STRESS AND WEIGHT LOSS: CORTISOL BELLY AND THE ADRENAL GLANDS
Welcome back to The Science of Fat Loss Hints, Tricks, and Tips: Part 4 to learn how stress reduction helps to facilitate fat loss, increases energy and helps to sculpt your body. Most people don’t realize that stress and weight loss are tied together. Being a holistic personal trainer and nutritionist in Los Angeles for the past 17 years has given me some interesting and key insights into healthy eating, exercise and holistic lifestyle changes. We will start by discussing how stress and weight loss are interrelated and focus on the science and then discuss what you can do to reduce stress and lose weight.
Please note, It is beneficial and important to get the correct advice on your exercise routine, overall nutrition program, daily calorie intake and developing healthy habits. If you need help, call us to get started today at (310) 720-8125.
Cortisol, Stress and the Adrenal Glands
Do you have a cortisol stress belly? Is it hard for you to lose fat? Are you under a lot of stress? These are questions that are related to high cortisol and your inability to lose fat. If you’re under a lot of stress, several things occur.
Cortisol, which is your primary stress hormone, becomes elevated. Short increases in cortisol is not a problem as it helps boost energy and is useful for dealing with any life stressors. However, prolonged exposure to stress causes chronically high cortisol levels, and if the stress is maintained for long periods, the following can occur:
- This hormone will cause you to gain belly fat
- A decrease in muscle mass
- Eventually slows down your metabolism
- Physical Burnout – low energy and no motivation
In the long run, if you still haven’t changed your lifestyle, and you’re under a lot of stress, your adrenal glands and your brain will get pooped out – producing less and less cortisol. This leaves you feeling tired, exhausted and you get to the point where it is tough to get out of bed in the morning. This state is called adrenal dysfunction – it is also commonly called adrenal fatigue, but this is probably not the best terminology to understand the physiology of why greater stress over time, leads to less and less cortisol production and lower energy levels.
Cortisol – The Counter-Contributor to Fat Loss
Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, will increase during tension-filled times which can result in overeating. The relationship between stress and weight loss is further established when observing Cortisol levels. Cortisol affects fat distribution by causing the fat to be stored centrally around organs. The higher the stress, the greater the fat accumulation.
When cortisol levels rise, so do your insulin levels which then cause your blood sugar levels to drop creating an increase in cravings for sugary and fatty foods, also known as “comfort foods.” According to Jason Perry Block, MD, eating is a source of stress relief as he states, “This happens, in part, because the body releases chemicals in response to food that might have a direct calming effect.”
According to Shawn M. Talbott, Ph.D., a nutritional biochemist, “More stress = more cortisol = higher appetite for junk food = more belly fat.” In other words, high stress and weight loss go hand in hand.
The stress hormone cortisol is also antagonistic to testosterone production. According to Robert Josephs, professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, “It makes good adaptive sense that testosterone’s behavioral influence during an emergency situation gets blocked because engaging in behaviors that are encouraged by testosterone, such as mating, competition, and aggression, during an imminent survival situation could be fatal.” “When cortisol levels remain elevated, as is the case with so many people who are under constant stress, the ability to reproduce can suffer greatly,” Josephs said. “However, these effects of cortisol in both men and women are reversed when stress levels go down.”
Stress levels and weight loss are also connected in other ways. High stress levels cause decrease in growth hormone levels which are directly associated with greater visceral fat. Therefore, high levels of stress leads to lower growth hormones which lead to more visceral fat. The production of growth hormone, also known as somatotropin, is controlled by many factors including stress, exercise, nutrition, and sleep.
Stress – The Origin of Illness
A study conducted at Yale concluded that there is a relationship between stress and weight loss. They showed that women who were not considered to be overweight were still vulnerable to the effects of stress and are more likely to have excess abdominal fat. This study was the first to show that lean women with abdominal fat, also referred to as “stress belly,” also had higher responses to cortisol.
