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Does the Stress Hormone Cortisol Make You Fat?

These days we are all suffering from some kind of stress – work, family and financial obligations can certainly impact our stress level.  When stress is high, cortisol – the stress hormone rises.  A rise in this hormone can trigger numerous pathways that can affect everything from our emotional well being to our ability to build muscle and yes – burn fat! If that weren’t enough, the environment we live in and the food we eat, can further contribute to our body’s inflammatory response, causing greater inflammation and greater cortisol response.  So what are we to do? Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about stress, cortisol and how it makes us fat!

What is The Stress Response?

When stress levels are high, the body releases adrenaline – to initiate your fight or flight response along with cortisol, which triggers an immediate increase in energy demands.  Cortisol responds by providing the body with a surge of glucose supplying an immediate energy source to the muscles, but not by conventional sources, cortisol breaks down hard earned muscle in the process of gluconeogenesis in the liver.

Cortisol also inhibits insulin production, which decreases storage of sugar or glucose, allowing it to be used right away. If you are constantly suffering with stress, your cortisol levels could be maxed out – running continually.  This can cause long-term high levels of blood sugar levels, and eventually lead to reduced insulin sensitivity or resistance.

How Does Stress Make Us Fat?

Consistent high levels of cortisol can lead to fat gain, and not just any kind of fat gain either, cortisol has a tendency to re-direct triglycerides – or stored fat to visceral fat in the areas such as on the belly.  Why would it do this?  Cortisol aids in adipocytes or fat cell development, as well as fat metabolism in a biochemical enzymatic reaction that requires cortisol.  Visceral fat cells also generate cortisol in a reaction that converts cortisone to cortisol, further increasing cortisol levels.

Stress and Cravings

In addition to its effect on fat metabolism, cortisol can also impact many of those hormones that effect hunger and cravings.  Insulin, the shuttling hormone drives glucose in the blood to areas in the body where it is needed, such as muscles to be used by the body quickly, or to fat storage for use later. When insulin is unavailable to deliver sugar to energy craving cells, the body responds by sending a signal to the brain that it needs to eat!  This can result in a surge of ghrelin – the hunger hormone, which in turn increases calorie consumption to overcompensate for the lack of energy available.

How Can You Prevent Stress Fat?

Preventing stress fat and reducing cortisol levels starts by reducing stress and detoxing your life.  If you are highly stressed by work, life, financial or family obligations, now is the time to take control over your situation and do something about it.

Hitting the weights for a workout is an obvious choice for reducing stress, but so is taking up a more relaxing form of exercise such as yoga, which has been shown in research to reduce cortisol levels after just one month of practice.  In addition to exercise, getting plenty of rest will also help to further reduce cortisol levels.  Aim for at least 8 hours of sleep per night.

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Stress Fighting Diet?

Chronic stress can lead to high levels of inflammation, which in turn can effect digestion and absorption of food. Additionally, certain foods can cause greater inflammation, which can further increase the stress response.  Using a diet that is low in inflammatory foods is one way to help combat cortisol, reduce inflammation and help regulate the metabolism.

Eating a cortisol reducing diet that is higher in fats including omega-3, versus omega-6, can help reduce inflammatory response.  As can, eating a diet that is high in fibrous low glycemic foods that are low in carbs.  Eat a diet that provides plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables that deliver antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibre that your body needs to fight inflammation!  Additionally, choose lean cuts of protein that are low in saturated fats, fibrous whole grains and don’t forget the good for you omega-3 fats to help fight inflammation, such as those found in fish oils, flax or chia.  Here’s a one day example of what to eat!

Breakfast

  • Eggs with Avocado & Whole Grain Gluten-Free Toast
  • Green Tea with Lemon

Snack

  • Cashews or Cashew Nut Butter with Apple

Lunch

  • Salmon Bowl with Broccoli & Kale Slaw
  • Quinoa & Sesame Seeds
  • Green Tea with Lemon

Snack

Dinner

  • Chicken with Roast Sweet Potato, Cauliflower
  • Mixed Greens Salad with Olive Oil & Balsamic Vinegar

Until Next Time,

Be Fierce & Rule the World,

Lauren Jacobsen

References:

Adams CE, et al. Lifestyle Factors and Ghrelin: Critical Review and Implications for Weight Loss Maintenance.  Obesity Rev.  2011. 12(5).

Bosma-den Boer MM, van Wetten ML, Pruimboom L.  Chronic inflammatory diseases are stimulated by current lifestyle: how diet, stress levels and medication prevent our body from recovering.  Nutr Metab. 2012.  9: 32.

Stimson RH, et al.  Cortisol release from adipose tissue by 11B-Hydroxysteroid Dehydrogenase type-1 in humans.  Diabetes.  2009. 58(1): 46-53.

Thirthalli J, et al.  Cortisol and antidepressant effects of yoga.  Indian Journal of Psychiatry.  2013. 55(Suppl 3): S405-S408.

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