Of all the hormones interacting within your body on a daily basis, cortisol may be the most familiar to you. It also may be the hidden element that is making you fat. Do you wake up every morning, already feeling like you are behind? Do you rush from your morning routine, to the car, to lunch and then stay up way too late on Facebook? You are certainly not alone. However, all of this activity (and lack of proper rest) throws your delicate hormonal system out of balance.
Cortisol is a crucial element in regulating energy, insulin, metabolism and other processes within the body. And its dysregulation can spell trouble for your waistline. Normally operating in a rhythm known as a diurnal variation, cortisol patterns can often be flipped, mistimed, or unbalanced. Cortisol is typically highest in the morning, and lowest in the evening. Any night owls reading this will certainly know what cortisol dysregulation is all about!
Cortisol is particularly annoying because it can mean fat gain in the abdominal area – not the hips. Not only is this unpleasant to look at, it is more dangerous than fat in other areas. While not all weight gain is caused by cortisol, it is often an overlooked factor when addressing weight management. The ability to handle and manage stress is a challenging one in today’s modern society – as we’re always expected to be “on” – all the time. This is simply not how hormones are supposed to operate.
How often do you feel stressed? If you are a frequent caffeine drinker, the answer may be – all of the time. Since many of us are used to drinking lots and lots of caffeine, we simply do not know that we are constantly anxious, stressed and on edge. But just because our mind may not be conscious of this fact does not mean our body is unaware! The body is heavily affected by something as seemingly innocuous as caffeine, and even a little bit can get your body primed for action – even if you are simply sitting at your desk.
To make matters more confusing, some of us react differently to stress – and existing metabolism and eating issues further cloud things. Do you know any stress addicts who absolutely thrive under constant deadlines, pressure and like loud music? Exactly. But at the same time, we also have the super-careful grandmothers who get scared simply by driving on the highway. This is an anecdotal example of how everyone reacts to stress differently.
Food is certainly one way to help control cortisol, and the standard Paleo recommendation won’t be shocking here. As scientific literature has pointed out, other neuroendocrine pathways are also involved, including the central sympathetic nervous system, the gonadal and growth hormone axes, and the leptin system. Cortisol and weight gain is undoubtedly a tricky beast.
Researchers have also noted that a lot of cortisol issues are dependent on the status of the function of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal gland axis. This delicate axis can very easily be pushed off course, and disaster can often result. Of course, another issue is also a lack of sleep, which plays a part in basically every sort of metabolic dysfunction.
The trouble with sleep loss, is that it so often sneaks up on us, and is the cause of basically every issue which unhealthy people can develop. If not the sole cause, it accompanies the root problem, and it becomes just as difficult to get enough sleep, once sleep issues have set in. This — of course — worsens the problem. It’s sort of like fighting vigorously when you’re in quicksand – you just start to sink deeper and deeper.
All of this talk of cortisol dysregulation, weight gain, the HPA axis, sleep problems and other health issues may seem pretty depressing. But fear not, one of the best ways to fight cortisol issues is simply to exercise! However, this is not a one-size-fits-all approach. If you are too stressed, not eating enough carbohydrates, not getting enough sleep, and drinking too much caffeine, stressful exercise may end up being the death of you! Walking, in this scenario, along with some light weight lifting, will be best.
It should also be noted that if you are severely worried about cortisol issues, you should work with either a physician or a trained practitioner so you can get tested for salivary cortisol levels, and rule out more serious issues. Cortisol is one of the many elements surrounding the human body and health which only works when it is kept in a tightly regulated amount. Too much – and there are problems. Not enough – also problems. The right amount at the wrong times – still problems.
So what are the biggest causes of cortisol issues? Too much exercise is one cause (especially prevalent in CrossFit), poor diet is another (which can mean a diet too low in carbs, too high in sugar, one containing too few nutrients, etc.). Not enough sleep is another cause. Too much caffeine is yet another common cause, and not enough downtime is our last cause listed here (this one is typically seen across the board). Combine two or more of these, and you are now looking at a typical client profile. Unfortunately, it is exceedingly rare that someone will have just one of these issues, as they typically appear clustered. This is one of those paradoxical cases where your lazy friend who sleeps for 10 hours per night, doesn’t achieve much, and barely exercises, can sometimes be metabolically healthier than you.
One cause not mentioned is too much social media/screen time. Blue light from electronics is a disrupter of another hormone (melatonin) but it can wreak havoc on proper cortisol regulation as well. This is yet another point which our Paleolithic ancestors intrinsically got right. They had a pitch-black sleep environment (no electricity can do that for you) and likely slept much better than we currently do. They followed their natural circadian rhythms — to a certain extent, these are hardwired in — which is why shift workers so often struggle with sleep.
In fact, optimal sleeping conditions for great cortisol control are very similar to creating a cave environment. Your bedroom should be pitch-black (cover up digital clocks if you have to), a little cool, and spacious – not cramped. Try to remove your computer and other screens completely from the bedroom — if you have enough space — and let sex and sleep be the only two activities which transpire in this space.
While no supplements completely help with cortisol, some have been studied that may help blunt cortisol’s nasty effects. Holy basil is one such supplement. Studied in regards to stress as well as cortisol, holy basil can also help with sleep, at least in some subjects. It may even be helpful for general anxiety. But make no mistake – this supplement will do almost nothing unless your diet, lifestyle and sleep are in order. Don’t rely on just the supplement.
For most clients, the abdominal fat-gaining aspect of cortisol usually scares them into action – but what actions do they take? Besides consuming a moderate-carbohydrate Paleo diet, they get blackout shades for their room, avoid blue light for at least one hour before bedtime, and exercise wisely. They also cut back severely on their caffeine intake (this means 1-2 cups per day – ideally 1). If you can get your caffeine intake down to just green tea, that would be even better, as this drink contains many more beneficial compounds than coffee.
In conclusion, cortisol – while necessary – is also pretty evil, since it can silently become a problem. Most people aren’t aware of cortisol issues until they have some abdominal fat, and by then things are pretty far along. The idea of gaining fat around the midsection is a pretty powerful motivator to force people into action, and hopefully I’ve provided some motivation for you to sleep a little more, eat better and cut back on the coffee.
It is all too easy to get addicted to stress in today’s modern, hyper-digital world. But why is it so hard to relax? Are we a culture of distraction? Have we all lost our attention spans? The answers to the latter two questions are both a resounding “yes”. But you can fight back, and your abs will definitely thank you for it. So go to bed an hour early tonight, start meditating for at least 10 minutes per day, and lay off the extra cup of coffee. It may take some time, and it may take some adjustment, but you can get your hormones back in balance, and avoid the myriad of problems that come cortisol dysregulation.