Understanding Cortisol Production & Weight Gain
"I'm so stressed," '" I am always tired," and "I feel anxious all the time" are only a few of the phrases that we hear ourselves or others say all the time. Did you know that these feelings are most often regulated by the hormone "cortisol." Cortisol plays such an essential role in your hormonal system that misfiring and signalling can disrupt the behaviour of other hormones like estrogen, thyroid and testosterone.
Cortisol is one of the main stress hormones produced in our adrenal glands. Its activity is controlled by the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands. Cortisol plays a role in blood sugar levels, regulating metabolism, assisting memory function and reducing inflammation. It even affects the salt-water balance, which controls blood pressure.
Cortisol is intended to give us a quick burst of energy when faced with immediate stress or danger. It draws this energy from the glucose stores in your fat and muscle cells. A blood sugar drop usually follows this until systems-level out. A continued state of fight and flight (stress response) causes a rise and crash, leaving you tired, hungry, craving sugar and more stressed out.
Cortisol does not know the difference between being stressed out all the time at work or home or being stressed out because you are running from a bear. The body perceives them as threats and increases Cortisol to help you manage stressful situations.
How does Cortisol Make you Fatter?
Research has shown that if you have unwanted belly fat or your weight increases no matter what you do. You likely have a hormone imbalance of some sort. Cortisol, specifically, is a big culprit of the unwanted "inner tube" around the belly. Cortisol is a very important hormone that our body needs to survive, but if you are stressed out day after day, the body will continue to release Cortisol.
Cortisol affects fat storage because glucose production increases when the body is in a state of stress or perceived threat. This excess glucose provides the required energy to produce the body's expected response. However, if your body is not using glucose to solve the problem, it stores it as fat. Stress-induced cortisol weight gain is usually gained around the waistline because the fat cells in this area contain more stress hormone receptors. These fat cells are susceptible to high insulin and are very effective at storing energy (not burned).
An overproduction of Cortisol also negatively affects your thyroid, which results in fluctuations in metabolism. High or dysregulated cortisol levels wreak havoc over time, depleting those happy brain chemicals like serotonin, robbing your sleep, and can be linked to depression, food addiction, and sugar cravings and negatively affect the Leptin and Ghrelin signalling hormones ( that tell you when you are hungry or full)
Some signs that your cortisol levels may be too high are:
- Weight gain, mainly around the midsection and upper back
- Back pain
- Adult acne
- Thinning skin
- Flushed face
- Slow to heal
- Muscle weakness
- Severe fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Reduced immune function
- Craving sugar foods
Stress has to be lower & the stress response better managed to get Cortisol to start normalizing before you will begin to see fat loss around the stomach.
Can You Regulate Cortisol Naturally?
Regulating Cortisol requires lifestyle changes to help you better manage your stress response. One way to do this is by introducing supplements knowns as adaptogens. Adaptogens are a unique group of healing herbs that help balance, restore and protect the body from stressors. Adaptogens are unique because they are neither stimulating nor sedating but bring the body into a state of balance.
One of the most valued adaptogen supplements is Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), which can restore hormonal balance and healthy adrenal function over time. Current research supports the traditional uses of this plant in promoting stress resilience for cortisol and thyroid hormones. In addition to improving the stress response and reducing anxiety, research also identifies this herb for modulating the activity of GABA (the neurotransmitter) that supports calmness.
The recommended dosage to see this herb's effects are 300 – 600 mg two times a day for at least three months. Remember supporting those burned-out adrenals and regulating Cortisol is not a quick fix) Ashwagandha can be taken any time of day and even assist with restorative sleep if taken at night. Look for Ashwagandha, which contains KSM-66 (the researched form of the herb). Research suggests Ashwagandha gets its stress-easing power from unique plant compounds called glycowithanolides, which activate brain receptors to calm the body down during stressful times and support restful sleep. Natural Factors Ashwagandha provides an ideal dosage of this herb in the correct format.
Adaptogens such as Ashwagandha are one way to help manage your stress response. It can be even more effective if you support your central nervous systems with a B complex. When your body is under stress, it requires a lot of Vitamin B. The various B vitamins play a role in improving the metabolic pathways that boost energy, reduce fatigue, and help to create adrenal hormones. Your B Vitamins should be a complex combination of all the essential B vitamins, each performing a unique responsibility for the body and central nervous system. Your B vitamin complex can be liquid, such as Prairie Naturals Liquid B solution. Or in capsules such as NOW Vitamin B50 Complex or Natural Factors - Biocoenzymated Ultra Strength Active B Complex
Keeping your blood sugar levels balanced during the day can help keep cortisol levels in check. Berberine supplements such as Preferred Nutrition Berberine stimulate glucose uptake into muscle cells and balances sugar. It has also been shown to delay the breakdown of carbohydrates into simple sugars, thus reducing sugar spikes. Berberine has also shown promise for weight loss due to its effect on fat-regulating hormones, such as insulin, adiponectin, and leptin. Berberine can also inhibit the growth of fat cells at the molecular level (studies were done 500 mg 3 times a day).
Additional Stress Busters
GABA is a natural calming agent of the brain. When we become overwhelmed with stress, the brain typically responds by producing more GABA to produce a more relaxed state, decreasing nervousness, scattered thoughts, and hyperactivity. GABA can improve relaxation without drowsiness and enhance mental focus. GABA also controls stress-related eating & food cravings and can facilitate sleep. We love the Natural Factors Gaba supplements because they come in several different forms. You can take a yummy chewable throughout the day or a capsule on a more scheduled morning and night routine.
L-Theanine is a unique amino acid found in green tea. It has been used for centuries to promote relaxation without causing any drowsiness. L- Theanine works by decreasing the excitatory brain chemicals that contribute to stress while increasing the brain chemicals that produce relaxation. It is said to be the "Zen" supplement because it quiets the mind. When taken during the day, it helps to take the edge off so you can focus more clearly, whereas taken at night, it helps to produce a state of chill so you can rest. Consider supplements such as Natural Factors Mental Calmness chewable L-Theanine for daytime use and Pure Lab Vitamins sustained released L-Theanine for an end-of-day chill.
Try not to get stressed about weight gain! Stressing about weight gain only increases Cortisol and keeps the cycle going. Manage your stress, support your stress response, adrenal glands, and blood sugar, and be patient. It took some time for the fat to show up on your belly, and it will take some time to get it off.
Stress & Adrenal supplements cannot be taken if you take medications for stress, anxiety or depression without consulting your healthcare provider. Consult your healthcare provider if you are pregnant or lactating and have other interaction concerns.