Stress has now become a part of our every day life. Some of the side effects of living in a highly stressed state without relief are headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, and problems sleeping. But research has also found that because stress increases the level of cortisol in your bloodstream, it can actually cause you to put on weight, especially around your middle.
Unless you learn how to lower cortisol levels by managing stress, no amount of dieting or exercise will be effective in helping you lose weight.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands as part of your daily hormone cycle and is actually important for the regulation of blood pressure, the immune system and many other functions. In stressful or dangerous situations, it triggers your “fight or flight” response, saving your life by helping maintain fluid balance, blood pressure and blood sugar levels and regulating those body functions that aren’t needed to respond to that dangerous situation. Once the danger is over, your body’s relaxation response kicks in, and cortisol levels return to normal.
Cortisol is not all “bad.” It can be good in small amounts, and is a necessary part of our everyday body function. But if cortisol levels aren’t able to return to normal, here’s what can happen:
- Increase your cravings for sweets and carbs which can lead to overeating and constant hunger
- Decrease bone density and muscle tissue. When you’re exercising, cortisol actually causes your body to BREAK DOWN muscle tissue for energy, which is absolutely the worst thing for weight loss, since the less muscle you have, the lower your metabolism will be and the more fat you’ll gain. The more you exercise, the more muscle tissue you lose.
- Increases abdominal fat. When elevated, cortisol causes fat to be stored in the abdominal area. What’s worse, the more abdominal fat you have, the more cortisol you produce in response to stress, which then causes more abdominal fat to be stored.
- Causes depression. High cortisol levels lead to depression in adults and children. And we all know when you’re depressed, you eat more. It’s like a vicious cycle with no end in sight.
- Wreaks havoc with your internal systems. High levels can also increase your risk for heart attacks and strokes, as well also increase your bad cholesterol levels and decrease your good cholesterol levels.
When people think about “stress” they automatically think about the emotional and negative side of being “stressed out” – from work, from over-scheduling, a looming deadline or exam, fighting with a spouse or boyfriend, the daily commute, or juggling work and family life. So we think if we do not feel anxious or depressed, we are not stressed. This is a dangerous misconception to have when it comes to belly fat.
Not all stress is “bad.” A mother just after giving birth is highly elated, but her body is still experiencing the stress of childbirth. A thrilling ride on a roller coaster also causes your body to respond as acute stress.
How to Lower Cortisol Levels
As you can see, it is important to understand that stress can come in many forms, from both positive and negative experiences. And because of this, it is near impossible to remove stress completely from your life.
Also, each of you will react differently to stress; some of you will produce more cortisol to a particular stress while others will produce less. The challenge is to make sure that the “stress” is resolved so that your elevated hormones can return to normal.
What you need to do to combat producing too much cortisol is to learn ways to relax as well as making some changes to your lifestyle so that stress doesn’t get the better of you.
Relaxation can be achieved in a number of ways either by exercising, mediation, yoga or breathing to start with.
One of the easiest and simplest ways is breathing.
This is done by gently breathing in through the nose, gently expanding your abdomen and then gently expelling the air through your nose pulling in your abdomen at the same time. Whilst breathing out the air you need to focus on that breath. After several breaths in and out you should start to feel yourself relax. You need to practice doing this exercise a few minutes a day to start with building up to five minutes in the end. You can also practice this when you are feeling stressed or when things are getting on top of you. Just a few minutes can slow your body down and help it to feel relax.
Lifestyle changes can include changing your eating habits for a healthier diet, getting enough sleep, or even organizing your time more efficiently so that you do not feel so stressed. Also looking after your body will help your body to cope with stresses that you come across during your day.
So if you are exercising frequently and eating properly but still not losing any weight especially from around the middle then maybe you are suffering from high levels of cortisol caused by stress. Look at ways to solve the problem – manage your stress – and you should see a difference in your weight and your belly.