By this point in our adult lives, we’ve all probably seen some infomercial touting the deadly effects of the “belly fat hormone” called cortisol – something like this, perhaps:
The word cortisol is used enough in diet pill advertising that it’s worth clarifying what the hormone actually is, and more importantly, what it does (and doesn’t do):
- cortisol is a steroid hormone made in the adrenal glands
- cortisol controls blood sugar levels, controls salt and water balance, and influences blood pressure (so yeah, it’s important)
- too much cortisol can lead to abdominal weight gain, weakness, and mood swings (extreme case: Cushing disease)
- too little cortisol can lead to fatigue, dizziness, and dark/discoloured skin (extreme case: Addison’s disease)
Ok, sounds fine – but even without the full disease end of the spectrum, excess cortisol production can royally mess up our metabolisms. Chronic stress, long-term corticosteroid use, and erratic sleep patterns make it worse, as do chronic inflammation, hypoglycemia, and other hormonal imbalances (such as high estrogen).
So what’s an otherwise healthy person to do when the doc says your midsection weight gain, adult acne, persistent fatigue, or other symptoms are related to your cortisol levels?
You know my answer; same as Hippocrates: let food be thy medicine.
The first step in controlling cortisol (and guys, this applies to belly fat in general no matter WHAT your hormonal makeup) is getting your diet in order. If you’re unsure about your intake, track it for a while (I use the MyFitnessPal app because it’s easy and has EVERY food imaginable) and note the sugars/carbs (processed/refined carbs gotta go), saturated fat (stay under 15g daily), and fibre contents (aim for minimum 35g) in your food. I find that clients often don’t identify patterns in their eating habits until they’re laid out in front of them in a log or chart.
Second, and perhaps even more important for those with cortisol-control problems: develop strategies to control your stress. Sure, this is easier said than done, but there are some surefire ways to decrease the impact of chronic stress on your physical body, such as setting aside 5 minutes per day for mindfulness meditation, learning and practising relaxing breathing techniques, or even employing the “three to thrive” method popularised by life coach Tony Robbins.
If stress remains a problem even after trying some of the mind-based ideas above, it may be time to dig a bit deeper into the adaptogen (internal) and essential oil (external) applications a lot of my clients have found success with. Adaptogens (which are easily dropped into a protein smoothie, by the way) are herbs that, when combined in specific ways, can help to lower oxidative stress on the body, while certain essential oils have been shown to promote better sleep, digestion, and stress management.
Third, and you know that ThisFitBlonde can’t possibly skip over this EXTREMELY EFFECTIVE cortisol-balancing strategy: GET OUT AND EXERCISE! Yes, I said “out,” because outdoor exercise performed for about 30-60 minutes daily is one of the best stress relievers available – plus it’s free of charge, helps you feel more connected to your surrounding environment, and has that nice little benefit of some extra weight loss when performed in conjunction with the dietary recommendations above.
Elevated cortisol levels happen to all of us at some point – they’re responsible for the “flight or fight” response crucial to human survival, after all – but they’re not an excuse for falling out of shape. Taking concrete steps to balance your bod and clean up your diet will give you the “reset” you need to combat the cortisol creep.
What healthy strategies do you use to control your overall weight and body fat?