Understanding How Stress and Cortisol Are Key to Enduring Healthy Weight Loss

A state of balanced weight has become a sought-after prize for many people over the last several decades. Weight loss can be achieved by various methods most of which involve changes in diet, however, maintaining that weight loss can be elusive for most. Impermanent weight loss happens when we do not approach our weight loss efforts in a holistic way. Understanding the hormonal system’s direct effects on our weight and overall well-being is key to enduring weight loss, and the adrenal glands’ output of the stress hormone cortisol is key to this solvable puzzle.

Chronic or poorly managed stress may lead to elevated cortisol levels that stimulate the appetite and encourage weight gain or significant challenges losing unwanted pounds. Not only can cortisol promote weight gain, it can also affect where we put on the weight. One study found an association between a higher cortisol response and increased belly fat in a group of 172 men and women.

Left unchecked and not brought to balance, chronic stress creates a ‘vicious cycle’ of weight gaining effects.

1. Stress stimulates the adrenal glands to excrete cortisol in response.

2. The blood sugar then increases in the body and we get a short term energy boost causing us to feel better… for a while.

3. This energy boost gives us to perceive we’re hungry and so we eat more in response to an appetite increase, often more than we need and often because we’re soothing our stress-induced emotions with food.

4. The body then accumulates fat which, in turn, creates more stress in the body.

5. And we begin the cycle all over again.

The steroid hormone cortisol is essential for survival situations, but recent realizations in health and medical research find that our nervous and hormonal systems were not meant to have to deal with our unique modern day stresses.

“The series of daily events that I refer to as the ‘twenty-first century syndrome’ leads most of us to experience a state of perpetual stress—that familiar feeling of always being ‘on’ and rushed and harried and frantic. In other words, that stressed-out feeling that you have every day may be ‘typical’ because everyone else is experiencing it, but it is not ‘normal' in a physiological sense, nor is it associated with good health.” —Shawn M. Talbott, Ph.D. in The Cortisol Connection: Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health — and What You Can Do About It.

Deep and direct links exist between stress and disease and between stress and weight gain, specifically. Mental conditions like stress and our response to it have physical effects on the entire body. As a result, an entirely new branch of science has recently developed called psychoneuroendocrinology which seeks to look at the close link between the mind (psycho-), the nervous system (neuro-) and the hormonal system (endocrin-) that regulates functions in all areas of the body.

For our adrenal glands to function in balance, this doesn’t mean that cortisol secretions should be chronically high, low or even medium. Instead, what we want is cortisol flux—a highly responsive, finely tuned pattern of cortisol activity that supports our health and stress response.

For cortisol release to be healthy, it must fluctuate in response to not just stress but to relaxation as well. Flat levels of cortisol are not healthy. In other words, cortisol release should be low at night and when relaxed but high during moments of acute stress, exercise, or activities such as meeting a deadline, for example. Cortisol should then recover to baseline levels quickly.

The gastrointestinal system is very sensitive to stress hormones like cortisol. Nausea, heartburn, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, or constipation are manifestations of too high a secretion of many stress hormones.

When cortisol levels remain elevated, the following symptoms may occur:

• weight gain

• high blood pressure

• flushed face

• thinning skin

• insulin resistance

• fatigue

• changes in mood

• irritability

• difficulty concentrating

Conversely, sustained low levels of cortisol may cause weight loss in some instances. Low cortisol can be caused by an underlying condition such as chronic infection or vitamin/mineral deficiency (vitamin D, B12 and iron).

Too little cortisol may also be caused by an imbalance in the pituitary or adrenal glands (Addison's disease). Gradual onset symptoms may include fatigue, dizziness (especially upon standing), weight loss, muscle weakness, mood changes and the darkening of regions of the skin.

Additionally, if our stress response system is forced to stay on hyper-drive long enough, sometimes low cortisol develops then, too.

