Coping with cortisol
Winter break starting to feel like ancient history? Work beginning to pile up? How about those stress levels? In our recent blogs, we’ve talked about how sleep, diet trends and alcohol can impact your training goals – but does stress play a part, or is it just a side effect of other factors?
We wanted answers. So, we researched the facts and figures – and the numbers may surprise you – but before we dive straight in, let’s look at exactly what stress means physiologically.
In Psychology Today, Melanie Greenberg explains:
“When your brain detects the presence of a threat … it triggers the release of a cascade of chemicals, including adrenaline, corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), and cortisol. Your brain and body prepare to handle the threat by making you feel alert, ready for action and able to withstand an injury.”
The immediate response, known as the ‘acute stress response’ , materializes in the rush of an adrenaline spike. Suddenly, you feel like you’ve necked a triple-shot espresso. Now is no time to be eating and your body reacts accordingly – you feel less hungry. However, sooner or later, one way or another, threats pass and the chemicals sway in the opposite direction:
This signal and your response to it are, essentially, where the term ‘comfort eating’ comes from. Your ability to cope with being pushed down by all this cortisol into a downward spiral, taking your willpower with it, and the response is often over-eating.
The spiral, sadly, does not stop there:
“Unfortunately, excess cortisol also slows down your metabolism, because your body wants to maintain an adequate supply of glucose.”
In short, not only are you eating more than you should, but your body is not processing the food at its usual rate.
Primal responses are hard to fight, and modern stresses are dramatically different to those of our ancestors:
“In the days when our ancestors were fighting off tigers and famine, their bodies adapted by learning to store fat supplies for the long haul. The unfortunate result for you and me is that when we are chronically stressed by life crises and work-life demands, we are prone to getting an extra layer of ‘visceral fat’ deep in our bellies.”
(Side-note: this phenomenon will be of particular interest to anyone who is a practitioner of intermittent fasting. Find out more on that in our diet trends blog!)
Of course, stress isn’t the same for everyone. Neither is how our bodies react to it. In fact, according to Jim and Marilyn Folk,
“It’s not uncommon to lose 10 to 15 percent of your overall body weight due to persistently elevated stress and anxiety.”
Why is that, you ask?
Ups and Downs
Last year, a survey of 2,000 adults in Britain found that 85% of people experience “a clearly recognisable level of worry regularly” and over a third of British residents feel stressed “for at least one full day per week.”
That’s a lot of people whose bodies may be working against their diet plans. Healthline’s Natalie Silver summarizes that “In some cases, stress may lead to missed meals and poor food choices. For others, stress may cause them to completely lose the desire to eat.” This is often explained by your instinctual response to anxiety.
Human beings respond to anxiety in very practical and literal ways: ‘fight or flight’ is the most prevalent binary. Our responses are based on hindsight and habit – has something bad/dangerous/uncomfortable happened this way before? Hit back first or run away, and maybe this time you can avoid the awfulness.
This is a finding focused on the mind, but we also want to understand the matter. One issue is, however, that numerous research studies on the body’s response to stress are focused on either weight loss or weight gain – rarely both:
“Mixed findings on work stress and BMI may reflect a failure to take into account the possibility that stress may cause some people to eat more, but others to eat less.”
Thankfully, one study, published in The International Journal of Obesity in 2006, hypothesised a possible indicator:
“Work stress, as indicated by job strain and low job control, increases the likelihood of weight gain among men with a higher BMI, but seems to predict weight loss among lean men who have no need for weight reduction.”
Logically, the heavy get heavier as they are more accustomed to over-eating, and the lean get leaner – but unhealthily so.
Even if you’re under-eating, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee feeling thinner:
“Stress affects your vagus nerve, which affects how your body digests, absorbs, and metabolizes food. This disruption may result in unwanted inflammation.”
Equally, this inflammation could be a more comprehensible response to over-eating. Remember, it’s not just the physical quantity of food, but the quantity of calories you’re putting in that will have the biggest impact on your waistline:
“Overeating or eating unhealthy foods in response to stress or as a way to calm down is a very common response. In the most recent American Psychology Association’s ‘Stress in America’ survey, a whopping 40% of respondents reported dealing with stress in this way.”
The solution’s simple, right? Just manage the calories and hit the gym?
