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Complete Guide To Cortisol And Weight Loss – What You Need To Know

If I were to point to the one hormone that most frequently gets the blame for the bulge (especially belly fat increases) it would be the infamous cortisol.

While some of this has a connection, there are a lot of misconceptions regarding the role, function, and yes benefit of this hormone.

Let’s just say it’s not the total “bad guy” that many misinformed individuals make it out to be.

In today’s post I’m going to provide you with a thorough review of cortisol and the impact it has on weight loss, weight gain, and overall health. It’s important to remember that cortisol has a job to do and serves essential functions in the human body.

If you don’t produce enough of it or if you produce too much of it, there’s going to be problems.

More after the jump…

Cortisol 101

Cortisol, identified more formally as hydrocortisone, is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands. The secretion of cortisol by the adrenal glands is triggered by two primary cues; first in response to low blood sugar levels, and second due to stress.

The primary function of cortisol is to increase blood sugar levels through a process called gluconeogenesis and aid in substrate metabolism for quick energy.

I won’t bore you with all the details on adrenal gland function in response to stress, as I’m sure you’re familiar with the “fight or flight” response. In simple terms, when the body is introduced to a stressor, cortisol and adrenaline kick in from the adrenals to help facilitate metabolic functions.

After all you can’t be thinking about eating, stopping to go to the bathroom, or anything else when you’re trying to fight or flight away from a perceived threat. It’s in our wiring, a primal mechanism per say, passed down from years and years of evolution.

There are natural cortisol fluctuations in the body that occur every day in part of what’s referred to as our circadian rhythms. Much of this is influenced by the presence of light. Cortisol levels tend to be higher in the early morning hours and decrease later in the day and evening. That is of course when the adrenal glands are in balance and things are working properly.

The problem is the human body has evolved from experiencing periodic stress (fight or flight events, short term famine, etc) to now many individuals experiencing what’s referred to as chronic stress.

What causes chronic stress?

There’s a laundry list of potential factors, here are just a few:

- Chronic pain or injury
- Food allergies
- Persistent mental stress (anxiety, worry, guilt, anger, etc)
- Gluten intolerance
- Toxic exposures
- Excess sugars
- Infections
- Digestive imbalances
- Inflammation
- Overworking, late hours, not getting enough sleep

You get the idea. Short-term stress is actually a healthy thing, like the stress that accompanies higher intensity exercise. The thing is the human body is designed to function optimally with periodic bouts of short-term stress, not chronic or persistent stress. When stress becomes chronic the body breaks down on many levels.

The adrenal glands which will be cranking out cortisol in response to chronic stress eventually become taxed and overburdened, and thus begin to secrete less cortisol. This is what is commonly referred to as adrenal fatigue. I’ve written extensively on adrenal fatigue on this blog so I won’t go into a lot of detail here again.

The big picture here and takeaway is this…

The adrenal glands have more of an impact on your overall health than any other gland in your body!

Their function directly impacts the thyroid, liver, digestive system, blood sugar levels, immune system, sleep, and reproductive hormones. Let’s get into more detail on these areas.

Thyroid Function and Cortisol

Middle age and older women especially will often suffer from a sluggish thyroid which directly impacts metabolism and the ability to burn fat. While many physicians will prescribe medications such as Synthroid or Levothroid to support thyroid function, there is commonly more to the problem than just the thyroid gland itself.

During periods of rest your metabolism is controlled by our thyroid hormones, but during times of stress your metabolism is being controlled by the adrenal hormones cortisol and adrenaline.

Elevated levels of cortisol will DIRECTLY interfere with the production and conversion of thyroid hormones. When this happens you’ll see a down-regulation in metabolism, decreased body temperature, lack of energy, and the tendency to gain weight easily or struggle getting it off.

The typical response to decreased thyroid production like we talked about is to take thyroid medications, but unfortunately these medications won’t do anything about the cortisol imbalances from chronic stress which may have played a significant role in lowering thyroid hormone levels in the first place.

The real cause of poor thyroid function can often be attributed to chronic stress. While this isn’t to say that thyroid treatments (organic or otherwise) won’t be helpful, it’s more about making sure to identify if there are any underlying causes of the thyroid imbalances which can be traced to lifestyle factors.

In essence, taking a pill won’t necessarily always be your answer. Take a holistic approach to assessing your health and wellness.

Liver Function and Cortisol

Your liver is the main detoxifying organ in your body and plays a significant role in the fat burning process among other functions. One of the liver’s primary functions is to remove harmful fat-soluble toxins into less harmful water-soluble toxins, which can then be removed through the elimination process.

