Superfoods & Nutrition

Factors That Can Increase Your Cortisol Level and Make It Harder to Control Your Weight

Factors That Can Increase Your Cortisol Level and Make It Harder to Control Your WeightCortisol isn’t always a bad thing. After all, it helps you to maintain an adequate fuel supply when you work out. When glucose levels drop, it mobilizes fatty acids so you can use them as fuel (a good thing) but it also breaks down lean muscle tissues so your liver can convert them to glucose to help maintain your blood sugar level. On the other hand, too much cortisol can work against you. When cortisol levels rise and stay elevated, it depresses your immune system and puts you at greater risk for infection. Plus, elevated cortisol is linked with insulin resistance and increased belly fat. That’s not a good thing for your health – or your body composition. The key is to control your cortisol levels before they control you. So, what can you do to keep cortisol in check? Here are factors that cause your cortisol level to increase and what you can do about them.

 Stress, stress, stress

They don’t call cortisol “the stress hormone” for nothing. Your adrenal glands pump out more cortisol any time you’re under stress, whether it’s mental or physical. That’s a good thing if you need to outrun a bear that’s chasing you. Cortisol mobilizes energy stores you can use to sprint your way to safety. But it’s not such a good thing when you’re mentally stressed. Many people lead complicated lives that are fraught with stress and uncertainty, is it any wonder so many are walking around with belly fat and a chronically elevated cortisol level? Take time to unwind. Even a few minutes of meditation or deep breathing can help you get a handle on stress. So will listening to soothing music or taking a walk outdoors in nature. Take time for these things – and make yoga a part of your fitness program. One study showed yoga helps to normalize cortisol levels, whether they’re too high or too low.

Take Eight

Skimping on sleep? Your body knows it and will respond by producing more cortisol. Then you’ll start to see more fat accumulating around your waist and belly. Here’s the kicker. Even a single night of partial sleep deprivation negatively impacts cortisol levels. Imagine what will happen if you’re chronically tired and sleep-deprived day and day. Choose a set time to go to sleep and stick with it. Don’t stay up in hopes of getting “one more thing” done. Inadequate sleep is linked with a host of chronic health problems including heart disease, obesity and type 2-diabetes. Make sleep a priority.

┬áDon’t Overly Restrict Calories or Overtrain

Eat a balanced diet of complex carbs, protein and healthy fats. If you’re eating a low calorie diet, especially a carb-restricted one, and working out, you’re forcing your body to produce more cortisol to maintain an adequate fuel supply. When glucose levels drops, cortisol breaks down muscle tissue and sends the amino acids to the liver so it can make glucose to help maintain homeostasis. Take measures to prevent this. After a workout, eat a snack that contains at least 30 grams of carbs and 20 to 30 grams of protein to help your body refuel and lower cortisol. Just as importantly, don’t overtrain. Give your body a chance to recover between workouts.

Cut Back on Coffee

Caffeinated coffee may give you a temporary burst of energy and motivation, but too much caffeine can elevate your cortisol level. If you drink coffee regularly, your body develops some tolerance so that less cortisol is produced. On the other hand, one study showed when you consume caffeine throughout the day, cortisol levels begin to rise again in the afternoon. Cut back on coffee and caffeine and substitute water for a portion of the coffee you’re now drinking.

The Bottom Line?

A chronically elevated cortisol level makes it harder to shed body fat, especially belly fat, and it’s linked with insulin resistance. Plus, high cortisol levels reduce your immunity against infection. Make sure you’re taking steps to reduce the impact cortisol has on your health and body composition. Don’t let it make it harder to control your weight.




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Medscape Infectious Diseases. “The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Hormones and Metabolism”

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SLEEP, 2013; DOI: 10.5665/sleep.302.

Psychosom Med. 2005; 67(5): 734-739.


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