Is Cortisol Causing You To Gain Weight?

August 3, 2015

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Imagine you are standing in a forest. In front of you is an angry brown bear. He flares his nostrils, roars, and looks… right… into…your…eyes. Your heart starts pumping faster, your mind races. What do you do? Do you run? Do you wait to see if he’ll charge? Or do you think about eating pizza?  The answer to that last question is undoubtedly no, you do not think about eating pizza. You’re thinking about how you are going to make it out of that forest in one piece!

Now imagine you’re in your office. Your boss is waiting for a presentation you were supposed to have delivered the day before. Your kid’s school is calling because Tommy’s class has lice and you need to pick him up. The credit card company sends you an email reminding you that payment is due. Your heart starts pumping faster, your mind races. And these types of things seem to happen every day. Do you run away? Do you take it all on at once? Or do you think about eating pizza? In this case, the thought of pizza has a pretty good chance of making into your brain. And if that happens, there’s also a good chance you’ll be putting on some unwanted weight due to an excess of the hormone called cortisol.

Okay, let’s back up for a moment. In order to understand how cortisol can lead to weight gain, let’s break down the forest and office scenarios. They both describe very stressful situations, but with two major differences.

The first difference is in the type of stress experienced. The bear encounter involves what we call “acute stress.” This is a distinct, often life-threatening event that invokes the primal “fight or flight” response.  It is designed to help you save your life. On the other hand, the office situation describes something called “chronic stress.” Chronic stress has the exact opposite effect of acute stress by contributing to a host of health issues, especially excess weight in the form of fat.

Okay, now back to cortisol, which is the second major difference between the two scenarios because it responds differently under times of acute and chronic stress.

Cortisol is a naturally produced hormone that has many functions, but primarily helps regulate blood pressure, cardiovascular functions, and helps the body convert fats, proteins, and carbs into energy. It is released at times when your body recognizes that you need the extra energy, like under acute stress (thus helping you fight or run away from that bear, most likely the latter!). It also moderately spikes when you wake up in the morning and while you exercise. During these times, cortisol works to force blood to pump harder and faster throughout your body. After the event ends (or stressor is removed), cortisol and blood pressure levels return to normal.

But under chronic stress, it’s almost as if your body believes that the bear is staring you down all day long. In response to this constant perceived threat of danger, your body responds the best way it knows how. It produces more cortisol because it thinks you’ll need that energy to deal with the “bear.” However, the constant increase in cortisol production actually does you more harm than good because it throws your total hormonal balance out of whack. In other words, chronic stress uses a hormone that was originally designed to help you survive in times of acute stress to actually wreck your health, usually in the form of its partner in crime – obesity. Let’s take a look at how this works…

First, increased levels of cortisol in and of itself will promote weight gain. It does this because it wants your body to hold onto every single ounce of fat it might potentially need to turn into energy as long as that “bear” holds you hostage. Second, under normal conditions, increased cortisol often results in increased appetite. But if you are under chronic stress, the increased production of cortisol can lead to what seems like never ending hunger cravings. If indulged, like eating that pizza, this often results in weight gain. To add insult to injury, the weight caused by a cortisol imbalance is normally put on in the abdominal area as fat because that area has a high number of cortisol receptors. Fat in this area is particularly threatening to your health because of its strong link to heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular conditions.

And the bad news doesn’t stop there! Abdominal fat actually has a special talent for producing a type of cortisol that is even more active in promoting weight gain. If you have ever heard the phrase “stubborn belly fat,” now you know the reason why it’s so hard to shed.

Because of the life-altering effects of cortisol imbalance, it is critical that you find a way to reduce or eliminate chronic stress from your life. If you think achieving that is difficult to do in our hectic modern society, you are not alone. However, you must find a way because your weight and health depend on it. It’s time for you to turn the tables on that “bear” once and for all.

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[…] body weight and fat pose serious risk to heart health. Belly fat is especially dangerous because it produces hormones and other substances that can disrupt blood vessel activities and clog arteries. If the arteries […]

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