Cortisol Levels - How Caffeine Intake Affects This Stress Hormone
We have all heard the word cortisol and belly fat used in the same sentence. But what exactly is cortisol? Does it have any positives? Or is it merely a hormone that increases during times of stress, and encourages our bodies to hold on, and even create body fat?
Is there anything we can do, aside from learning how to manage our stress levels to keep this hormone and itʼs nasty adverse effects from effecting us? Do we need to move to a secluded island far from anything that may raise our blood pressure and cause an increase in this hormone?
What about other supplements? Can they have a positive or negative effect on this hormone and our stress? We have all heard ( or maybe we all have heard) how caffeine can cause a rise in this hormone. Does this mean we give up our coffee? Or even one of our pre-workout drinks that helps us through our workout when we feel we canʼt get through it?
Lets take a closer look. Maybe I can shed some light on the topic. Or maybe I will just confuse you and you will wish you never stumbled across this article. I will try my best to make sense out of it all. I will try to keep it simple and not go off on tangents.
Ok, so what is cortisol? Cortisol is a steroid hormone which is produced by the adrenal gland. It is released in response to stress. Cortisol, although it has earned a bad reputation, is very important. But just like anything, too much or too little and you may have a problem.
As previously mentioned cortisol is secreted by the adrenal gland. It is involved in proper glucose metabolism, regulation of blood pressure, insulin release (for blood sugar metabolism), and it is involved in our inflammatory response and immune function. Generally speaking our highest levels of cortisol are in the morning, and the lowest at night.
Stress is not the only reason for an increase in cortisol, and it does have some pretty decent positive effects. It can improve or heighten memory functions, give you a shot of increased immunity, decrease your sensitivity to pain, give you a surge of energy (hence it being titled the flight or fight
hormone) and can help to maintain homeostasis, or balance, in the body.
All of these things seem great, so long as the stress, or the stressor dissipates and we can return to a calm state and allow our bodies to return to normal. The only issue is as the years pass, and events such as our recent economic crisis, we seem to be a world, and people, with surrounded by constant chaos and stress. Our bodies never return to a normal state, or when they do the moments are too few and far between. It seems more and more people are dealing with a consistently elevated level of cortisol, and all the issues that come with the increased levels.
Some of the symptoms of elevated cortisol are fatigue, excess body fat, inability to lose body fat (regardless of diet and exercise). These symptoms donʼt occur overnight, in fact, you may have had years of accumulated stress and it finally has caught up with you. Cortisol raises the level of glucose. Excess glucose stores to fat. So now you are fatigued, carrying around excess belly fat (among other places), and can not seem to lose weight no matter what you try.
The years of stress have wrecked your system, your glucose levels are out of whack causing you to gain weight, which is contributing to even more stress, which could be elevating your cortisol even more .
So since you are so tired you might go for caffeine. It is easy, cheap, and gives you the energy to get through the day and even your workout. BUT, here is the problem (that is keeping you going in this vicious cycle). Caffeine triggers some pretty damaging effects in regards to cortisol. Lets look at them:
FIrst, when you drink that cup of coffee you are generally sitting at the table, dragging yourself out of bed, or sitting at your desk at work. Caffeine is a stimulant, and induces stress within, which can induce a cortisol rise. A rise in cortisol will create a reaction in your body releasing amino acids (from muscles), glucose from your liver, and fatty acids into your blood stream to which you will produce tons of energy.
Unfortunately, we are usually sitting in our cars, at work, or on our couch at home so we do not have the ability to use up all of what has been released, which essentially is a form of stress. Then we carry on with our day that has more than enough stress already. So you see how we just donʼt get a break from the rise in cortisol?
The combination of caffeine and cortisol can cause gastrointestinal problems. It is common knowledge, or it should be, that the high acidity in coffee can cause heartburn. Additionally when caffeine elevates cortisol this rise causes energy to be taken away from our gastrointestinal tract, which lowers the amount of enzymes we need to produce to digest the food we intake, which then reduces the minerals and nutrients we absorb. High acid plus low minerals = a good chance of developing osteoporosis.
Another negative. Stress can cause a decrease in the calories you burn. Cortisol can reduce your bodyʼs ability to release fat from itʼs fat stores which would be used for energy. This can cause an accumulation of fat in the abdominal region, an area that doesnʼt look or feel good, but is also cause for many health concerns. So, since caffeine can stress your body, it can increase your cortisol levels.
Second, your emotional well being. Anxiety, depression, and having mood swings are all direct consequences of elevated cortisol. Cortisol has an adverse effect on serotonin and dopamine production. Cortisol may actually increase short term memory for a short time (we are talking 30 minutes or so), elevated cortisol reduces blood flow and glucose delivery to the brain. Combine that with caffeines ability to constrict blood flow to the brain, which reduces oxygen by up to 30%, then you may start to understand why you may get headaches when you try to quit caffeine.
Interesting study: college students who studied late on caffeine find that their short term memory is non-existent the next day during their exam.
Third, lack of sleep causes a very sharp increase in cortisol levels. Which would draw you to the caffeine, which would cause all of the other stuff mention previously. So lack of sleep equals more coffee which equals higher cortisol which equals a vicious cycle.
Last, (there are many others, but I figured this would be enough to scare the coffee out of you), caffeine dehydrates you, causing skin issues. Wrinkles, and a decrease of collagen. Tell me that wonʼt cause some stress?
So how do we lower our cortisol, and stay away from caffeine (since they seem to really work well together in a bad way).
Here are some very simple steps:
- First, eliminate your caffeine intake, (this include diet coke). You may need to do it slowly. The headaches may be debilitating.
- Exercise. Beside giving you energy and lowering cortisol levels, the benefits are countless. Start slow, just start!
- Keep your blood sugar stable. No table sugar. Eat complex carbs low on the glycemic index.
- Take supplements that may help with stress levels, blood sugar, energy, and loaded with anti-oxidants. To name a few: A-lipoic acid, CoQ 10, calcium, magnesium, rhodiola, vitamin C and Bʼs, chromium, and what I believe to be one of the most important vitamin D. (these are just a few, trust me I could go on for days).
- Try yoga, meditation, or anything to relax.
- And what may be the one thing that would make the biggest difference.....sleep! Make sure its deep uninterrupted sleep. If you have issues falling asleep or staying asleep there are so many natural sleep aids. They are worth trying, and some work well together.
This certainly does not cover it all, and I hope I have shed some light, and not caused more confusion. I guess I could just say, put the coffee down take a yoga class and sleep. But if it were that easy this article would not even be necessary.
By Diane Mohlman