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 onto and even create additional body fat?
Is there anything we can do, aside from learning how to manage our stress levels to keep this hormone and it’s nasty adverse effects from affecting 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 nutritional supplements? Can they have a positive or negative effect on this hormone and our stress levels? We have all probably heard how caffeine can cause a rise in this hormone. Does this mean we need to give up our coffee? Or even one of our pre-workout supplement drinks that helps us get through our workout when we feel like we can’t get through it?
Let’s take a closer look. Maybe I can shed some light on the topic. I will try my best to make sense out of it all and I will try to keep it simple and avoid going off on a tangent.
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, having too much or too little can cause problems.
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 are 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 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 that more and more people are dealing with a consistently elevated level of cortisol along with all of the issues that come with these increased levels.
Some of the symptoms of elevated cortisol are fatigue, excess body fat and the inability to lose body fat (regardless of diet and exercise). These symptoms don’t occur overnight and you may have had years of accumulated stress and it finally caught up with you. Cortisol raises the level of glucose. Excess glucose stores body 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. This is not a good position to be in!
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 turn to caffeine for help. 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. Let’s take a 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, behind our desks 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, now can you see how we just don’t 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 consume which then reduces the minerals and nutrients we absorb. High acid plus low minerals equals a good chance of developing osteoporosis.
Another negative is that stress can cause a decrease in the calories you burn. Cortisol can reduce your body’s ability to release fat from its fat stores which would be used for energy. This can cause an accumulation of fat in the abdominal region, an area that doesn’t look or feel good, but is also cause for many health concerns. So, since caffeine can stress your body it can cause an increase in your cortisol levels.
Second, your emotional well-being can be impacted. 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) and elevated cortisol reduces blood flow and glucose delivery to the brain. Combine that with caffeine’s ability to constrict blood flow to the brain which reduces oxygen by up to 30%, and you may start to understand why you 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, the lack of sleep causes a very sharp increase in cortisol levels. This would draw you to the caffeine which would cause all of the other things mentioned previously. So, the lack of sleep equals more coffee which equals higher cortisol which equals a vicious cycle.
Last, (there are many other points, 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 won’t 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 includes diet sodas and tea). You may need to do it slowly since the headaches may be debilitating.
- Exercise. Beside giving you energy and lowering cortisol levels, the benefits are countless.
- Keep your blood sugar stable. This means avoiding table sugar. Eat complex carbs low on the glycemic index.
- Take supplements that may help with stress levels, blood sugar, energy, and loaded with antioxidants. These include A-lipoic acid, CoQ 10, calcium, magnesium, rhodiola, vitamin C and B’s, chromium, and what I believe to be one of the most important which is vitamin D.
- Try yoga, meditation, or anything to relax.
- Sleep! This may be the one thing that will make the biggest difference! Make sure it’s deep, uninterrupted sleep. If you have issues falling asleep or staying asleep, there are lots of natural sleep aids to try.
This certainly does not cover it all but I hope I have shed some light on this topic and not caused more confusion. I guess I could just say to keep it simple and put the coffee down, take a yoga class and get more sleep!