If you have been wondering all this time why you are struggling to lose weight, this is the blog post for you. Cortisol can sometimes be a good thing, but you know what they say about too much of a good thing, right? Cortisol is our stress hormone. Cortisol is released at various times throughout the day and you will experience high surges in the morning to ensure you have enough energy for the day. Levels should be low around the time you go to bed at night, however. Chronic stress, and therefore chronically elevated cortisol, can leave you feeling exhausted and in a state of brain fog.
But let’s talk weight. I know that’s what you’re interested in.
First, let me remind you of the difference between acute vs. chronic stress. Acute stress is what stress is intended to look like, danger with a side of urgency. Whereas chronic stress is essentially acute stress or perceived stress experienced long-term. Perceived stress looks like struggles with your finances, working long hours, arguing with your partner, and a schedule that is so full of responsibilities and demands, you have no time for self-care. I discuss more in a previous blog post about cortisol and acute vs. chronic stress; you can read that post here.
So when we talk about cortisol and weight gain, that is a result of chronic stress. Chronic stress is often the primary reason women struggle with weight, fatigue, and gut health issues.
You see chronic stress not only impacts you physically, but also emotionally. Chronic stress can actually change your brain structure and as a result, impact the function of your brain. That change in structure will predispose you to emotional and behavioral changes that are associated with an increased risk for depression and cause you to perceive your day as stressful before it even starts. So you don’t even have to have a stressful day for cortisol to impact your health. You just have to think you might have a stressful day! I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to ruin my day before it starts. This change in mental status can impact the decisions you make about food. You will be more likely to eat emotionally, eating based on how you feel as compared to actual hunger signals.
This tendency toward emotional eating also results from another hormone that tends to be elevated in times of stress. Ghrelin, our hunger hormone, is also increased in the presence of chronic stress. So not only are you predisposed to overeat based on the physical changes in your brain, you are also releasing hormones that tell your body you are hungry, when in fact you really aren’t, you’re just responding to stress. So the influence of cortisol on your hunger signals is directly linked to the amount of food you consume. In periods of chronic stress, you consume more food than you actually need. Now remember we are talking about chronic stress.
In the case of acute stress, your body doesn’t prioritize digestion, and there is no nutrient depletion when your acute stress system or your flight or fight system is active, so you are likely not interested in eating during short periods of stress.
Weight gain associated with increased cortisol follows a very specific pattern. Fat associated with cortisol targets the tummy area. Even though we might not favor fat around the belly, it’s the preferred place for your major organs to have access to fat in case your body needs it to keep you alive. Remember cortisol is supposed to be elevated in times of acute stress, so your metabolism slows down to ensure you have access to nutrients when you need them. Your body doesn’t know that the stress is really because of the 700 emails in your inbox, your body can’t tell the difference between “real” and “perceived” stress.
So what do we do when we see that extra fat around the belly? We then go on a diet and plan to eat less at a time when our body is already stressed so instead of encouraging weight loss we actually encourage our metabolism to slow down even more.
In addition, when you experience chronic stress you also tend to not sleep well. As such, you release more cortisol and epinephrine at night when levels should normally be low. That disruption in sleep in the presence of increased hormones can also cause your body to hold onto weight. However, when you sleep though, you actually balance those hormones, boost your metabolism, and improve the function of your brain.
It has been said that unless you give your body the right amount of sleep, you will never, have the body and life you want to have.
So now that you know a little bit more about how cortisol might be the reason you aren’t losing weight, stay tuned to figure out what to do about it…