Stress, Cortisol and Weight Gain
Stress management is something I have studied quite a bit over the past year. I’ve learned how to meditate, I do yoga, I sleep well, I’ve learned to let go things that don’t serve me and all that is fantastic, but some of us still deal with stress that is outside of our control and unfortunately that stress is still just as bad for our health. What kind of stress am I talking about? Illness of a loved one, passing of a loved one, people in our environment who are mean, bitter or angry and we don’t have the ability to change our environment, divorce, shift work, financial trouble, kids struggling, catch my drift?
This year I’ve had my share of this kind of external stressor and along with my advancing age I’ve put on about 20 pounds of extra weight despite all of my best efforts. Actually, I was working very hard to eat well and actually lose weight, but yet I continued to gain. When I say I was working hard to lose weight I really was. I eat primarily a plant based diet, I stopped taking medications that would disrupt my hormones, I stopped taking anti-depressants, I lowered my intake of calories, I walked 12,000 steps a day and exercised and my weight continued to rise. I couldn’t figure it out and then one day it hit me, what if all this weight gain was from cortisol?
Cortisol itself is a hormone released by our adrenal glands when we are under stress. Cortisol actually raises our blood pressure and our blood sugar. This is one of the body’s defense mechanisms when we are stressed but when stress is prolonged over long periods of time and the body remains in this state a host of health problems can occur.
Signs of Elevated Cortisol
High blood sugar and insulin resistance
Type 2 Diabetes
Carbohydrate and Sugar cravings
Hypertension (high blood pressure)
Fat accumulation around the abdomen, face and neck
It’s interesting because my husband started mentioning how he’s never seen me look like this. We’ve been married over 20 years and I’ve been pregnant, gained and lost weight many times but this weight was different. It was in different places, super stubborn and my sugar cravings were out of control. Eventually, after a series of deductive actions I realized that cortisol was my culprit.
How is Cortisol Produced?
To understand the production of cortisol first you need to understand the parasympathetic nervous system. I mentioned earlier that the adrenal glands produce the hormone cortisol. They also produce adrenaline. Adrenaline is what causes the ‘fight or flight’ syndrome in the body when we fear for our lives. It’s that rush of pounding energy you feel when you narrowly escape something dangerous, like a fall, or a car accident. You can feel the adrenaline pounding through your veins when it is produced. Cortisol is produced for stress that is less lethal. It comes from the outer part of the adrenal gland but it is still a stress response. I associate it with the shaky feeling you get when you are engaged in confrontation with someone that causes you to feel stress but you aren’t in fear of your life. When we are under stress for long periods of time our adrenals become overworked and adrenal fatigue can occur. This condition wreaks havoc on our bodies and lowers our immune system which in turn can be cause for many serious health problems.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is our ‘rest and digest’ nervous system and it is affected by cortisol. The parasympathetic nervous system works to conserve energy and slow down our heart rate so when we can stimulate that nervous system we can lower cortisol levels in the body. Cool right???
7 Ways to Stimulate the
PNS & Lower Cortisol
We have to start here because caffeine stimulates the adrenals and if you are taking in caffeine you are working against the parasympathetic nervous system and causing your body to produce more adrenaline and cortisol. I know this is a hard one for some people to take but don’t give up here, wean yourself off of caffeine it’s terrible for us and just like sugar it’s marketed to us as a way to soothe emotions but really it wreaks so much havoc in the body. If you are experiencing high levels of cortisol in your body this is the #1 change you need to make. Kick that caffeine habit!
Studies all over the place show that meditation relaxes the body and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. It slows breathing and in turn slows the heart rate, increases oxygen and creates a state of relaxation that is second to none. Meditation is not at all complicated, but we tend to make it so. For a wonderful tutorial of how to meditate I recommend getting the free trial for Headspace and taking the beginners course. Headspace is an app for your phone that offers guided meditation. I use it every day to meditate and it is both simple and profoundly effective!
Dry brushing does way more than exfoliate our skin. The act of brushing also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. I first learned about dry brushing when my daughter was younger as a way to help lower stress and anxiety. The act of regularly brushing the skin sends a calming energy throughout the body and also has a wide variety of other health benefits too! It helps detoxify the body, lymph nodes, exfoliates the skin, improves digestion and your overall mood. You can’t go wrong with dry brushing!
Adaptogenic Herbs are something I was introduced to this year and have incorporated into my diet as a way to nutritionally support lower levels of cortisol and help my body heal from the effects of stress. Adaptogens are a unique class of healing plants and there are many of them that help reduce cortisol levels but I have focused on Holy Basil and Ashwaganda for my own health. Holy Basil comes conveniently in tea so I take it that way. It helps fight fatigue and stress and helps to regulate blood sugar, pressure and hormone levels. I like to do meditation in the late afternoon (usually around 3 or 3:30) and follow it with a cup of Holy Basil tea. I also take Ashwaganda supplements with my vitamins each day. It is believed to lower cortisol levels, supports the immune system and eases anxiety.
I am a firm believer that nutrition can cure just about anything. In my studies this year I’ve read a lot about how a plant based diet, high in raw fruits and vegetables has improved the health and wellbeing of so many people. I myself have been incorporating a lot more raw foods in my diet and I can tell you from experience that I feel much more positive energy and less stress when I do. I’ve also noticed my weight going down when I do this!
Yoga is often called ‘moving meditation’ and is a wonderful way to start meditation if you struggle with sitting and meditating. Yoga poses themselves stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system through deep breathing and movement and promote deep relaxation of the mind and body. Yoga is also an excellent way to exercise and promotes strength and flexibility that helps us as we advance in age.
When we sleep the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. The body fully relaxes and our body goes into restoration mode. Sleep is an incredible way to lower stress and cortisol levels in the body. Think of how a nap or a good nights rest can change the demeanor of a child who is anxious or stressed. The same thing happens to us as adults, so if you are suffering from elevated cortisol levels do what you can to encourage good, restful, restorative sleep.
So how is it going? Am I finally losing weight?
Actually yes. By putting these things into place I am starting to lose weight and even better I'm feeling much better even though those external stressors are still present. Somehow, with these practices I'm able to handle stress with much less effort.
When it comes to weight loss though, I'm realizing that consistency over long periods of time is what I need to make it work. All of these tools help but I need to lose 30 pounds and that doesn't happen overnight. I would really like to see it gone by the end of a week but it doesn't work that way, so now my challenge is remaining consistent with implementing these aides over the next few months.
So if you are in the same boat I'd love to partner with you for moral support as we both plug along on this journey of optimal health, improvement and growth!