Cortisol: friend or foe?
Cortisol is your long-term stress hormone. Historically, our only long-term stress revolved around food being scarce. Today, in the Western world, our long-term stresses are more likely to be financial stress, relationship concerns, and uncertainty about our health, or the health of a loved one, but also body weight. For so many people, their first waking thoughts involve, “What will I or won’t I eat today?” or “How much exercise can I get done today?”
Or, for some, the thoughts might flow like this: “It’s Wednesday, and I still haven’t been to the gym, and it’s 7 p.m. and there’s no food at home, which means I still have to go grocery shopping, and that means I won’t get home until 8:30 p.m. and then I have to cook and clean up and then it will be midnight before I get to bed and I have to get to work early in the morning, but I’m going to a party in three weeks and I really wanted to fit into my favourite red dress and that’s not going to happen because I haven’t been to the gym all week and I am still not going to go tonight because otherwise I won’t get any sleep and get to work on time to do everything I have to do…”
And on and on and on it goes. Phew! When this happens day after day it can easily lead to a chronic pattern of stress response, hence increased cortisol output. It is important to understand how cortisol works, as it can be your friend or one of your worst nightmares! When made at optimum amounts, cortisol does numerous wonderful things for your health. It is one of the body’s primary anti-inflammatory mediators, and it also buffers the effect of insulin, meaning that optimum amounts help you continue to burn body fat for energy while also maintaining stable - as opposed to rapidly fluctuating - blood glucose levels.
When cortisol levels become elevated above optimal, other changes in body chemistry begin to unfold. It has been suggested that elevated cortisol is the one common thread behind what we have come to describe as metabolic syndrome; that is elevated blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and insulin resistance, the latter condition being a warning sign that if nothing changes in the near future, Type 2 diabetes is a likely consequence.
Another of its roles is to slow down your metabolic rate. A slower metabolism leads you to burn body fat for energy far more slowly then you have in the past, as cortisol is designed to make sure that you survive this perceived period of famine.
Because cortisol is produced when stress has been going on for a while, your body (not knowing any better) thinks there is no more food left in your world, and it instinctively knows that it has a greater chance of survival if it holds on to some extra body fat to get you through the lean times.
With cortisol telling every cell in your body to store fat, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to decrease body fat until the cortisol issue is resolved. We must get to the heart of the stress and either change the situation or change the perception.
Cortisol has a very distinct fat deposition pattern. You typically lay it on around your tummy, and, once again, the reason for fat placement here is governed by the body’s quest for survival. If food suddenly ran out, your major organs need protection and warmth, plus they have very easy access to fat (fuel) that will keep you alive. You also tend to lay fat down on the back of the arms, and you grow what I lovingly call a “back veranda”.
What do most people do when they notice that their clothes are getting tighter? They go on a diet, and, when you go on a diet, do you tend to eat more or less? You typically eat less, and in doing so you reaffirm to your body that food is scarce. But food is not scarce. It is abundant for you. If you want a chocolate bar at 3 a.m., you can get one. Eating less on your diet confirms to your body what it perceives to be true and that slows your metabolism even further.
Another challenge you face with elevated cortisol coursing through your body is that, since your body thinks that food is scarce, any time you see food, it’s very easy to overeat, no matter how firmly you intend to eat only three crackers when you get home from work! If that packet of crackers is open and in front of you, cortisol will scream at every cell of your body, “You are so lucky! There’s food there! Eat it!” and somehow, before you know it, the whole box of crackers is gone. Please don’t get me wrong… I am not saying that self-discipline and willpower have no place. My intention is simply to point out that we have very ancient hormonal mechanisms in action inside our bodies that believe they know better than you when it comes to your survival. Your body can be your biggest teacher if you learn how to decipher the messages it is communicating to you. And extra body fat is sometimes simply a vehicle of communication.