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The Science of Stress, Cortisol, and Weight Loss

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High levels of stress and cortisol sucks…but can it interfere with weight loss, or even cause weight gain?

 

The “stress hormone” cortisol is a favorite scapegoat of the shameless weight-loss pill pushers.

The marketing pitch is that when your body is stressed, it releases cortisol, which causes bloating and fat storage, especially in the belly area. Therefore, the pitch continues, if you simply take pills that block cortisol, you can accelerate weight loss without exercising or changing how you eat.

Sounds enticing, but this myth is bogus.

Cortisol, like every other hormone in the body, has a specific purpose, which includes regulating the energy levels of the body. It does this by mov­ing energy from fat stores to tissues that need it and, when the body is under stress, by providing protein for conversion into energy.

Things like restricting calories, weightlifting, traveling, and getting angry increase cortisol levels, but this isn’t inherently bad. 

As you’ll see, this myth is yet another example of fitness alarmists misinterpreting and over-simplifying research.

Cortisol Doesn’t Mess with Weight Loss…Unless It Gets Out of Control

There are two studies often cited to promote this myth of stress and cortisol impairing weight loss or causing weight gain.

The first, conducted by Yale University, included men and women. The researchers associated increased levels of stress and cortisol with increased levels of abdominal fat.

Media sources and wannabe gurus jumped on this observational research (which can only indicate correlation, not causation), touting it as scientific “proof” that cortisol induces weight gain, particularly in the abdominal region.

This is an ironic position to take considering the fact that cortisol actually induces lipolysis (the breakdown of fat into usable energy, known as free fatty acids) and oxidation (the burning of those fatty molecules). Acute cortisol spikes help with fat loss, which is part of the fat-burning power of exercise. (Click here to tweet this!)

It’s interesting to note, however, that while cortisol increases whole-body lipolysis, it tends to spare abdominal fat. This partially explains why people with chronically elevated cortisol levels are characterized by abdominal obesity.

As with other hormones in the body, the problems with cortisol begin when there’s too much for too long.

When cortisol levels become elevated over prolonged periods, insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia (excess insulin in the blood) result, which leads to easier weight gain. It also leads to the degradation of muscle mass, which slows down your metabolism and sets the stage for various health problems.

Regardless, since weight gain requires excess calories to be eaten, no amount of cortisol can cause you to gain weight unless you give your body more energy than it burns. (Click here to tweet this!)

The scientifically accurate statement is that chronically elevated cortisol levels in addition to excess calories appears to lead to increased abdominal fat. And that leads me to the final point to discuss about this myth, which is how stress and cortisol affects appetite, which can result in weight gain.

The Dwindling Spiral of Stress and Weight Gain

The relationship between stress and overeating has been thoroughly researched.

A literature review conducted by Louisiana State University found that as stress hormones like cortisol increase, so do ghrelin levels (ghrelin is the hormone that stimulates appetite). This hunger drives us to eat more and sometimes even binge.

We’ve all experienced this before, turning to food to cope with stressful situations in our lives. Further weight gain just adds more stress, which can lead to more overeating, and so the unhealthy spiral goes.

Furthermore, research has shown that stress can lead to a preference for “comfort foods” (tasty, high-fat, high-carb, and thus high-calorie dishes), which only aggravates the overeating problem.

This is the real weight loss menace posed by chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels, and the main reason why they have been associated with weight gain.

6 Simple Ways to Reduce Stress and Lower Cortisol Levels

Here are 6 easy ways to keep your cortisol levels under control, which not only makes weight loss efforts easier, but makes life just more enjoyable.

  1. Do things that you find relaxing, like reading a book, listening to calming music, or going for a walk.
  2. Get in your exercise. Research has shown that low-intensity exercise lowers cortisol levels, and while high-intensity temporarily exercise spikes cortisol levels, it also causes physiological changes that help the body better deal with, and nullify, negative effects of stress.
  3. Get enough sleep.
  4. Cut back on alcohol.
  5. Take Vitamin C. One study showed that 1 gram per day significantly reduced cortisol levels in junior elite weightlifters.
  6. Supplement with glutamine. Research has shown that supplementation with glutamine can help reduce the negative effects of exercise stress.

Try incorporating these simple stress busters into your lifestyle and you may be surprised how much better you feel and how much easier it is to prevent weight gain.

What do you think about stress, cortisol, and weight loss? Have anything else you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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