The Holiday Season is upon us bringing cheer, celebration, family, down time, the off-season, as well as some rest and relaxation. It’s typically a time to enjoy those rich holiday meals that can, unfortunately, lead to a bit or even a lot of weight gain. It can also be a time of year that you find yourself stressed out. The good news is that by understanding how cortisol works, you’ll be able to keep your weight down and combat Holiday stress.
Cortisol, known as the regulator of immune response, is a hormone controlled by the adrenal cortex. This powerful hormone is also known as an adrenalcorticol hormone, a glucocorticoid and hydrocortisone or simply cortisone. Cortisol has a catabolic (muscle breakdown) effect on tissue and is associated with a decrease in anabolic (muscle growth) hormones like IGF-1 and GH. Reducing levels of cortisol is a great way for an athlete to achieve tissue growth and positive adaptations to exercise training. Playing many different roles in the body, cortisol can have a negative impact on sleep, mood, sex drive, bone health, ligament health, cardiovascular health and athletic performance, potentially causing fatigue and inflammation. Its primary functions are to increase protein breakdown, inhibit glucose uptake and increase lipolysis (the breakdown of fats).
While cortisol in normal amounts is necessary for proper metabolic function, a chronic elevated cortisol level has adverse effects on health, mood, body composition and performance. Elevated cortisol secretion from physical or mental stress causes fat, protein and carbohydrates to be rapidly mobilized in order for the body to take action against the stressor. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response. The mobilization of these nutrients in addition to epinephrine and a number of other endocrine hormones allows the body to take quick action when presented with stress. During this mobilization, cortisol and adrenaline increase while DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone) and testosterone decrease. A chronic elevated cortisol level causes the body to enter a state of constant muscle breakdown and suppressed immune function, increasing risk of injury while reducing muscle.
Recent studies have confirmed that endurance athletes have chronic elevated cortisol, which can lead to long-term health issues. A 2012 study by Skolud et. al. used hair analysis over many months and found that intensive training and competitive races among endurance athletes is associated with elevated cortisol exposure over prolonged periods of time. It’s been well established that long term chronically elevated cortisol can lead to inflammatory diseases and in the short term muscle breakdown and fat gain. But what exactly is causing fat gain during these times of stress and what we can do about it is a new area of study.
A 2013 study by CJ Roberts et. al. looked at the relationship of stress and the food choices we make. This study conducted on 38 healthy women found that those with the highest chronic levels of cortisol chose foods with higher carbohydrate and fat. This data is consistent with the ‘comfort food hypothesis’ that suggests chronic stress leads to the consumption of food containing more carbohydrate and saturated fat.
A 2007 study in the Journal of Obesity showed that daily cortisol secretion could actually predict changes in BMI. Change in cortisol also predicted change in dietary restraint. Ultimately what this study showed is that those who could manage stress often made better dietary choices and because of this remained within a healthy weight. Those who remained chronically stressed often did not have dietary restraint and ate more calories and more saturated fats.
The data is becoming more and more clear showing that the master hormone ‘cortisol’ can become the silent killer and can wreak havoc on the health of athletes. Modulating cortisol through dietary choices and management of your lifestyle can go a long way in remaining strong, lean and healthy.
9 Tips for lowering cortisol:
1) Light exercise promotes lower levels of cortisol whereas intense or long workout sessions can increase cortisol. Just 20-30 minutes of each day pays huge dividends by lowering cortisol every day. This is the time of the year to enjoy a light, fun workout.
2) Stabilize Blood Sugar. Eliminate sugar and refined carbohydrates from your diet to stabilize your insulin production. Eat frequent small meals balanced in protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats. Diets rich in complex carbohydrates keep cortisol levels lower than low carbohydrate diets.
3) Stay hydrated. Dehydration puts the body in stress and raises cortisol levels. Keep pure water by your bed and drink it when you first wake up and before you go to sleep.
4) Long restful sleep promotes recovery and lowers cortisol.
5) Positive reinforcement can reduce cortisol. Surround yourself with positive reinforcement.
6) Listen to music you love. It’s been shown to reduce cortisol levels. A little volume doesn’t hurt.
7) Laugh and have fun. Find ways to laugh and joke around. Studies show it reduces cortisol and stress.
8) Meditation or mindful relaxation has been shown to reduce stress.
9) Take your Optygen/OptygenHP daily. It’s been shown to reduce cortisol by 22%.
Skolud,N, Dettenborn, L, et al. Elevated hair cortisol concentrations in endurance athletes. Psychoneuroendocrinology May 2012 (37) 5; 611-617
Roberts CJ, Campbell IC, Troop N. Increases in Weight during Chronic Stress are Partially Associated with a Switch in Food Choice towards Increased Carbohydrate and Saturated Fat Intake. European Eating Disorder Oct 2013 10.1002.
Roberts C, et. al, The effects of stress on body weight: biological and psychological predictors of change in BMI. Journal of Obesity. Dec 2007 15 (12): 3045-55.