When your liver gets “over-worked” per say you’ll become more susceptible to fatigue, headaches, allergies, acne, PMS symptoms, and weight gain to name a few.

Elevated cortisol will interfere with normal liver function by disturbing the detoxifying process. It does this by literally unwrapping the toxins that have been packaged for elimination and throws them back into our bloodstream.

Just like thyroid function, liver function is disturbed by cortisol. The negative effects you feel from your liver not functioning properly are a result of the additional poisons that are circulating in your bloodstream.

These additional toxins will cause “auto-intoxication”, meaning your body is continually self-poisoning. There is little chance of you becoming successful at losing weight if you’re in a constant state of “auto-intoxication.”

Digestive System Function and Cortisol

Many people suffer from bloating, inflammation, and irritable bowel problems, all of which can commonly be linked to stress and cortisol. The reason is steady rises in cortisol levels erodes the intestinal lining of your gastrointestinal tract.

It begins to irritate and inflame the intestinal lining, which can ultimately lead to ulcerations. These ulcerations make it easier for undigested food particles to pass or leak across your intestinal lining, into your blood stream. When this happens, it makes your body more susceptible to food allergies and other harmful pathogens such as; yeast overgrowth, candida, and parasites.

Reproductive Hormones and Cortisol

Many women face decreased levels of progesterone as they age, which is associated with hot flashes, bone loss, PMS, fertility, fatigue, weight gain, insomnia, decreased libido, etc.

Cortisol and chronic stress play a huge role in the progesterone levels. The problem is if you’re under chronic stress, progesterone is being “stolen”, to make cortisol.

This is very important because in order to make cortisol, the adrenal glands need progesterone. It is one of the raw materials needed to make cortisol. So, if your adrenals are always stealing progesterone to make cortisol, you may not have enough of those hormones which are needed to make DHEA, estrogen and testosterone.

DHEA is called the anti-aging hormone because it is known to increase lean muscle tissue, burn stored body fat, balance blood sugar, improve memory and support immune function. As women approach menopause the ovaries stop functioning.

It is then up to the adrenal glands to most of the heavy lifting with producing estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and DHEA. However, if the adrenals are exhausted, there’s no way they can pick up all the slack to keep up the same pace as the ovaries once did.

The same thing holds true for men with testosterone. High levels of cortisol production will decrease testosterone and significantly hinder lean muscle development, fat loss, and result in a decreased libido.

Immune/Allergy Function and Cortisol

It is well researched fact that the more stress you’re under, the weaker your immune system becomes. No surprises there.  How many times have you found yourself working long hours, not getting enough sleep, eating the wrong foods, etc., only to come down with a cold, flu or some illness?

The root of the problem that allowed the breakdown in your immune system was stress! When cortisol levels are elevated, it begins to reduce the number of antibodies fighting to protect us from viral and bacteria infections and as the number of antibodies go down our immune system becomes more susceptible.

Allergies and sinus problems are also a result of a weakened immune system. They both result from some type of foreign invader entering the body, which triggers an immune response. The adrenal glands activate an immune response, but if the adrenals are exhausted and depleted due to stress, the likelihood of allergies occurring is greatly increased.

Did you know that over 50% of your immune system is found in the digestive system? The constant irritation and inflammation in your digestive system weakens the immune system. This is a major reason why I to address digestive system cleansing at the beginning of any fat loss program.

Blood Sugar Imbalances and Cortisol

Cortisol and adrenaline has a direct affect on blood sugar regulation and plays a significant role in whether or not you’ll enter into lipolysis or a fat burning state. Elevated levels of cortisol will make your cells more resistant to insulin. This means your body will have to produce more insulin to stabilize your blood sugar.

This is a huge reason for the increase of reactive hypoglycemia, insulin resistance, and diabetes. When your cells become resistant to insulin, the pancreas now has to make more insulin…the result is all that extra insulin will trigger your body to store fat.

After a meal, insulin takes the sugar (carbs) out of the bloodstream and moves it into the cells, to be used for energy. The problem occurs when your body produces too much insulin as a result of eating too many carbohydrates, which causes your blood sugar levels to drop too fast.

This leads to sugar cravings, lightheadedness, headaches, mid-afternoon slumps, difficulty concentrating, moodiness, irritability, and worst of all — it makes you store fat!

The reason excess insulin makes you gain weight is that it is a ‘storage hormone’. Insulin, like cortisol is not a bad hormone…it just needs to be balanced. Cortisol and adrenaline also function to raise blood sugar levels when it gets really low.

But, if the adrenals are overworked and exhausted they can reach a point in time where they can’t make enough cortisol or adrenaline to help stabilize the blood sugar and that’s when the cravings, lightheadedness, irritability, etc. begin.