According to Elissa S. Epel, Ph.D., lead investigator on the study she conducted while at Yale’s psychology department, stated that “Greater exposure to life stress or psychological vulnerability to stress may explain their enhanced cortisol reactivity. In turn, their cortisol exposure may have led them to accumulate greater abdominal fat.”
When we are chronically stressed, we become prone to getting an extra layer of visceral fat around our bellies due to the ample supply of blood vessels and cortisol receptors which creates a perfect storm leading to more belly fat being accumulated. The belly fat then releases chemicals that trigger inflammation which then lead to such health issues as diabetes and heart disease. Another downfall to stress and cortisol is that excess cortisol slows the metabolism because your body wants to maintain enough glucose to tolerate this added stress.
Adrenal Glands – The Headmaster of Hormones
The adrenal glands are comprised of two glands that sit above the kidneys, each gland having two parts.
- Adrenal Cortex – This is the outer part of the gland which produces hormones that are critical for daily life such as:
- Cortisol – Regulates metabolism as well as being the primary response to stress.
- Aldosterone – Helps control blood pressure
- Adrenal Medulla – This is the inner part of the gland which produces hormones such as adrenaline that helps the body react to stress.
Adrenal Cortex – The Critical Controller
The adrenal cortex produces two main groups of corticosteroid hormones.
- Glucocorticoids – This group produces
- Hydrocortisone – This hormone, also known as cortisol which regulates how the body converts proteins, carbohydrates, and fats for energy.
- Corticosterone – This hormone works with hydrocortisone to control immune responses and suppress inflammatory reactions.
- Mineralocorticoids – Aldosterone is the principal mineralocorticoid which balances out water and salt to maintain blood pressure.
Pregnenolone – The Life Raft to Stress
Pregnenolone is a steroid hormone found naturally in the body and produced by the adrenal glands, but can also be supplemented into your diet. This steroid hormone is a critical player in the production of other steroid hormones including:
The Health Benefits of Pregnenolone
- Sharpening memory
- Stimulating the immune system
- Reducing stress
Pregnenolone levels will drop if the adrenals are stressed or fatigued.
Causes of Adrenal Dysfunction
- Psychological stress
- Lack of sleep
- Lack of exercise
- Illness or injury
- Inadequate nutrition
Symptoms of Adrenal Dysfunction
- Poor concentration
- Increased hunger
Pregnenolone levels will peak during youth and then gradually decline over the years. Other hormones that decrease with age include testosterone and growth hormone. In my experience as a holistic personal trainer in Los Angeles, it’s proven that with a healthy lifestyle, you can still optimize your hormones despite your age.
Pregnenolone Steal and Energy Burnout: “I just don’t feel like I used to, why???”
Most people notice that as they age, if they are under increased stress over long periods of time, they just don’t bounce back and have the same energy levels that they used to. Why is this? Usually, life stressors such as intense work, family or relationship issues, financial challenges and/or a health crisis, can all lead to a point where the body can not bounce back. You feel emotionally flat, that it is hard to get out of bed in the morning and you begin to notice that you go out less often and are less sociable. These are signs that your body is burning out. So what is going on scientifically speaking and from a hormone perspective?
So, let’s take a look at this graph above (see graph). I know it looks complicated, but it will make sense in a few minutes, bare with me…
As you can see in the upper right hand corner is your dietary fats. All hormones are made from fat. These fats come from the fats you eat in foods such as steak, eggs, coconut oil, butter, ghee or olive oil. These fats eventually get converted into pregnenolone (see graph). Pregnenolone is an interesting hormone, it can either go down into your power hormones such as DHEA, testosterone or growth hormones (see graph), or pregnenolone can go to the left into progesterone and down into cortisol; this is the cortisol pathway or stress pathway (see graph).
Now this part is important:
Power hormones such as DHEA, testosterone or growth hormones are incredibly important for fat loss and muscle gain. They are also important for mood, energy and libido.
Cortisol is important for managing stress, infections and overall energy levels.
