above options (or your own favorite stress relieving option) and start getting your cortisol under control today. Your waistline will thank you for it.
Good suggestions, Erica. Have done all of them for decades.
Personally believe a major problem for stress is that the majority of people haven’t yet come to the conclusion that most things in life are not important and just shrug when confronted with something insignificant. They hence get almost as stressed about a comment someone made as having do deal with a loved one dying.
I think stress is deeply rooted in society. We learn it as little kids. It is something to ponder how we may raise kids differently so that stress doesn’t become such a habit from a young age.
Pamela Chollet says
One of my favorite techniques for reducing stress is my, “Tree” remedy. Whenever I feel great and the world is one happy place, I look at a beautiful tree or some other piece of nature,and see the universe in perfect order. When I’m feeling down or stressed out I look at the tree again, I realize the tree is just as beautiful, the world hasn’t changed; it’s in perfect order. What has changed is the way I’m feeling,I’m not in perfect order, that always settles me down.
I love that Pamela. I may quote you on your tree example at some point!
Erica, I like the deep breathing exercise. Every once in a while my heart races and the only way I can get it to settle down is by deep breathing. This also relaxes you which means that you are then able to put things in perspective. I like Pamela’s suggestion on how to put things back in order.
I’m glad deep breathing helps you, Lenie. It is never pleasant to experience heart racing.
Patricia Weber says
Erica great post. After losing 17 pounds between early Oct 2014 and end of February this year, I gained back 5 pounds in less than 4 weeks. How? Stress and the side affects of it: we had a death in the family and a family issue in the courts. So for 3 weeks it was stress and – eating anything on the menu that would look good. Even though I never cleaned my plate, if you are traveling, it’s not always easy to stay the course with healthier eating choices. And top it with stressors like death and the court situation, I imagine my cortisol levels found a new high level. Great suggestions that I do use regularly. Sometimes I might derail myself.
That does sound like a horribly stressful time, Patricia. And sometimes there are things in life that are more pressing in life than worrying about a few extra pounds. I’m saddened to hear you went through such a tough time, and I hope life is getting easier these days.
Ken Dowel says
So if you gained weight because your Facebook account got hacked would truly be adding insult to injury. I suppose putting in perspective would be saying, “It could have been worse, it could have been my online banking site.”
Yes, Ken. I would agree that getting your online banking account hacked is MUCH worse. I’ll think good thoughts that doesn’t happen.
Beth Niebuhr says
I truly think that cell phones are a big villain in the constant stress thing. I know; I’m old fashioned. I have an iPhone and love it but I’m not hooked to it. Your other suggestions are really good ones and none suggest changing your activity to something on your phone!
It is funny that just 8 or so years ago, most of us weren’t walking around within mini computers 24 hours a day. My phone died in the middle of the day yesterday when I didn’t have a charger and I really felt lost without it. I’m sure there will be people coming forward with cell phone addiction in the next few years, many of us are so dependent on them.
Stress is a terrible thing. It brings trauma to our body and changes our eating patterns. Some over eat and other under eat – both are not advised.
Worrying does not change a situation – we know this but still do it!
Yes, it definitely is not enough just to tell yourself not to worry. Thinking patterns need to be changed to experience real relief.
Jacqueline Gum says
It’s amazing all the damage can do to our bodies and minds. You are so right… there is more of it today than ever. But I never thought about how our bodies have NOT evolved to manage it! LOL But I do exercise and meditate and deep breathe. I like Pamela’s suggestion of the tree. That rang true for me…
It sounds like you have lots of healthy habits to combat stress, Jacqueline!
Suzanne Fluhr says
When I was working as a full time lawyer, I would say my stress level was usually at saber tooth tiger level and my weight was typically 10 pounds heavier than it is since I semi-retired. There are other reasons too, but the diminished stress is definitely one of them. I’ve also discovered Zentangle, a creative meditative technique that works for me.
I’ve never heard of Zentangle, Suzanne. I’m glad it works for you and I’m also happy to hear that retirement has been so much more relaxing.
Marquita Herald says
I realize from reading your article how little I knew about cortisol before – thanks for that eye-opener! Great tips on managing stress and a couple, for instance the ability to keep things in perspective, are also relevant to my focus on developing emotional resilience. Granted, for many people it’s easier to deal with things once they come up rather than being intentional about building the capacity for resilience, but it’s life altering for those willing to make the commitment. Great article!
Yes, I think it is all about developing emotional resilience. That isn’t a topic that gets enough attention, so it is good that you are talking about it.
Wow, u answered a big question for me. I been having problems with my digestion system for awhile and my dr has been prescribing me (relax) lower your stress. This makes sense
Oh my gosh, stress can really wreck havoc with your digestion. After I experienced a loss in my family, my digestion went crazy. I hope what your doctor gave you as helping.
Meredith @ The Palette Muse says
It’s a little scary to think how stress is affecting each of us so profoundly. I see it in my daughters as young as 8 years old, and it makes me want to get a grip on it early so she doesn’t suffer with this the rest of her life. These are great tips!
It really is sad that an 8-year-old has to experience stress. That time before we learn to stress is sadly so fleeting. I’m sure the fact that you are just aware of her stress means you are helping her to a better direction.
Krystyna Lagowski says
It doesn’t seem possible to get away from stress, unless you live under a rock. Your coping strategies are excellent suggestions, especially mediation. I’ve heard that mindful meditation can actually change the brain, if it’s done right. Although I don’t think I have the patience for it. I walk every day, and that helps keep the stress manageable!
I’ve heard that about meditation as well. I love walking as well to clear my mind. I’ve always found it calming, even when I lived in the middle of crazy New York City.
One of the great benefits of traveling, for me, is the “putting things in perspective” side effect of being outside my comfort zone. I am not sure i am ever that stressed but I know it when I am completely relaxed.
Complete relaxation is wonderful. I experience that when I’m on the beach or on my infrequent trips to the spa.
Mahal Hudson says
I always complain of lethargy…not having sustained energy besides being overwhelmed with work and business. Worst…my husband notices it too.
Thanks for posting these tips. I surely can relate and very helpful for me to bounce back. I never thought about cortisol and its relation to diet and stree. Thanks for educating us.
Stress will make you tired and it is interesting that your husband notices. I hope you find some methods of stress relief that are helpful to you. Living with constant stress is a hard way to live.