Generally speaking, people understand that there is a connection between stress and weight loss. We understand that when we’re stressed we don’t always make the best food choices. We understand that we’re more likely to overeat or overindulge when we’re under stress. We understand that personal, professional and financial stress can make us choose to put less emphasis on our health and more emphasis on our struggles. But the connection between stress and weight loss goes much deeper than that. It is more than an emotional connection. There is a real, physical, physiological connection between stress and weight loss. And sure, we can’t eliminate stress from our lives, but once we understand what stress is doing to our weight loss attempts and our overall health, we might be much more motivated to find healthier, more productive ways of dealing with said stress.

Cortisol is a hormone released in response to physical, emotional or mental stress. Here’s how it relates to our weight loss – elevated cortisol levels tell the body that there’s immimnent danger – the body responds by PREVENING fat burning – turning off all fat burning machinery – because it wants to reserve all fuel in case of an emergency. Your body is programmed to survive. If it perceives a threat (elevated insulin indicates a threat, elevated cortisol indicates a threat), it will conserve all energy and stop non-esssential processes. This means holding on to stored body fat and not letting it be used for energy. That’s the short version of the story for you CliffNotes folks. 🙂

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by our adrenal glands. Its role is to help our body conserve energy and stop non-essential processes in times of extreme physical or emotional stress. Most people focus exclusively on the negative impacts of cortisol but it’s important to note that cortisol can either work for us – keeping us healthy and lean – or against us, accelerating fat storage, breaking down lean tissue, triggering hunger, suppressing the immune system and more. The great news is this: much of what determines whether cortisol is working for or against us is based on our diet and lifestyle choices.

Our stress response was designed to protect us from danger and help ensure our survival. Unfortunately, we were designed to only withstand short bursts of stress (like being chased by a tiger). Our stress response was designed to trigger sensations of urgency and alarm while increasing blood flow to help us outrun said tiger, and live. However, the standard American lifestyle of chronic, prolonged stress leads to a metabolic nightmare where those systems in place to protect us work to keep us fat, hungry and anxious.

When functioning as intended, our stress response can actually help us to burn fat faster. That’s why high intensity interval type exercise (HIIT) is so effective for fat loss. It engages this short-burst stress response that accelerates fat release and burning while preventing fat storage. When cortisol levels are chronically high it does the opposite of what it’s intended to do – it ramps up fat storage and slows down fat release and burning.

A second stress hormone, neuropeptide Y, is also released in response to chronic stress. Neuropeptide Y decreases your overall metabolic rate, increases the rate of fat storage, especially in and around the abdomen, and triggers hunger and cravings for high sugar and high fat foods. This is a particularly dangerous situation when you consider some of the other effects of chronically elevated cortisol: it depletes serotonin, contributing to feelings of sadness and anxiety and blocks the messages sent by leptin, preventing your brain from letting your body know that you’ve had enough to eat and triggering feelings of satiety (fullness).

Cortisol also works differently depending on what other hormones are hanging around. If cortisol is high when insulin is high you can kiss your fat loss goodbye. This is why it’s best to avoid carbohydrates in the morning because you’ll spike insulin at the time of day when cortisol is at it’s highest (it naturally peaks around 7am). Combining high insulin levels with high cortisol levels turns fat release and burning OFF while turning fat storage on high.

On the other hand, when cortisol is elevated in the presence of adrenaline and human growth hormone (and insulin is not around!) then you’ve got a great environment for fat release and burning. So how do we create this environment?

  • Avoid processed foods, wheat and grains to keep insulin low.
  • Minimize stress to avoid prolonged high cortisol levels
  • Engage in high intensity, short duration exercise to create the environment of elevated cortisol with human growth hormone and adrenaline.

A few other things worth mentioning as they relate to managing cortisol:

  • Get enough sleep. You need to work towards 8-9 hours each night
  • Don’t go overboard with caffeine. This elevates cortisol.
  • Engage in relaxing activity each day. Try leisure walking, meditation, naps or sex.

Managing cortisol can have a massive impact on the success or failure of your fat loss efforts. Remember that none of these hormones work in isolation. If any one of your metabolic hormones are out of whack, the entire communication network is in jeopardy.

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