Allow me to paint a picture. You’ve decided “summer is coming” and “summer bodies are made in winter”, so you’ve been working out 5 or 6 days a week. You have thrown out all of the temptations in the pantry and swapped them for salads. You step on the scale after a few weeks, expecting a dramatic change, only to see that not much has happened. I can hear your reaction, “what the…”?! There may be one culprit at work here, I call it the “anti-weight-loss” hormone: Cortisol.
A busy lifestyle creates stress, this is something that we are all familiar with. It takes a very special effort to maintain calm in the chaos of life. Add to your “normal” work-family-life chaos the demands of a high intensity interval training program, and a calorie-controlled eating plan, and you may be totally overwhelming your body.
How Does Cortisol Work?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone. It is responsible for a variety of processes within the body. These include regulation of your metabolism and the immune response, and acting as an anti-inflammatory. Cortisol also plays a vital role in regulating how our bodies respond to stress.
The level of cortisol in our body at any time can play an important role in overall health. Too much cortisol can lead to rapid weight gain, elevated blood pressure, mood swings, and even muscle weakness. Too little cortisol on the other hand can lead to dizziness, fatigue, weight loss and a strange darkening of the skin in certain areas. Luckily our bodies have a regulation system in place for cortisol balance, and will make sure we have the right amount for the right time of day. We tend to have a higher amount of cortisol in the blood when we wake up in the morning, which then tapers off as the day goes on.
If, however, we have a high amount of stress in our day-to-day lives, cortisol levels can stay elevated chronically. When this happens, it is VERY difficult to balance your blood sugar, as well as to lose fat tissue. This is where a very busy, stressful lifestyle plus a high intensity exercise program may in fact not be helping you achieve your weight-loss goals. Please note: moderate exercise daily can really help to lower stress and cortisol levels. So what I’m talking about now is when you ramp up your training to far higher levels than you are used to.
Keep Cortisol Levels Balanced
1. Get a good nights sleep, every night.
Sleep helps with everything. In this case, deep, quality sleep helps to clear the excess cortisol in our bloodstream, bringing us back down to a healthy baseline level. Aim for a consistent sleep pattern i.e. go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, and for 6 – 8 hours every night.
2. Get regular exercise
A regular exercise pattern including moderate intensity exercise for 30 – 45 mins, 5 days weekly is great at keeping stress and cortisol levels under control.
3. Include some form of yoga and meditation, regularly
Both yoga and meditation have been clinically proven to lower cortisol levels. Ideally take at least 10 minutes every day simply to do some deep breathing/ meditation/ prayer to help decrease your cortisol levels.
4. Watch your caffeine intake
High amounts of caffeine can spike cortisol levels. You may want to cut back on the caffeine when your stress levels are running particularly high. If, however, you are a regular “balanced” coffee drinker, say 1 – 2 cups daily, then you are likely not going to experience this same spike. Moderation is key.
Can Supplements Help?
Always make Diet and Lifestyle changes first. Always. First Ppt the above recommendations into practice as best you can. Then, if the weight still seems to be hanging on for dear life, there are some nutrients to support you.
1. Rhodiola Rosea
Rhodiola is an adaptogenic herb, meaning it strives to bring balance back to the body’s natural rhythms. Primarily, rhodiola helps to reduce fatigue, stress, inflammation, and depression. The recommended dose is between 280 – 680mg daily*.
Phosphatidylserine is a compound naturally present in brain tissue, but has been shown to naturally decrease with age. This compound helps to improve memory as well as lower cortisol levels due to its calming effect on the brain. You can get phosphtidylserine from certain foods but further benefits would be shown through supplementation.
The recommended dose is 100mg daily, taken up to 3 x daily*.
Ashwagandha is another adaptogen, supplemented primarily for its anti-anxiety benefits. Beyond the benefits for insomnia and stress-induced depression, ashwagandha has also been shown to significantly reduce cortisol concentrations and support the immune system through periods of stress. The recommended, and most cost-effective, dose is 300 – 500mg daily, but you can take up to 6000mg daily*.
Other notable supplements for soothing the effects of stress on the body are vitamin C, Omega 3 fish oils and vitamin D. However, the above 3 nutrients specifically target cortisol levels.
Cortisol may just be the secret agent working against you to prevent you achieving your weight loss goals. If you have a highly chaotic lifestyle and are now trying to throw high levels of exercise into the mix, your body will need some support to keep cortisol at bay. In balancing your cortisol, the weight loss should finally kick in.
*Consult your Doctor if you are on any specific medications, to make sure that the supplements you take will be suitable for you.