What Is Cortisol And Why Does It Make Us Fat?

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What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid with three main functions. It causes the liver to produce enzymes to break down fats and create sugars. Cortisol also helps the body regulate its response to stress. Finally, cortisol reduces inflammation and dampens the immune system’s response. Excess steroids can lead to Cushing’s syndrome, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, weak muscles, characteristic body changes and brittle bones.

What are the side effects of too much cortisol?

Increased cortisol can have unwanted side effects in the form of obesity, diabetes, muscle weakness and damage, change in the distribution of fat in the body (thin skin, purple lines on the abdomen, similar to stretch marks) and brittle bones that lead to osteoporosis and fractures. Depression, memory problems and cataracts can also result from excess cortisol. Growth and puberty can be interrupted in children. Females may have difficulty conceiving. People with excess cortisol are also at increased risk of infection and cannot heal their wounds well.

What can I do to lower my cortisol levels?

Depending on the cause of your excess cortisol, medical or surgical treatment may be appropriate. The most common cause of excess cortisol is taking medications that contain cortisol. These drugs are usually prescribed for inflammatory problems (e.g., asthma, arthritis), skin disorders or autoimmune problems (e.g., lupus). The best way to lower your cortisol level in these situations is to work closely with your doctor to only take glucocorticoid-containing medications when absolutely necessary, take the least amount necessary, and switch, when possible, to medicines containing non-steroids to treat your condition.

Chronic stress, alcohol and caffeine consumption are things that can increase your cortisol level. Regular exercise, healthy approach to dealing with stress, and moderation of alcohol and caffeine intake can lower your cortisol level. Make sure you’re getting enough fiber (fruits and vegetables are great sources) because fiber helps to regulate gut bacteria, which in turn helps to regulate hormones.

Research also shows that deep breathing helps to lower cortisol levels, ease anxiety and depression, and improve memory. To allow the body to heal, we also need at least seven to eight hours of sleep.

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How cortisol – the stress hormone – makes us fat

Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands and is the main hormone responsible for stress. It has three main jobs: it raises blood sugar, raises blood pressure, and regulates our immune function. It’s an ‘impulse’ hormone that makes us feel smart and ready for battle. 

However, caution is needed. High cortisol increases weight though we may eat little and exercise vigorously almost every day. It lowers brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine and makes us eat because of irritation. When it remains consistently high, the body mistakenly believes that it is starving and begins to store more fat for periods of starvation. This in turn leads to an increase in insulin, which is known to be the fat storage hormone. 

High cortisol raises blood sugar to help us cope with stressful situations, but high blood sugar equals increased sugar cravings. The result is our body’s physiology works against us: high cortisol = high insulin = high sugar, all of which together result in increased fat storage. When cortisol remains high at night, when it should be very low, we can’t sleep or rest. The body interprets this as stress and the vicious cycle continues: lack of sleep = stress = high cortisol = high sugar = cravings.

Chronically high cortisol can lead to a diet rich in sugars, carbohydrates, coffee and alcohol, emotional stress, lack of sleep, and inflammation. The problems associated with high cortisol are increased visceral fat, insulin resistance, bad mood, poor sleep quality, and slow wound healing.

How we can reduce cortisol to normal levels

A sufficient period of time is required to be able to restore our cortisol to normal levels. Reducing high cortisol is based on 4 axes:

  1. Consuming the right foods and supplements.
  2. Avoiding stimulants that damage the adrenal glands.
  3. Eating regular meals rich in protein and fat to avoid hypoglycemia.
  4. Changing our attitude towards stressful situations.

Adrenal support nutrients and foods are: 

  • B vitamins are building blocks for catecholamines and glucocorticoids and are depleted in chronic stress.
  • Vitamin C is necessary for the production of stress hormones and it is preferable to get it from vegetables.
  • Magnesium acts as an enzyme required for the uptake of glucocorticoids. It has a calming effect on the nervous system and can help the body manage and recover from stress. Besides, stress lowers magnesium levels.
  • Zinc acts as an enzyme in the production of stress hormones and supports immune function.
  • Sodium is a mineral in which those with high cortisol are deficient. Sodium is necessary for niacin to enter the mitochondria, the key to energy conservation.
  • Potassium is a mineral that people with high cortisol are also deficient in. It calms the body like magnesium so it is essential to eat at least 7-10 raw green leafy vegetables daily.
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Foods and substances to avoid, because they burden the adrenal glands:

Avoid sugars and processed carbohydrates, as well as juices and soft drinks because they cause hypoglycemia, resulting in us eating cookies. Stimulants, such as caffeine in coffee, tea, chocolate and nicotine in cigarettes, stress the adrenal glands. As the body seeks balance the hormone receptors become accustomed to the caffeine or nicotine causing the receptors to become unresponsive. Weaning ourselves from stimulants contributes significantly to reducing cortisol, calming the sympathetic nervous system, and improving sleep.

Take regular meals rich in protein and fat and low in carbohydrates. The right breakfast, i.e., one that is rich in protein and fat, is more than important. Also, until the hypoglycemias are corrected, it may be helpful to eat snacks rich in protein and good fat in between. Finally, it is good to have dinner as early as possible, ideally by 7pm.

Changing the way we manage situations that cause us tension

Effective stress management helps you break the hold stress has on your life, so you can be happier, healthier, and more productive. The ultimate goal is a balanced life, with time for work, relationships, relaxation, and fun—and the resilience to hold up under pressure and meet challenges head on. Gentle exercise, such as walking, can help. Study shows that a relaxing massage can reduce cortisol. Also, try to go to bed as early as possible, ideally before 10.30pm. Let’s remind ourselves that taking care of our health is our personal responsibility.

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