Ask Amanda: Cracking Cortisol Control

By this point in our adult lives, we’ve all probably seen some infomercial touting the deadly effects of the “belly fat hormone” called cortisolsomething like this, perhaps:

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Wow really…works with ANY diet?  McDonalds, here I come (JK JK JK)

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.

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Harsh but true.

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.

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Some beginner macro charts for those of you with different goals.

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.

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Quick cheat sheet for essential oil uses and benefits

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? 

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Ask Amanda: The Five Stages of Haircuts

As many of you who know me IRL are already aware, last week I cut and dyed my hair.

Front page news, I know.

But seriously folks, after not having had a haircut in three years, and having never dyed my hair (other than with chalk colours or washable markers in high school), it was sort of a big deal for me – and I went through the corresponding stages of mental insanity before and after the big chop.

Just for fun this week, since I’m sure you’re inundated with “get in shape for 2018!” and “lose ten pounds in two weeks!” resolution-y stuff all over the internet, I’m going to take this week off writing about fitness and nutrition and fill you in on what it’s like to cut nearly 13 inches off your hair and bleach it to high heavens for the first time ever.

STAGE 1 (pre-cut; browsing on Instagram): EXCITEMENT & BADASSERY – who’s gonna stop me now?  I’m gonna cut my hair, b*tches.  I see all these celebs with cute, wavy lobs (translation: long bobs) and I bet I’ll look just as cute.  Cuter, maybe.  Ok maybe not as cute as Cara Delevigne, but somewhere between Khloe Kardashian and Julianne Hough levels of cuteness.  Yeah, I got this.  I’m gonna be the hair envy of every other blonde on the block.  I am such a baws.

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You are so beautiful, to me.  Can’t you see?

STAGE 2 (after making appointment): FEAR & LOATHINGwhy in the fresh hell did I make that appointment?  I should probably cancel it.  Yeah, I think I’m feeling sick anyway, my Chinese zodiac said something about not making major life changes this year so I’ll just bump this cut to 2019 to ensure double happiness.  My hair is fine the way it is, I can braid away the split ends and paint over the greys and no one will be the wiser.  Yep, all good.

STAGE 3 (at salon, after first snip): DISBELIEF & RAGEdid that psychopath just cut my hair with actual scissors?  WHAT HAPPENED TO THE FOLD-IT-UNDER AND SHOW ME THE POTENTIAL LENGTH BEFOREHAND THING?!?!?  Is that MY blonde-ass hair on the floor?  Is this real life?  Did someone authorise this act of brutality?  Show me this man’s aesthetician license.  SHOW IT TO ME RIGHT NOW SO HELP ME GOD.  I can probably get a work visa in Cambodia until this grows out, right?  BECAUSE I CANNOT BE SEEN IN PUBLIC WITH HUMANS FOR MINIMUM FIVE CALENDAR MONTHS.

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Like honestly it felt like he was balding me.

STAGE 4 (at salon, after colour is finished): CAREFUL ACCEPTANCEok, so the cut is whack, but I’m pretty sure I’m now a modern-day Marilyn Monroe with this ice blonde amazingness.  Is this colourist a magician?  Is it still going to look like this when I leave or will it wash out in the rain like my old Crayola-marker highlights?  You can’t see a single grey hair on my head because it’s so platinum.  Gwen Stefani, move aside.  I think I may be able to be seen outdoors now (albeit after somehow deflating this 1950s bouffant they styled me into toward something more like the “beachy waves” I actually asked for).

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Right colour; wrong era.

STAGE 5 (a week later, after a multitude of kind words and compliments from dear friends & clients): PEACE & JOY it’s just hair, Amanda, holy sh*t.  Get over yourself.  #firstworldproblems to the maximum degree.  It looks a thousand times healthier, more modern, and stylish than the brassy mop you used to carry around on that narrow head of yours, and it shows that you’re able to actually take a risk every once in a while.  Breathe.  Recover. Now grab your can of thickening spray, bust out that little round brush, and take that bangin’ new ‘do out on the town!

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The finished product.

And so we did.  Alls well that ends well – and #2018yearofthebadass is off to an epic start!

Do you plan to make any major changes in the coming year?  What and why?

Ask Amanda: The Myth of Discipline

Settle in, folks.  Maybe grab a green tea.  This here’s a long one.

