Updated: Mar 3, 2019
Imagine that we are walking along a hiking path, enjoying nature, thinking good thoughts, and suddenly, we hear a rustle in the bushes. Our body thinks, bear (or in Paleo times saber toothed tiger-Oh my). Either way, the hike is ruined along with your underwear and you are now faced with a decision. Is it Bambi or is it a bear? Do I need to run or not. What you are experiencing is called a stressor.
At the same time we are hearing the rustle in the bushes a complex hormonal cascade begins within the body, and the adrenal glands begin to secrete cortisol and adrenalin. The cortisol prepares the body for the fight-or-flight response by flooding the blood with glucose (immediate energy), and inhibits insulin production in an attempt to prevent glucose from being reduced in the blood. The cortisol also shrinks the blood vessels (increasing blood pressure) and the adrenalin increases the heart rate and respiration. We are now ready to run! But suddenly out runs Bambi, who sees you, freaks out, and has their own fight or flight response and runs off back into the woods. You then utter a sigh of relief and whatever flows off your tongue and your body stops the cortisol, releases norepinephrine (sort of an anti-adrenal hormone) and returns your systems to normal.
That’s how your body works. The problem is that work related (or life related) stress keeps the cortisol flood gates open. So your blood pressure is always up, your heart rate always elevated and you’re essentially always running away from the bear. Eventually your body experiences blood sugar level imbalances (leading to diabetes), lower thyroid function (leading to weight gain), adrenal fatigue (leading to sleep disturbances, impaired cognitive function, lower immune system and slower wound healing) lower testosterone levels (leading to decreased muscle mass, lower bone density and slower recovery rates) and increased belly fat storage!
Yep, stress causes more abdominal fat, and this has a stronger correlation to certain health problems than fat deposited in other areas of the body. Some of the health problems associated with increased stomach fat are heart attacks, strokes, higher levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and lower levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL), which can lead to other health problems.
But let’s give cortisol a little credit where it’s due. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is responsible for a wide range of processes within the body including immune responses, the regulation of metabolism, and acting as an anti-inflammatory! That’s right, it actually increases as we sleep and should be highest when we wake up! Crazy huh? But without the release of adrenalin, cortisol helps the liver make new glucose (called gluconeogenesis) so that we wake up in the morning all bright eyed and busy tailed and ready for the day! It’s also produced in exercise to give us a little more energy to get the workout done. And that’s ok, the increase in energy substrates (stuff that gives us energy) is used by the muscles for exercise.
So, the balance of cortisol levels that are present within the body at any one time is extremely important for our overall health. Having too much or too little cortisol in your system can cause a number of issues that range from minor to serious. The effects of having too much cortisol in the body, because we cannot shut stress off, can include rapid weight gain (especially belly fat), high blood pressure, muscle weakness, and severe mood swings that manifest in anxiety and depression. On the other hand, individuals who possess an extremely low amount of cortisol are susceptible to experiencing problems such as dizziness, fatigue, and muscle loss.
Under normal circumstances, cortisol levels will fluctuate throughout the day and night in a rhythm called a circadian or bio-rhythm that peaks at our normal waking time and reaches its lowest around 4 AM. So in a normal body we should see high levels of cortisol in the morning which gradually falls off as the day and night go on. Unfortunately, in our current high-stress culture, the stress response is always activated so the body does not a have a chance to return to normal. This can lead to health problems resulting from too much circulating cortisol and/or from too little cortisol if the adrenal glands become chronically fatigued (adrenal fatigue).
So, the stress hormone, when it is unable to switch off causes problems with our health, but also does something very interesting. It triggers the body to store more fat, especially around the belly area. That’s because the increase in blood sugar (gluconeogenesis) triggers the production of insulin and other things which in turn triggers the fat cell to store more fat, especially in the belly.
What this means to you is simple. When it comes to shedding stubborn belly fat, exercise alone is not the only answer. The key really lies with controlling your stress, monitoring what you eat, and perhaps more importantly when you eat, and then choosing the right type of exercise to engage in.
