What is Cortisol?
When your body is stressed (either physically or emotionally) it secretes cortisol. Cortisol is an important hormone in the body, secreted by the adrenal glands and part of the fight or flight response. Cortisol is in loved in glucose metabolism, regulation of blood pressure, insulin release for blood sugar maintenance, immune function and also inflammatory response.
Normally cortisol is present in the body at and increased levels during the morning and at its lowest at night. Although stress is not the only reason that cortisol is secreted into the bloodstream, it has been called the ‘stress hormone’ because it’s response to stress, and is responsible for several stress-related changes in the body. However, small increases of cortisol can have a positive effect on the body such as a quick burst of energy for survival reasons, heightened memory functions, a burst of increased immunity, a lower sensitivity to pain and also helps maintain homeostasis in the body
Whilst cortisol is an important and helpful part of the body’s response to stress, it is also important for the body’s relaxation response to be activated so the body’s functions can return to normal following a stressful event. Unfortunately, in our current high-stress culture, the body’s stress response is activated so often that the body doesn’t always have a chance to return to normal, resulting in a state of chronic stress.
Prolonged levels of an increased release of cortisol in the blood stream have been shown to have quite severe and negative effects such as Suppressed thyroid function, impaired cognitive performance, hyperglycaemia, decreased bone density, decrease in muscle tissue, higher blood pressure, lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body, slowed wound healing, and other health consequences, increased abdominal fat, which is associated with a whole range of health issues within itself compared to fat deposited in other areas of the body.
How can prolonged levels of an increased release of cortisol affect your weight loss & over all?
The problem is we often deal with stress mentally, and never respond to stress with physical activity that would burn the extra energy provided by the cortisol surge. Whether your stress was emotional or physical, the stress response is identical, causing a spike in your appetite. This can cause a craving for comfort foods-foods high in fat and sugar.
As an increased release of cortisol over a prolonged period of time can result in deposition of fat in the abdominal region as cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy, and stimulates insulin release and maintenance of blood sugar levels. The end result of these actions can be an increase in appetite. The body also stores unused stress energy around the abdominal organs. Accumulation of this type of fat, known as visceral fat, is most damaging to health.
Several studies have demonstrated that women who stored their excess fat in the abdominal area had higher cortisol levels and reported more lifestyle stress than women who stored fat primarily in the hips. Increased abdominal fat distribution be associated with strokes, heart attacks, the development of metabolic syndrome, higher levels of LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and lower levels of HDL cholesterol (good), which can lead to other health problems.
To keep cortisol levels healthy and under control, the body’s relaxation response should be activated after the fight or flight response occurs. You can learn to relax your body with various stress management techniques, and you can make lifestyle changes in order to keep your body from reacting to stress in the first place. These include, exercise, journaling, yoga, sex, breathing exercises, mediation, listening to music etc.
Cortisol Secretion is also a result of genetics.
Cortisol secretion varies among individuals. People are biologically programed to react differently to stress. For example one person may secrete higher levels of cortisol than another in the same situation. Many studies have also shown that people who secrete higher levels of cortisol in response to stress also tend to eat more food, and food that is higher in carbohydrates than people who secrete less cortisol. If you’re more sensitive to stress, it’s especially important for you to learn stress management and maintain a low-stress lifesyle (as much as possible of course!).
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Epel, E et al 2000. Stress and body shape: stress-induced cortisol secretion is consistently greater among women with central fat, Psychosom Medicine, no. 62, vo. 5, pp.623-32.
Peeke ,P & Chrousos, GP 2005, Hypercortisolism and Obesity, New York Acadamy of Sciences, vol. 29, pp. 665-676.