Cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’, is produced in the kidneys at times of severe stress or when you need a little more ‘go’ – such as in the morning or during a workout. Typically, this hormone is at its highest during the morning and slowly reduces over the day.
Cortisol is part of the ‘fight or flight’ system within the body which is essentially an inbuilt survival mechanism designed to get you out of danger. We do need some cortisol as it plays an important role but stress these days can be constant: financial issues, work, work colleagues, relationship problems, a busy schedule or anxiety are just some examples.
How Does Cortisol Increase Weight?
There are many theories around the effects of cortisol in relation to weight gain, but very few are actually proven. The trouble is that stress can cause many other issues such as anxiety, tiredness, depression and poor sleep – factors which could all contribute to weight gain. When you therefore test a cortisol level how would you know that was causing the weight gain on its own?
Most theories come from the hormones function to increase blood sugar levels and cause insulin resistance. In a healthy individual this effect should only last during the ‘stress’ and then reduce back to normal levels. However, the issue is that more and more people are experiencing stress for large parts of their day, potentially therefore experiencing the effects of continued high cortisol levels.
A lot of research in this area is based on those with a condition which causes continually high levels of cortisol (Cushing’s Syndrome). From here, we can predict to some extent, what effect that continued stress and therefore cortisol will have on us.
Continual high levels of cortisol have been linked to weight gain through changes in metabolism, appetite and break down of skeletal muscle. More interestingly, one study showed women to opt for sweeter foods when experiencing stress.
So What Can We Do?
Psychological and physical stress, both play a role on how we respond. So it stands to reason that we can tackle these to help reduce our overall stress levels and therefore some of these high levels of cortisol.
One study in 2011 suggested that a 9 week course of Mindfulness may reduce cortisol levels in those who describe themselves as being ‘stress’ eaters.1 The reason we have to use the word ‘may’ here is because the results were not considered different enough compared with those not doing the mindfulness to come to a definite conclusion. However, is psychology terms, 9 weeks isn’t a long time and it is likely that a longer study is need to prove this concept.
2. Listening To Music
Listening to music is also thought to reduce cortisol levels 2. So perhaps subtle changes to your daily routine like listening to the radio in the morning instead of the TV, listening to music through headphones at work or even taking some time out to go and relax with your favourite tunes could be your answer to balancing out the effects of stress.
3. Omega- 3 Supplements?
The thought that omega – 3 supplements can reduce cortisol levels, comes from a 2013 study looking at alcoholic men in rehabilitation. The results from this showed no differences between the group having the supplement and the placebo group (the ones having just standard care). Also, metabolism in somewhere during alcohol rehabilitation is different to that of the healthy population so even if these results did show a connection, it is highly unlikely to work in the average person.
The use of multivitamins in the reduction of cortisol levels has been shown to have no effect at all in those who are going about their every day life as they normally would.
Cortisol increases temporarily during intense exercise – it has to for your body to perform effectively and no do not cut this out of your lifestyle. However, you may also want to incorporate so low intensity exercise which has been suggested to reduce cortisol levels e.g. yoga/ walking/ pilates
Are We All The Same?
In a nutshell, no! Individuals seem to produce different levels of cortisol despite being in the same ‘stressful’ situation. This could be due to ‘stress’ being made up of both perceived (what we think) and physical (what is actually there) factors – so we will all read the same situation differently and our stress response (e.g. cortisol) will match that reading.
Besides cortisol, stress is also linked to anxiety, depression, digestive health issues and sleep problems. All of which can contribute to weight gain. So if you are struggling with your weight then simply tackling cortisol as a single issue is highly unlikely to help.
More Research Needed
Many of the studies suggesting that high levels of cortisol cause excess fat to be laid down, are actually looking at those with Cushing’s Syndrome – a syndrome where individuals have very high, continuous levels of cortisol. Although these studies may give some idea about how cortisol effects us, they can not be used to relate to a healthy person who may only have high levels of cortisol during stress.
Due to the nature of hormone changes and diet, a good study would need to be over a long period of time which makes it then more difficult to recruit and retain large numbers of people. Not only this but given that cortisol levels change over the day meaning that participants would need to collect saliva samples several times daily which is hardly very practical and in any case, some may question how accurate saliva samples are in comparison to a blood sample.
A long study also causes difficulties when it comes to study style, as you can not keep people locked up for months on end, you are relying on them to provide accurate reports on what has happened and also fully follow the procedure for the study.
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