So, how do we lower our cortisol levels when we are under chronic stress? Research shows that drinking black tea reduces cortisol by 47%. Interestingly, exercise (which increases cortisol) also lowers it too! Exercise does this in two ways. First, it teaches the body to use cortisol to its advantage by burning more sugar in the muscles. That means it takes far more cortisol to cause the negative effects than if you were sedentary. Second research finds that exercise reduces stress and lowers inflammation. It works much the same as sitting and meditating which has been found to reduce stress by more than 20%.
Music by far is one of the best stress reducers with some studies finding a reduction of as much as 66%. I suspect if you exercised and listened to music that would be enhanced. Also, prayer has been found to reduce cortisol and stress by 25%, and to reduce your chance of depression by over 70%.
When and what you eat is vital in weight loss because you need to reset your insulin resistance and avoid foods that promote weight gain and inflammation. Eating shortly before you go to sleep for instance increases your fat absorption and chances of weight gain. Basically, your body needs time to reset, detoxify itself and handle repair and inflammation from the day. Eating before you go to bed interferes with this process. You should allow at least 12 hours between your last meal at night and your first meal of the day to deplete your glycogen stores and start shifting into fat burning mode. That means if you eat breakfast at 7am your last meal should end at 7pm.
It's important to realize that the benefits of reducing belly fat (called visceral fat) go far beyond aesthetics. Abdominal fat—the visceral fat that deposits around your internal organs—releases proteins and hormones that can cause inflammation, which in turn can damage arteries and enter your liver, affecting how your body breaks down sugars and fats.
The chronic inflammation associated with visceral fat accumulation (fat around the organs) can trigger a wide range of systemic diseases linked with metabolic syndrome.
This is why carrying extra weight around your middle is linked to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and other chronic diseases, and why measuring your body fat and your waist-to-hip ratio is actually a better indicator of your health status than the body mass index (BMI) used by your medical office.
Obviously stress management has an important part in controlling your cortisol levels and needs to be addressed if you are chronically stressed. If you don’t address these factors the cortisol will eventually lead to adrenal fatigue and thyroid dysfunction which will interfere with the conversion of T4 to T3.
So what is the solution? First you need to make sure you are sleeping at least 7 hours a night. If not then you cannot recover or combat the necessary physiological factors that are addressed by a good night’s sleep. Next, if you drink alcohol then know that excess alcohol can cause issues with cortisol and stress. Some alcohol is better than others, beer and grain alcohol tend to be the worst, while red wine is healthier because it can lower cortisol levels.
Next, you need to exercise. But not just any exercise. The best form of exercise is called HIIT or high intensity interval training which has been found to have the best results with cortisol control and weight loss. One study found that whole body vibration training such as offered at Revibe Fitness & Wellness actually targets the reduction of belly fat because of its direct effect on cortisol.
HIIT training also increases testosterone which not only reduces cortisol but also encourages the gain of fat burning muscle and the increase of bone density, something walking and other cardiovascular programs cannot achieve.
Finally, we know that systemic inflammation, causes elevated cortisol levels. If we can naturally decrease inflammation in the body and minimize stress, decreased cortisol levels should follow, resulting in decreased chronic disease risk and improved wellness. The biochemical processes leading to and preventing inflammation are complex and multi-faceted, but we do know that diet plays a major role in inflammation and that this inflammation plays a major role in disease.
Fructose, primarily in the form of high fructose corn syrup hidden in processed foods and beverages is the primary contributing factor to widespread and seemingly out-of-control obesity. The top offenders in this category include: grain-based desserts (cakes, cookies, donuts, pies, crisps, cobblers, and granola bars), breads, breakfast cereals, prepackaged and processed lunches, sodas (including energy and sports drinks), prepackaged juices, coffee drinks and fast food. This is only a partial list, however we can easily add baby formulas, enhanced water drinks (vitamin water), dried fruits and most “diet” foods and snacks to that list too.
Obviously, maximizing our intake of anti-inflammatory foods and minimizing the pro-inflammatory ones are the best step towards controlling inflammation. As such we should follow a low sugar, low fructose diet, eliminate as many processed foods as possible including wheat based foods, soda and fast foods. Eating more grass fed and wild caught meat along with more vegetables is the key. We can reverse the effects of long-term stress and regain our health. By combining good nutrition, productive exercise, reducing stress and identifying any nutritional shortcomings, we can quickly change our body and change our lives. So laugh, pray, exercise and listen to music. And remember, fitness is not a goal, it is a by-product of a life well lived.