It is difficult to maintain healthy habits in nutrition while living under constant stress. Since there is no time to eat or just prepare something healthy to meet an emotional need, turning to fast food and a stressful lifestyle is not very healthy. Weight gain under intense and ongoing stress can be caused, at least in part, by the body’s hormonal control and balance system. Cortisol is one of the hormones produced in the body that serves as a chemical messenger. Although often referred to as the stress hormone because of its role in the body’s stress response, cortisol has a number of other important functions. This article details its relationship to weight gain, including some ways to reduce the levels of cortisol in the human body.
What is cortisol, how does it affect the body?
Cortisol is an important steroid-based hormone that has many effects in the body, belonging to a group known as glucocorticoids. It is produced in the adrenal (adrenal) glands above the kidneys. In addition to helping the body’s response to stress, it also has roles such as increasing blood sugar, reducing inflammation, suppressing immunity, and helping metabolism. Cortisol levels in the bloodstream change depending on the time of day. Normally, cortisol levels are highest in the early morning, 50-60% of them are released within 30 or 40 minutes after waking up, then their levels decline throughout the day, being lowest around midnight. Its production and secretion is regulated by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus in the brain. When stress increases, adrenal glands secrete adrenaline hormone other than cortisol. Even though this response is normal, being constantly high in cortisol can have negative effects.
Increase in Cortisol May Increase Appetite
Cortisol is important for maintaining blood pressure and providing energy to the body, stimulating fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy, stimulating insulin release and maintaining blood sugar levels. As a result, appetite may increase, and cravings for excess fat, sweet and salty foods may be awakened. At the height of cortisol, the amount of testosterone produced in the body decreases, which causes a decrease in muscle mass and the body to burn less calories. Cortisol has been called the “stress hormone” because excess cortisol is released during times of physical or psychological stress, and stress can alter the normal cycle of cortisol secretion. This disruption in cortisol secretion not only promotes weight gain, but can also affect the weight gain in the body. Some studies have shown that stress and high cortisol levels tend to cause fat accumulation in the abdominal area rather than the hips. This fat accumulation is called “toxic fat” because the accumulation of abdominal (abdominal) fat is strongly associated with the development of cardiovascular (cardiovascular) diseases, including stroke and heart attack.
What Causes Abnormal Cortisol Levels?
One of the important factors affecting body weight is hormone regulation. Cortisol and some other hormones are generally kept in a narrow range by the body’s hormonal system, but there are certain situations where they can be low or high. Its high levels can encourage overeating. Small increases in cortisol levels as a result of a response to stress are normal and do not cause adverse effects. Stress isn’t the only cause of abnormal cortisol levels. Sometimes the high cortisol level in the blood can become chronic. A number of diseases and conditions can cause abnormal cortisol levels in the bloodstream. This is often caused by stressors and a condition called Cushing’s syndrome. When there is an increase in cortisol levels, some of the adverse effects such as:
- Gaining weight
- Tension height
- Insulin resistance
- Mood swings
- Thinning of the skin
- Concentration difficulty
A study of 59 healthy women found a relationship between cortisol height and increased appetite, which could potentially increase body weight. In addition, in another study conducted with a group of 172 men and women, it was found that there was a link between cortisol height and excess abdominal fat. This suggests that cortisol can cause people to overeat if the level is high. Despite these results, more data is needed to say that changes in cortisol and stress levels are directly related.
Weight Gain Depends on Many Factors
Weight gain or loss depends on a number of factors, such as metabolic rate at rest, food intake, amount of exercise, and even the types of food consumed, the times the food is consumed. Genetic factors also likely affect metabolism and may explain the tendency of some people to gain or lose weight faster than others. Whether the stress levels of a particular individual will lead to high cortisol levels and weight gain cannot be easily predicted. The amount of cortisol released in response to stress can vary between individuals, with some people being innately more ‘reactive’ to stressful events. Studies of women who tend to respond to stress with high cortisol secretions have shown that these women tend to eat more when under stress than women who secrete less cortisol. In a different study, it was concluded that women who store excess fat in the abdomen or belly area have higher cortisol levels and report more life stress than women who store fat primarily in their hips.
Low Level Can Cause Weight Loss
High levels of cortisol can cause weight gain, but low levels can lead to weight loss, on the contrary, under certain conditions. Addison’s disease, which causes not enough cortisol to be produced, is an example of this. The most obvious signs of low cortisol levels are:
Decrease in appetite and weight
-Low in blood sugar
Cravings for salt
Nausea, abdominal pain or vomiting
Bone and muscle pain
Although cortisol elevation is more common, it is also important to know and recognize the effects of low cortisol.
How to Prevent Weight Gain Due to High Cortisol?
The diet industry is trying to take advantage of the findings from these studies by promoting dietary supplements that claim to lower cortisol and increase weight loss. No independent studies published in reputable, peer-reviewed medical journals have shown that these supplements have any value in reducing cortisol or losing weight. There are some effective methods for people to manage high cortisol levels and prevent or combat weight gain.
One of the main ways to combat weight gain is to exercise regularly. Regular exercise reduces stress and increases resistance to stress factors. A study with 3,425 participants who stated that they ate too much food for emotional reasons, found a relationship between the level of physical activity and body mass index. Furthermore, exercise stimulates the secretion of endorphins, a chemical known to promote happiness, which can help manage stress. Regular exercise can help burn calories, lose weight or manage weight.
One of the ways to manage weight gain due to stress is intuitive and careful nutrition practice. By applying the concept of mindful nutrition and awareness to foods, it provides people to gain full awareness in eating or eating experience with some clues such as satiety, hunger, taste of foods. One large study found that intuitive feeding practice is associated with less body weight. The simplest way to start eating carefully is to eliminate distractions during meals and to be fully aware of the satiety-hunger signals.
Although the sleep factor is often overlooked, it can affect cortisol levels and weight gain. Disturbances in sleep patterns can cause an unhealthy increase in cortisol hormone levels. This increase adversely affects the metabolism over time, and may cause an increase in body weight by causing an increase in appetite and hunger related hormones.
The general recommendation for sleep time is 7 or 9 hours per night, but this varies with age and other factors.
Practices such as meditation, yoga and other relaxation techniques can also be used to keep the blood cortisol level under control. The purpose of meditation is to train the mind to focus and direct thoughts. No matter which meditation method is chosen, meditation has been associated with a decrease in people’s cortisol levels. Meditation can also help improve sleep quality.
As a result, cortisol is a critically important hormone that performs essential functions in the body, such as controlling blood sugar, reducing inflammation and regulating metabolism. Although small increases in cortisol are normal due to stress, some negative consequences such as weight gain can occur when levels remain chronically high. Weight gain can be prevented by some effective methods, such as exercise, increasing mobility, meditation, or seeking the guidance of a dietician.