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Cortisol, Stress and Body Fat: Myth Versus Fact


What Is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that falls under the glucocorticoid group. It is produced using cholesterol by the two adrenal glands located in your kidneys. This hormone is released when you experience stress, exercise and even when you wake up in the morning. It is an important hormone in your body working to maintain homeostasis by determining your energy needs. This hormone is part of the "fight-or-flight" response. It can temporarily slow processes not associated with the stressor and increases the energy produced by various metabolic pathways. When you are stressed, this hormone works by choosing the type of energy you need, whether from fats, proteins or carbohydrates, and how much you need to evade with the stressor.

Where it comes into concern is that over long periods of time where you are experiencing frequent high stress and chronically elevated cortisol, there can be a negative effect on immune function, weight/ weight gain and increased risk of chronic disease.

What happens is that you are faced with a stress and a hormone cascade is triggered and cortisol is secreted. It causes the body to flood it with glucose to supply energy for a "fight-or-flight" and keeps insulin from storing the glucose. Cortisol further narrows the arteries and your heart rate increases. Eventually the stress goes away and your hormone levels return to normal, but a constantly fast-paced life full of stresses can cause the body to frequently secrete cortisol, resulting in negative health outcomes.

Cortisol Complications

Some of the negative health outcomes and associated diseases include weight gain and obesity, diabetes and blood sugar imbalances, GI problems, immune system suppression, insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, thyroid disorders, dementia, depression, fertility issues and cardiovascular disease.

Specifically for insulin resistance and diabetes, the effects of long term stress and resulting cortisol can have huge impacts. When you are stressed, cortisol causes the body to access your protein stores to make energy for you to fight or flee the stressor, but this mechanism causes increased insulin resistance because it blocks the effect of insulin. It does this so that there is energy/sugar available to be used by the muscles. This insulin resistance increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and blood sugar issues because the glucose levels in the blood remain high and insulin is not able to transport sugar to the cells that need it for basic bodily functions.

With weight gain, repeatedly elevated cortisol can cause stored triglycerides to be relocated to the visceral fat cells, primarily the ones in the abdomen and under muscle. It also causes fat cells to mature, which may result in increased amounts of cortisol produced at the tissue level. The insulin resistance is also hindering your weight maintenance or weight-loss efforts. When your cells are not getting the needed sugar/glucose to fuel them because insulin is being blocked, your brain is signaled to eat more food. This leads to a desire for high-calorie foods, overeating and the resulting weight gain. Cortisol also can affect what you are craving and your appetite by influencing other hormones and stress-effected bodily processes.

How to Keep Healthy Cortisol Levels

If you are concerned you have high stress and possibly high cortisol levels, consider having a saliva test being done at your health care provider. But probably the best way to maintain normal cortisol levels is to decrease stress in your life and improve your diet. Some people are even recommended to try a low-inflammation diet. The key parts of this diet are the elimination or reduction of alcohol, caffeine, trans fats and saturated fats, and by choosing low-glycemic foods. Probiotics are supported in addition to focusing on whole plant foods and regular exercise. Consult a dietitian to help you customize nutritional recommendations for your specific goals, preferences and conditions.

Myths continue to surround this very important hormone because of the many ways it can affect your bodily processes and nutrition status. How it reacts with other biochemical components, the immune system and all the related health outcomes plays a very important role for people looking to reduce illness, stress, fatigue and other health complaints. Many products are being marketed to supposedly reduce or suppress cortisol levels, but diet and lifestyle choices continue to be the most effective way to manage cortisol levels and reduce risk for illnesses and chronic disease.

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Emily DeLacey MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian and currently working in Jamaica as a HIV/ AIDS Prevention Specialist. She attended Central Washington University for her Bachelor's Degree in Science and Dietetics and continued on after her internship to Kent State University for her Master's Degree in Science and Nutrition, with a focus on public health and advocacy. She served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi 2012-2014 working as a Community Health Advisor in a rural village, immersing in the joys of life without electricity or running water. She has been to 20+ countries and 47 of the 50 states in the US. Traveling, adventuring and experiencing new cultures has made her a passionate advocate for the equality of nutrition and wellness for all people.

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