It’s all about balance…too much, or too little cortisol is not good. Healthy adrenal function will help keep cortisol and adrenaline in balance.

Sleep Deprivation and Cortisol

Sleep is so important for fat loss and the increase in lean muscle because that is when your body releases growth hormone, IGF-1, melatonin and testosterone which all are involved in the repair and regeneration of your body.

Elevated levels of cortisol due to chronic stress will interfere with the production and release of these hormones. Bottom line is you absolutely must be getting 7-8 hours of restful, deep sleep (REM sleep) if you want to be successful with a body transformation.

There are two classic sleep problems that are stress-related:

#1. The inability to fall asleep

This is a sign that your body is in the ‘fight or flight’ mode. Your adrenaline and cortisol levels are elevated – your body is still running in high gear. Adrenaline is a brain stimulant! How can your body fall asleep when you have all these stimulatory brain messengers running through the body?

#2. Not being able to go back to sleep

You fall asleep quickly, but wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep. This is a sign that your cortisol levels are probably low, due to depleted or exhausted adrenal function. The reason you awaken in the middle of the night is because instead of releasing cortisol to raise your blood sugar, which is not stimulating.

The adrenals will have to release adrenaline, which also works as a brain stimulant. This is why so many people say I wake up and my mind is racing with so many thoughts. Of course it is…you just released some adrenaline in the middle of the night.

Exercise and Cortisol

The benefits of exercise can only be truly received with adequate sleep and rest. Many people don’t know that during a resistance training workout, you’re actually not building muscle, you’re tearing it down.

It’s only during rest and recovery (sleep) when most of the rebuilding takes place. One of the classic problems from people struggling with too much stress and adrenal fatigue is that they can’t add or develop new muscle even though they are working out extremely hard.

This is because the more intense the workout is, the more cortisol and adrenaline is produced.
Cortisol can interfere with the release of growth hormone (GH), testosterone and insulin growth factor (IGF-1) which are major building blocks involved in the growth and maintenance of muscle.

Elevated cortisol and adrenaline will affect your recovery and results by interfering with the release of these hormones.

Many people will struggle with losing weight and insist that it must be that their diet or exercise routine is off, and not look at deeper.

They’ll exercise “harder” and further restrict calories with even a stricter diet, both of which only further increases stress on the body and makes things worse.

What about “cortisol blockers,” do they work for reducing belly fat?

You’ll want to stay away from cortisol blockers as they’re garbage in my opinion. There’s no scientific evidence that the herbal ingredients in products like Cortislim have any real effect on cortisol secretion or regulation.

Besides how do you know if chronic stress has your adrenals producing too much cortisol or not enough? The bottom line is you want to be healing and balancing the adrenals with lifestyle changes in diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management.

Nutrition and supplement strategies to help balance the adrenals and cortisol secretion

This should go without saying, but the first order of business will be to clean up your diet. Eliminate processed and refined foods, opting for natural, whole food sources. Look to decrease the acidity with your diet by consuming fewer starches, sugars, and red meat. Also look to moderate alcohol consumption.

Increase your consumption of alkaline foods like fruits, vegetables, raw almonds, seeds, and fermented products such as natural yogurt. You want to be cleansing the digestive tract and detoxifying the liver and other organs. By doing so you’ll eliminate a lot of the inflammation that triggers cortisol production by the adrenals.

From a supplemental standpoint, the following additions to your diet can be helpful:

- omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil)
- probiotics
- fiber
- a good multivitamin
- B vitamins
- herbal adaptogens (ashwagandha extract, etc)

Here are few examples of some of the above supplements I personally take and recommend to my personal training clients.

Omega-3 fatty acids
Advocare Omega-Plex

Advocare Probiotic Restore Ultra

Advocare Fiber Drink

Multi-vitamin and mineral supplement
Advocare CorePlex

Herbal Adaptogens
Advocare Nighttime Recovery

I hope you’ve found this post to be informative and you’ve learned some things about cortisol that perhaps you didn’t know. Remember the name of the game is balance. You want to be creating a balance with hormones like cortisol and others, not looking for a pill to block it, boost it, or anything else.

Give your body the proper nutrition, activity, rest and recovery it needs, and everything else will take care of itself.

Shane Doll is a certified personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Fitness Training Studios. If you’re looking for a personal trainer in Charleston, you can receive a no-obligations personal training trial and consultation without risking a dime. Over 1000 Charleston area residents have transformed their bodies following our unique burst training workouts and simplified nutrition programs. Experience the Shaping Concepts difference today.

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