Stress can be a short-term motivator, but undergoing chronic stress will cause your body to respond in different ways. Clients come to me when their lives are busy with demanding careers, children to look after and full workout schedules. But instead of seeing the results they want, they’re feeling low energy, full of food cravings and the scale is slowly creeping up. How does this happen? The answer is the connection between stress and cortisol and how that affects your body.
The Stress – Cortisol Connection
Historically, humans have experienced stress in different ways. For our ancestors, stress looked like fighting for their lives or hunting for meals. These stressors came in intense bursts that were short lived. It makes sense then, that our stress response has adapted to deliver a strong dose of cortisol quickly when we needed to use it up. The difference is that today our stressors are not life threatening. Modern stressors come in different forms that often go unnoticed:
- Skipping meals
- Staying up late (past 10:30 pm)
- Constant email and text notifications from our cell phones.
- Pressure to meet deadlines at work
- Financial concerns
- Intense workout classes
- Our kids’ (or our own) packed schedules
- Taking care of ill or aging loved ones
- Rush hour traffic
- Making presentations at work
- An alarm clock that goes off after only 5 hours of sleep
- The pressure to be perfect
Any of these sound familiar? The issue is that our bodies can’t tell the difference between a life-or-death lion attack and a pressing deadline at work. Leaving our bodies to respond the same way: by releasing cortisol (our key stress hormone) to help us deal with the situation at hand.
Cortisol – we don’t want too much or too little
Ideally, we want our levels of cortisol to be just right. Cortisol is beneficial in the short term because it gives us a quick boost in energy, focus, and strength. However, our high-stress lifestyles cause us to live in a state that triggers cortisol to be released on an ongoing basis, for weeks or months at a time.
What happens when cortisol is chronically elevated?
Ongoing high cortisol levels will throw off many things in our bodies. Blood sugar balance, sleep, mood, feelings of anxiety and even speed of wound healing can be negatively affected by high cortisol levels. With many functions in the body affected, it’s no wonder that cortisol plays a role in premature aging. None of these factors lead us to greater health or resilience long-term.
Cortisol and Weight Gain
Perhaps one of the most undesirable aspects of elevated cortisol is that it causes weight gain in the midsection. That’s because we have more cortisol receptors in our abdominal adipose tissue than in other areas of the body. So more cortisol = more belly fat! In addition, cortisol increases our blood sugar level temporarily, meant to provide quick energy to “fight-or-flight” our stressors. This rise is soon followed by a blood sugar drop, which leaves us feeling tired, hangry (hungry and angry), craving sugar, and causes more stress. This low blood sugar state makes it more difficult to make healthy choices. That’s why when you’re overtired and working hard, you find it harder to resist the doughnuts in the break room.
So you can see that stress plays a role in the body that also affects your nutritional choices. Both of which can lead to weight gain (depending on what you choose). So how to manage stress and make healthy food choices that will avoid the cortisol link to belly far?
What to Eat to Manage Cortisol
The good news is that we do have control over a number of the lifestyle factors that affect our cortisol levels. While we can’t control unpredictable stressful times, we can control what we eat everyday, how much sleep we get, and the relationship we have with our tech and our colleagues.
Here are some ways you can improve your nutrition to reduce elevated cortisol levels. Keeping your blood sugar level balanced throughout the day will keep your cortisol level in check.
Some tips to get started:
- Pair your protein with complex carbohydrates and healthy fats. Ideally having this combination of macronutrients several times per day will keep your blood sugar balanced and prevent an unnecessary stress response.
- Get enough protein, aim for 4-6oz per meal and 2-3oz per snack. Note: this is often less than you’d think when it comes to meat. The quality of protein you’re taking in matters. Animal proteins like meat, eggs, fish/seafood, and dairy, break down into amino acids, which your body can use directly to build neurotransmitters (feel good hormones) as well as muscle and tissues.
- Eat healthy fats like butter, coconut oil, avocado oil, avocadoes, olives, fish, and raw nuts/seeds. Fats are key for brain health and the health of your cells and tissues.
- Remove inflammatory foods like sugar, refined oils, alcohol, caffeine, and any food sensitivities from your diet. Watch out for the most common sensitives which are gluten and dairy.
- Sleep 8-9 hours per night, starting at 10 pm. Balancing your hormone (of which cortisol is one) requires your body to be at rest before midnight. Going to bed early (consistently) will help your body to rest, relax, and repair so you can be more resilient the next day. Eating a balanced snack 1 hour or more before bed will help keep your blood sugars stable through the night and keeps cortisol levels lower. If you eat a later dinner (say, 7 pm) you won’t need to have a snack before bed.
- Use magnesium as a stress busting mineral. Magnesium is known for helping your muscles and tissues relax. It also helps our bodies control blood sugar, reduce blood pressure, decrease anxiety, and sleep soundly. Incorporate 400-600mg of magnesium glycinate before bed will give you all these benefits and more. (More on magnesium for sleep here)
While the world will still throw stressors your way, when you’re doing your part to build stress resilience through your habits and nutrition choices, it’s easier to ward off high cortisol levels that lead to weight gain. For more ways to manage stress talk with a Holistic Nutritionist or Coach about how you can build stress resilience into your lifestyle.