When you are healthy, pregnenolone is both converted into the cortisol or stress pathway and the power hormone pathway – in other words, your body is in a balanced state so that you are optimized with all hormones that were mentioned previously. The result is that you feel great and that your life hormonal speaking is optimized and easier – work is great, life is great and everything feels great!
However, if you are under long bouts of stress for a long period of time, what ensues is the “pregnenolone steal” – to much pregnenolone is being rushed down the cortisol or stress pathway and not enough is being allocated to your power hormones.
So, the point is to have a healthy lifestyle which will optimize your hormones. Work life balance is the first place you should focus on, as this is the primary cause of most people’s stress. Other stressors that can throw off your hormones are family or relationship issues, financial challenges and/or a health crisis. If you want to lose weight, all of these issues must be addressed.
Please note, that under eating and/or under eating and over exercising can also a huge stressor. To learn more about this, click here.
Best Ways to Manage Stress and Cortisol Levels: Stress and Weight Loss
- Meditation and Breathing Exercises – Spending as little as a few minutes a day can help restore a sense of calm and inner peace as well as slowing your system down.
- Yoga – Studies have shown that doing yoga helps reduce stress and anxiety as well as improving mood and overall well-being. Preferably, chill out forms of yoga such as Yin yoga, Hatha, Kundalini, and Restorative yoga.
- Exercise – Aerobic exercise benefits in two ways; it decreases cortisol and increases metabolism to help burn belly fat.
- Laughing – Laughter can stimulate circulation and help relax muscles both resulting in the reduction of some of the symptoms of stress.
- Therapy – Methods of treatment such as cognitive therapy help by changing our thoughts which are believed to be the cause of some stresses.
- Spirituality – Becoming more spiritual helps alleviate stress by giving a sense of purpose as well as releasing control and allowing things to be as they are.
- Healthier Eating – Include more fruits and vegetables which will reduce cortisol levels naturally,, and eat regularly and stay hydrated. Processed foods and junk foods are stressful to the body. If you need more information on healthy eating, check out my free grocery list.
- Correct Poor Sleep Schedule – Having a regular sleep schedule will help in reducing cortisol levels.
How to Lower Cortisol Levels and Manage Stress: Herbal Supplements
- Rhodiola Rosea – Rhodiola is an adaptogenic herb that improves the body’s resistance to stress and helps with stress-related fatigue.
- Ashwagandha – This supplement has a calming effect and reduces stress and anxiety.
- Panax Ginseng – A well-known adaptogenic supplement that treats stress, fatigue, and insomnia.
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids – This essential nutrient is a useful supplement to reduce cortisol levels.
- GABA – Gamma-aminobutyric acid is a neurotransmitter that slows down the nerve activity in the brain during high-stress situations.
- B Vitamins – Due to their positive effect on the brain and nervous system, these vitamins also help in lowering cortisol levels.
- Thiamine (B1) – A nutrient that protects the adrenals and decreases the cortisol response.
- Niacinamide (B3) – Improves the quality of sleep
- Pantothenic Acid (B5) – Another nutrient that protects the adrenals and decreases the stress-inducing cortisol response.
- Vitamin B6 – A potent cofactor for the synthesis of GABA, serotonin, and dopamine.
- Vitamin B12 – This vitamin normalizes the cortisol peak as well as improving sleep by resetting the circadian rhythms.
Taking care of our bodies as well as our minds can help to avoid creating stress that causes cortisol to run amok. Eat healthy, exercise and make time for yourself so you can clear your mind through positive outlets like meditation and yoga. Finally, laugh at least once a day and remember to breathe and relax.
Weight Loss is the #1 Health Goal in America
Weight Loss is the #1 Health Goal in America. And, there is a strong correlation between belly fat or a large belly and degenerative disease. Whether you want to look great naked or simply just want to live longer, getting leaner and healthier has to be one of your priorities in life. If you interested in learning more about getting lean and healthy, please check out my 10 part series on the science of weight loss.