Symptoms of low cortisol include:

• decreased appetite and weight loss

• low blood sugar

• salty food cravings

• dizziness

• nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain

• muscle or bone pain

• fatigue

Emotional beings that women are, tend to have more challenges with stress than men. With stress response systems that are more sensitive and vulnerable, women tend to eat more when they’re under stress because stress is emotional for most women.

Diets for weight loss don’t work because they fail to address the hormonal root cause. Nowhere do the diets’ originators talk about stress and cortisol concerning weight. When we’re constantly or even frequently stressed out, we’re probably going to find it difficult to lose weight and keep it off. The more stressed we are, the more weight we gain and the more the body wants to hold on to its fat reserves.

Natural responses to stressful living are binge eating, drinking excessively, making poor food choices and adopting unsuitable dietary habits. It’s a vicious cycle.

Here are some potential organic curative solutions and stress reduction strategies which can lead to enduring weight loss:

• Activity/exercise: Though concerted activity causes blood cortisol levels to rise in the short term, it also helps to reduce cortisol levels at night as it should be and this helps us to sleep better.

• Mindful and intuitive eating: The opposite of stress-eating, mindful eating will quickly encourage better cortisol flux.

• More sleep/regular sleep/quality rest: Too little sleep and relaxation are likely to produce too much cortisol. Carve out relaxation time for yourself every day.

• Meditation: “Mindfulness meditation lowers the cortisol levels in the blood suggesting that it can lower stress and may decrease the risk of diseases that arise from stress such as psychiatric disorder, peptic ulcer and migraine.”— W. Turakitwanakan, et al in Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students

• Qi gong: This martial art has a known and proven positive effect on reducing stress and anxiety.

• Do what makes you happy. The happier you are, the lower your cortisol levels are during the day.

• Laugh. Have fun. Genuine laughter can decrease cortisol levels by increasing your intake of oxygen and stimulating the body’s circulation.

• Get healthy with truly good nutrition that includes a lot of vegetables. A balanced diet provides the extra energy the body needs to cope with stressful events thereby reducing the burden to cortisol producing adrenal glands.

• Responsible supplementation: Fish oil, and specifically the omega-3 fatty acids contained within it, have been shown to be one of the most effective supplements for reducing cortisol levels.

• Visualization: Daily visualization of your best possible self has been shown in studies to improve mood and reduce worrying with a lowered cortisol response to stress.*

• Pay attention to the body-mind connection. Mastering negative thoughts and relaxation techniques give your body a chance to regain equilibrium. If your sympathetic nervous system isn’t given the chance to deactivate properly, cortisol continues to be excreted.

• Make a simple plan for your day and prioritize tasks the evening before. This gives you a more solid track to run on right from the get-go and without feelings of overwhelm that lead to stress.

Epel E, Lapidus R, McEwen B, Brownell K. Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2001 Jan;26(1):37-49. doi: 10.1016/s0306-4530(00)00035-4. PMID: 11070333.

Steptoe A, Kunz-Ebrecht SR, Brydon L, Wardle J. Central adiposity and cortisol responses to waking in middle-aged men and women. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2004 Sep;28(9):1168-73. doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0802715. PMID: 15211363.

Hirotsu C, Tufik S, Andersen ML. Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions. Sleep Sci. 2015 Nov;8(3):143-52. doi: 10.1016/j.slsci.2015.09.002. Epub 2015 Sep 28. PMID: 26779321; PMCID: PMC4688585.

Talbott, Shawn M. The Cortisol Connection: Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health -- and What You Can Do About It. United States, Hunter House, 2007.

Donald, Rick. Here's How to Think Yourself Thin by Harnessing the Power of the Mind!. N.p., Dr Rick Donald, 2007.

Turakitwanakan W, Mekseepralard C, Busarakumtragul P. Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students. J Med Assoc Thai. 2013 Jan;96 Suppl 1:S90-5. PMID: 23724462.

* Nicolson, Nancy A., et al. “Imagining a Positive Future Reduces Cortisol Response to Awakening and Reactivity to Acute Stress.” Psychoneuroendocrinology, Pergamon, 17 Apr. 2020, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306453020300962.

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