Christina Dauer, Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator
In today’s fast-paced world, daily stress is unavoidable for most of us. Many of us just brush it off like it’s no big deal, but stress can take a serious toll on our health. Chronic stress can influence our weight, suppress our immune system, cause gastrointestinal problems and set the stage for cardiovascular disease. Stress management is particularly important if you are trying to lose weight. We often focus so intensely on counting calories and fitting in long workouts to drop pounds, but the weight loss roadblock of unmanaged stress is often left out of the picture.
The stress hormone cortisol plays a key role in the negative long-term impacts of stress. Cortisol is normally released from the adrenal glands located on the kidney in response to life events such as waking up in the morning, exercising and acute stress. Cortisol is a jack-of-all trades as it plays many roles in the body to help carry out normal processes. One role cortisol plays is to tell the body what nutrient to use for energy—carbohydrates, fat, or protein. However, cortisol is best known for its release after encountering a stressor, during the “fight or flight” response:
- Cortisol floods the bloodstream with glucose (a.k.a sugar), supplying energy for your muscles.
- Cortisol inhibits the production of insulin to prevent glucose from being stored instead of used for energy.
- Cortisol narrows the arteries, while its partner epinephrine increases heart rate, forcing your blood to pump harder and faster.
This “fight or flight” response is all fine and dandy–if you are being chased by someone and need to run away as fast as possible! The problem occurs when our stressed lives encourage the near constant release of cortisol, wreaking havoc on our health and weight.
Cortisol and Blood Sugar
Chronic elevation of cortisol consistently signals your liver to produce glucose, leading to increased blood sugar levels. Furthermore, a main function of cortisol is to block the action of insulin (the hormone that helps your cells take up glucose from your blood), rendering the cells “insulin-resistant”. Insulin resistance is an underlying problem in conditions such as prediabetes, diabetes and obesity.
Cortisol and Weight Management
Repeated elevation of cortisol can lead to weight gain. Cortisol can move triglycerides (a type of fat) from storage and relocate them to “visceral fat cells” (those located in your abdomen around your internal organs). In other words, elevated cortisol promotes increased belly fat! The blood sugar—insulin connection also contributes to total weight gain. Consistent high levels of unused glucose, along with increased insulin resistance promotes increased storage of body fat. High cortisol levels may also increase appetite resulting in increased food and calorie intake.
The Good News
The path towards stress-induced ill health can be reversed! The two best ways to prevent chronic stress from derailing your weight loss and health goals is to master stress management and optimize diet.
Reducing Inflammation through Diet
One of cortisol’s roles in the body is to combat inflammation. Therefore, systemic inflammation, whether it be from a poor quality diet, excessive alcohol intake, overweight/obesity or a sedentary lifestyle, elevates cortisol levels. To minimize inflammation, the following are recommended:
- A diet low in refined starches and grains, and rich in whole grain, high fiber foods.
- Elimination of trans-fat (found in most processed junk foods) and minimizing saturated fat intake.
- Alcohol consumption in moderation, if at all.
- Increase intake of whole plant foods to maximize intake of fiber and antioxidants—fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans[KA1] .
- Fatty fish such as salmon, rich in omega-3 fatty acids
- Regular exercise (this can also help with stress management!).
Some strategies for managing stress include:
- Getting enough good quality sleep (between 7.5-9 hours/night)
- Breathing exercises
- Regular exercise (cardio, flexibility and resistance training)
- Yoga and/or tai chi
- Journaling and/or reading
Stress management is often a team approach. A licensed psychologist or licensed social worker is an invaluable asset to your healthcare team and can assist with learning coping skills for managing stress.
Bottom Line: Following a high quality, anti-inflammatory diet and managing stress more effectively are two powerful ways to minimize inflammation, reduce the risk for chronic diseases and lose more weight!
Aronson, Dina MS, RD. Cortisol—Its Role in Stress, Inflammation and Indications for Diet Therapy. Today’s Dietitian. November 2009 Issue. Vol 11 No. 11 P. 38
Andrews RC1, Herlihy O, Livingstone DE, Andrew R, Walker BR. Abnormal cortisol metabolism and tissue sensitivity to cortisol in patients with glucose intolerance. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2002 Dec;87 (12):5587-93