When I started my Precision Nutrition coaching course, I never expected it to teach me so many life lessons in addition to the nitty-gritty nutritional information.

Furthermore, the folks at PN have a really clever way of putting into useful mantras/slogans the habits that I find myself coaching clients about on the regs – helpful tidbits like “eat to 80% full,” “aim for a little more, a little better,” and my personal fave, “don’t bother mowing the lawn if the house is on fire” (referring to, for example, those folks that INSIST on getting a Diet Coke alongside their 1000-calorie fast food McDonald’s meal).

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Spoiler alert: it’s not a huge deal.

Today’s lesson made the shocking assertion that discipline is a myth – and furthermore, that health-industry keywords like willpower, motivation, and inspiration are all pretty much myths, too.  The basic idea is this: it’s not some holy-grail epic opening of the heavens that drives us to make healthy changes in our lives, it’s simply the repetitive act of small habits and better choices that add up to great things.

It reminded me of an article I’ve brought up time and again since first being exposed to it in graduate school in 2007 called The Mundanity of Excellence.  To summarise Dr. Daniel Chambliss:

“Excellence is mundane.  Excellence is accomplished through the doing of actions, ordinary in themselves, performed consistently and carefully, habitualized, compounded together, added up over time.  The action, in itself, is nothing special; the care and consistency with which it is made is.”

Wow.  Just wow.  Go ahead, read it again.  I’ll be here.

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I admit that I am a “doer” almost to a fault; I am a big fan of favouring the “done” rather than the “perfect,” which sometimes results in less-than-ideal outcomes – but more often results in people getting what they need at the time in which they need it, which is a cornerstone of success in my business.

That said, taking action is the most important first step to the idea we formerly knew as “motivation,” and taking that action consistently becomes the pattern we used to talk about as “discipline.” 

The early-morning slog to the gym in your dirty old sneakers; the game-time decision to order the salad instead of the sandwich at the local deli; the choice to shut off the Netflix at 10pm so you can get a full night’s sleep – these are the actions, these are the patterns, these are the little things that make big changes to your life.

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Cheat sheet – print it out and rock on!

And so I turn it back to Precision for some little nuggets that can help you move from the ideal world of myths and grandeur to the real-life world of actions and habits (all their words, not mine, by the way):

  • There is no such thing as discipline.  Rather, ask yourself: What do you really love? Because you are the result of what you love most.  You either love and cherish six-pack abs more than potato chips, or you love potato chips more than washboard abs.  It’s as simple as that. Don’t beat yourself up – you’re allowed to love what you love.
  • Make truly self-loving choices that lead to increased strength of body and mind. When people comment on your results and say things like, “Wow you have a lot of discipline”, answer, “No, I just make the best choices for myself.”
  • The best defence is a good offence.  Nutrition is something within your control and you should take responsibility for this.  Every day you wake up and decide what it’s going to be: a day of struggling or a day of rising to the occasion.
  • Be motivated by the knowledge that you will never regret doing the right thing, even if it hurts to do it. But you will regret doing nothing. Keep a “daily wins” log. Over time, you have “real evidence” that you are progressing… and more importantly, have the capacity to progress further.
  • Understand that sh*t will happen. There will be “down” days. On those days, become a minimalist. Find the smallest thing you can do and do it. If all you ended up doing was your “smallest” thing, then you still can take solace that you did something. If you did more, bonus.
  • Change your focus, change your environment, change your attitude. If you’ve been physique focused, find a performance or health goal. Find something that inspires you and put your attention to that. Introduce something new and fun to your “plan”. Decide what you really want and decide if you’re willing to do what it takes to get there.
  • Motivation is crap. Exercise and eating well is ambivalent. Some days you feel like doing it, so you do; other days you don’t feel like doing it, so you don’t.  Eventually you must learn to dissociate feelings from actions. You must go to the gym, or eat your vegetables, even if you’re downright screaming “AW HELL NO!!”  Regardless of how you initially feel about it, starting the right action makes it easy to finish it. And once you overrule your “hell no”, it gets easier to do it the next time.

This year, I’m not really setting resolutions; I don’t really have different goals from this time last year.  But I am determined to stay committed, act with dedication and consistency, and stay focused on my long-term plans for my life – and I hope you will, too.

Do you have big goals for 2018?  What are your plans to take it to the next level?