Stress is a normal part of life but too much can be detrimental to your health and contribute to excess body fat. One hormone that is influenced by stress levels is Cortisol. Without getting into the gritty physiological details, here’s a brief overview of how cortisol regulation works in your body:
What is cortisol exactly?
Cortisol is the chemical that is in charge of your body’s stress response. Think of it like the stress response Sergeant. When your body is under stress, a whole bunch of chemical reactions happen to tell your adrenal cortex to release Cortisol.
What is Cortisol’s job?
When your body is under stress, Cortisol makes sure that you have enough energy by:
- Increasing blood sugar (via gluconeogenesis of oxaloacetate)
- Increasing glycogen stores in the liver
Cortisol also helps manage sodium and potassium levels in cells
- Weakens your immune system by blocking T-cell function
- Dampens inflammatory response by decreasing histamine release
- Excess Cortisol can cause memory loss by damaging the hippocampus region of your brain
Daily Hormone Cycle – First, it is important to recognize that cortisol has natural fluctuations throughout the day. It is highest during the morning, about 30 min after waking up and lowest in the evening.
Cortisol is not all bad. In the short term, increased cortisol levels promote energy release to help us meet the demands of the day. However, if cortisol levels remain too high for an extended period of time, it can have detrimental effects.
According to the model of reward based stress eating (Adam & Epel, 2007) the high cortisol level that result from prolonged exposure to stress has direct and indirect effects on the reward system. Greater sensitization of the reward system can lead to excessive intake of really delicious food (usually things that aren’t good for us but taste good). It is this combination of high cortisol, dense calories, and high insulin that results in fat storage.
Now the fun part! How can you lower your cortisol levels?
- Get enough sleep
- Sleep in on weekends
- Avoid working out in the morning when cortisol levels are highest (working out is a stressor too so this will just increase your cortisol levels more!)
- Find time for relaxation
- Reduce chronic worry
- Laugh often!
Adam, T. C. & Epel, E. S. (2007). Stress, eating, and the reward system. Physiology and Behavior, 91, 449-458.