Not so fast. We’ve only just scratched the surface…
If fat could talk
Yes, cortisol affects your willpower and hunger levels, but it also does something particularly troublesome for dieters, as Christopher Bergland explains:
“Cortisol triggers excessive abdominal fat deposits in both men and women. […] The secretion of cortisol was associated with both chronic stress and an increase of abdominal ‘belly fat.’”
Back when we assessed the impact of alcohol on bodyweight, this same physical response appeared, particularly in men. In light of this link between cortisol and fat around the midriff, perhaps stress is also a contributor to the ‘dad-bod’ build?
Similarly, as we have frequently discovered in our research, hormone imbalances have an important role to play in the stress-fat balance:
“Researchers from the University of Florida recently discovered that chronic stress stimulates the production of a peptide hormone called betatrophin, which inhibits an enzyme required for fat metabolism.”
Just so we’re clear…
- Stress induces a rise in cortisol and betatrophin.
- Cortisol triggers fat deposits, particularly around the belly
- Betatrophin inhibits the body’s ability to metabolise that fat
- Most likely, that causes a bit of stress, and the cycle repeats…
Part of that cycle is to do with how fat communicates with your brain – yes, seriously:
“[In 2015], a team of researchers discovered that body fat can send signals that affect how the brain handles both stress and metabolism. The feedback loop between body fat and stress is a two-way street that can create a vicious cycle.”
Once you enter the spiral, it may sound impossible to escape. But we don’t believe in unwinnable training and nutrition goals, which means we can’t accept this being the end of the road. Therefore, we’ve compiled some approaches you could try which may help you break the cycle.
Greenberg’s suggestion is ‘mindful eating’, whereby you pay more attention to the act of eating, savouring each bite in a more engaged manner:
“You learn to slow down and tune in to your sensory experience of the food, including its sight, texture or smell. You also learn to tune into your subjective feelings of hunger or fullness, rather than eating just because it’s a mealtime or because there is food in front of you.”
This is a two-pronged approach, as you’re not only ‘treating’ the symptom of food intake, but also learning a core mechanism which could be adapted to handle the underlying issue of stress itself.
Validating this plan of attack, Dr. Elissa Epel – one of the original researches who identified the link between cortisol and belly fat – analysed the effects of mindfulness meditation on lowering cortisol and as a result, reducing body fat. Her findings were promising, essentially providing evidence that by treating the root of the problem, stress itself, you are more likely to reap the physical rewards as well as the mental ones.
In addition, Silver suggests watching out for the food vices, so that over-eating is at least done with healthy nutrients:
“Skipping sweets and other treats in favour of something healthy can have a noticeable impact on the way your body feels. A good rule of thumb is to stick to whole foods.”
Hopefully, this method will trick your insides into managing stress and hormone levels in a better way, which should come back around to benefit the outside, too.
The bottom line
A healthy nutrition plan is always best complemented by a structured exercise programme. Bergland lists it along with mindfulness and meditation as his “effective triad for minimizing stress and improving your ability to successfully lose weight.”
Stress can make itself known physically before you even realise it’s an issue. Sometimes it’s symptoms of anxiety; for others, excessive tiredness or oversleeping – which we’ve already learnt is problematic; and in certain cases, gastro-intestinal problems occur. Perhaps it’s none of those things and something unique to you happens, or maybe it’s a combination of everything. But personal trainer and nutritionist, Tom Morgan, has identified a common trend:
“People often find treatment methods for the emotional and internal stress symptoms, but it can have a drastic impact on posture and flexibility – which, in turn, will only hinder matters more by affecting your sleep and ability to train effectively.”
One of Morgan’s more unique answers is your cheeks… Brace yourself.
“Hip flexor tightness often hides as ‘back pain’, which people with stress frequently suffer from,”
“Working on your flexibility through stretching your hamstrings and hip flexors, along with strengthening your glutes at the same time can alleviate joint pain and postural issues very effectively. You’d be amazed how many clients find this physical improvement a major contender in their battle against stress.”
The beauty of making time to stretch is that it can be done at home and it can be doubled up with a mindfulness session (let’s call it DIY yoga for beginners). Maybe that combination will work for you, maybe there’s a better tactic you will find. Just remember, your brain and body cope with stress in an entirely unique way. So, take the time to explore different options and stress management solutions.
Stress might not leave physical marks, but when you find your personal way to overcome it and achieve your weight loss goals, the end result will be all the more worth it!