The warm weather is here, and with it comes the latest styles of swimsuits, crop tops, and shorts. Are you ready to bare your midriff? Or, are you frustrated because no matter how much you exercise and try to eat right, that muffin top is still there? The answer to this stubborn belly fat may be in your stress level, and the cortisol connection.
Stress and Cortisol Connection to Weight Loss
Before grocery stores and farmers markets, people had to hunt for their food. And the stress response was life saving when we had to run from a bear or fight for survival. This same fight-or-flight response, also known as the sympathetic nervous system, is active in your body when you are late for an appointment, having an argument, or watching your favorite team in a close game. As your heart races and your blood pressure rises, cortisol is behind the scenes triggering a cascade of hormones and enzymes signaling your body to store the needed energy to handle these stressors. And that energy storage is your body fat. According to Ann Louise Gittleman’s the New Fat Flush Plan, cortisol is drawn to your belly to store fat. The fat cells deep in your abdomen are a fast source of energy during stress, and have 4 times more cortisol receptors than the fat cells just under the skin.
Stress hormones like cortisol aren’t all bad; in healthy amounts they power us through the day. These anti-inflammatory hormones are involved in almost every process in the body, keeping your energy levels up, your immune system strong and your cells healthy. They are key regulators of insulin and blood sugar balance, bone and muscle building, sleep cycles, sex drive, moods, mental clarity and focus.
Overachievers and Sympathetic Dominance
What happens when stress is psychological and there’s no bear to run from? Chronic worrying, pushing yourself to do too much, and the classic Type A workaholic personality all cause chronic high levels of cortisol, and the fat storage continues. If you were running from a bear or fighting for survival, you would burn through these energy stores, but with psychological stress you just put on extra pounds. And it has a snowball effect, because the stress and high cortisol increase appetite especially for sugary foods, which raises insulin and causes cortisol to spike even higher. This pattern is known as sympathetic dominance, and can be seen in saliva stress hormone testing and in hair tissue mineral analysis.
Test, Don’t Guess
Some use of the sympathetic nervous system is healthy, but how do you know when you’ve had too much of a good thing? If fatigue, depression, insomnia, high blood pressure or blood sugar issues accompany the weight gain, then it may be time to do some testing and get a clearer picture of what’s going on behind the scenes.
Saliva testing is a simple, non-invasive way to measure cortisol and associated hormones like insulin, DHEA, and progesterone. Because there is a natural variation in cortisol levels throughout the day, known as the circadian rhythm, cortisol is measured 4 separate times throughout the day, corresponding with its natural highs and lows. This testing puts together a good picture of your adrenal health and cortisol levels.
If you’ve been fighting the battle of the bulge for a long time, and diet, exercise and supplements don’t seem to be helping, a more complete analysis of what’s going on in your body may solve the mystery. Tissue Mineral Analysis (TMA) is a detailed test that use a hair sample to look at mineral levels and ratios to determine nutritional deficiencies and toxicities, as well as patterns associated with disease tendencies. During stress, sodium and potassium are eliminated from the body through hair, sweat and urine. According to Dr. Lawrence Wilson, a hair analysis result with a low potassium level, elevated sodium/potassium ratio and slow oxidation rate is indicative of sympathetic dominance and exhaustion.
Keys to Balanced Cortisol for Maximum Weight Loss
If chronic stress has derailed your best weight loss efforts, it’s time to bring cortisol back in balance and shed those unwanted pounds. Here are Ann Louise Gittleman’s top tips from her best-selling Fat Flush Plan:
- Avoid the known cortisol boosters: caffeine, sugar, alcohol and cigarettes. Just 15 ounces of coffee raises stress hormone levels and reduces your threshold for stress, so you aren’t able to handle it as well. High cortisol causes sugar cravings; sugar and alcohol act similarly to each other to raise insulin levels and skyrocket cortisol. Cigarettes cause a jump in cortisol 30 minutes after each one smoked.
- Get a good night’s sleep. Lack of sleep raises cortisol and high cortisol causes insomnia. Sleep deprivation affects not only energy levels and immunity, but impairs glucose tolerance and changes the way the body handles food. This leads to insulin resistance and obesity.
- Exercise in moderation. Regular, moderate exercise burns fat and trains your body to use cortisol efficiently. It also fulfills the fight-or-flight response, because the body thinks you’ve run from the bear, so it switches into resting, digesting and healing. Exercising too much is also a stress on the body and increases cortisol levels.
- Change your relationship with stress. No matter how hard you try, you can’t avoid stress. There is always something that needs to be done or worries that come up. It’s your relationship with stress that can be changed. Breathing exercises that calm the sympathetic response, exercises with tapping on meridians, meditation, journaling emotions, and your spiritual practice all help you change your stress response and lower cortisol.
- Choose medications and supplements carefully. The class of medications known as corticosteroids are synthetic hormones that contain potent cortisols and keep you in sympathetic dominance. Some hormone replacement therapies and diet pills also stimulate cortisol production. Supplements like ephedra, guarana, ma huang, caffeine and other stimulants used for energy can boost cortisol, even to dangerous levels. Supplements created for adrenal support and balancing cortisol can be helpful. Choose supplements that nourish with nutrients like Vitamin C, Pantothenic acid, Vitamin B6, and amino acids like tyrosine. If glandular support is needed, choose supplements with the adrenal cortex, so a balance of hormones is provided, not just the stimulants.