Stress is something that busy women are all too familiar with.
Whether it’s in response to physical, mental or emotional stress, when your body senses pressure it responds. External factors like jobs, busy schedules, fussy kids, etc and internal factors like perfectionism, negativity, worry, etc all cause your body to release hormones. When you first become stressed, your body releases “stress” hormones including epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol.
Your body is wired to release these hormones as a way to protect itself against internal or external stressors. You can think of these hormones as messengers.
Epinephrine relaxes the muscles in your intestines and decreases blood flow to your stomach. Norepinephrine tells your body to stop producing insulin in so that fast-acting blood glucose is ready for use.
When you and your body have calmed back down and the stress is over, cortisol tells your body to stop producing epinephrine and norepinephrine, and to go back to breaking down food and digesting regularly. It’s not uncommon for cortisol levels to go up and down throughout the day–like when you wake up or workout–but the issue arises when you suffer from chronic stress–like weeks and weeks with limited sleep, worry, etc.
Chronic stress causes cortisol levels to elevate and never return to a normal state.
Cortisol is an appetite stimulant. High levels of cortisol make you want to eat and have been shown to increase cravings for carbohydrates. In addition, cortisol is catabolic (causes a breakdown of lean muscle). The breakdown of this muscle leads to decreased metabolic capacity and increased fat storage.
Increases in belly fat and possible loss of muscle mass are two imbalance symptoms attributed to an imbalance of cortisol. When cortisol levels are high for long periods of time, your body can store food as fat and refuse to burn the fat that you do have. Essentially, your body is saving fuel.
Studies show that cortisol may even be responsible for taking fat from other places in the body and moving it to your stomach (which naturally has more cortisol receptors) as a way to protect and surround your organs…causing MORE belly fat than before.
What can you do about elevated cortisol?
Here are some real-life tips:
- Get Enough Sleep: A lack of sleep signals your body to release cortisol. The first and most important thing you can do when it comes to balancing cortisol, is to get enough sleep and to make rest and recovery a priority.
- Avoid Overtraining: Long duration workouts cause elevated cortisol levels and can stress your body in an unnecessary way. For optimal recovery and hormonal balance, focus on short duration, high intensity workouts.
- Include stress reducing activities: When possible, try to lower cortisol by doing restorative activities like leisurely walking and having quiet time to distress (even if it’s just 5 minutes!)
- Try anti-stress supplements: If you’re not getting the vitamins and minerals you need through quality nutrition (B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, chromium and zinc) consider taking a supplement. Even a multivitamin may be helpful. Other helpful supplements include antioxidants like vitamin C, alpha lipoic acid, grapeseed extract, and CoQ10. Some research also shows that adaptogen herbs like ginseng, astragalus, eleuthero, schizandra, Tulsi (holy basil) rhodiola and ashwagandha help the body cope with the side effects of stress and rebalance the metabolism. These supplements and herbs will not only lower cortisol levels but they will also help you decrease the effects of stress on the body by boosting the immune system as you work towards optimal hormonal balance.
- Consider your caffeine: If you believe you have issues with cortisol or suffer from anxiety, pay close attention to your caffeine intake. For people with normal cortisol levels, there is nothing wrong with a couple of cups of coffee. But for people with high levels of cortisol, caffeine needlessly spikes cortisol and may be harmful. 200 mg of caffeine (one 12 oz mug of coffee) can increase blood cortisol levels by 30% in one hour. Remember, the problem is not the initial spike in cortisol, but rather elevated levels over time. Consider limiting caffeine into the morning hours or cutting caffeine all together for a few weeks to see your body’s response.
Catch up on the Hormone Series here!