The Skinny on Hormones
Excess fat storage is governed by caloric intake vs. expenditure, and hormones. Everyone thinks of the former when trying to lose fat, but the latter is just as--if not MORE--important. If your hormones are out of balance, all the calorie counting in the world isn't going to get you where you want to be.
Hormones serve as messengers, passing valuable information back and forth between our cells throughout the day and night. Hormone levels are never static--they ebb and flow depending on what's going on with your body. It's a question of less and more. Problems arise when hormone levels are out of balance, and a big one pertaining to fat storage and release is...
Cortisol is the hormone that your body releases when under stress. If you Google it, you will find myriad links along the lines of 'cortisol is of the devil and will make you fat, impotent and will ultimately kill you.' Maybe a little dramatic, but really, the anti-cortisol 'literature' out there is enough to make you think it's all bad and no good, and that's just not true. When your body is under threat, it is cortisol that works to control inflammation and release your body's energy stores (sugar and fat) to respond to the threat.
That's right--under the right circumstances, cortisol stimulates fat burning. You want your cortisol levels to be elevated when you're exercising, for example. It works with other fat burning hormones in this environment to release glucose and fat for energy. When cortisol is acting in concert with these other hormones (called 'catecholamines'--adrenaline and noradrenaline, and growth hormone), cortisol is your fat-burning friend.
The problem occurs when your cortisol levels remain high, or are chronically low.
Cortisol levels that are chronically high or low can interfere with your thyroid in various ways that blunt the use of fat as fuel, as well as how it interacts with other hormones like leptin and insulin. How the various hormones socialize is key, and the type of stress that is stimulating cortisol's production.
Acute vs. Chronic
Not all stress is bad. We talk about stress as if it's something to be avoided at all costs, but really, you need stress to get things done. Acute stress, like a deadline or a last-minute change of plans, can stimulate creativity and productivity. During these acute events, cortisol works in conjunction with catecholamines to release energy stores. Then, when acute stress has abated, those hormones recede.
What's more difficult is when stress is chronic--dealing with an ongoing situation day in and day out that causes elevated stress hormone levels is where the trouble starts. Imbalanced hormones resulting from chronic stress can affect you in the following ways:
- Blunting your body's sense of hunger and satiety--you feel hunger when you really don't need food, and you're less likely to feel satisfied after eating, prompting you to eat more.
- Increased cravings for fatty/salty/sweet foods
- Increased likelihood of fat storage, especially in your middle. And the crazy thing about belly fat is that more cortisol is produced in the belly fat itself, not just in the adrenal glands. So the more belly fat you have, the more elevated your cortisol levels will become.
And again, not all chronic stress circumstances are bad--I'd categorize adjusting to parenthood (with all it's challenges and sleepless nights) as a chronic stress event. Yes, we all love the blessed little nuggets, but living with them is stressful. Limit stress where you can, but chronic stress happens. We can't avoid it entirely, so the key is learning to cope with it.
One of the best ways to balance stress hormones is through rest--and I know, this is the sticky wicket, especially when we're talking to mothers. Sleep is very hard to come by with small children, and since I struggle with sleep even when no one is in my way, it's honestly a little painful to write about this. But we need rest. We need to prioritize rest and sleep. So, more of this:
I know even for good sleepers, getting to bed is tough. Evenings are often the only time we have to get things done or have time for ourselves, but start thinking of rest and sleep as one of the most important things you'll do today. Turn off whatever guilty pleasure is on TV and go to bed. If you're up too late right now reading A Mom Walks Into A Barre, please just shut me off. I'll still be here in the morning. Night night!
But rest is not just sleep. Many other rest-based activities can lower increased cortisol levels. Sex, cuddling, skin-on-skin contact reduces cortisol levels, so go snuggle with someone appropriate. Studies have shown people with pets have lower stress levels, so get a dog. If that's not an option, get a massage or a foam roller. Laugh with a friend. Be with your people. It's all so good for you.
Exercising for Stress Management
You knew I was going to tell you to exercise, right? But if your stress levels are high, how and how much you workout is important. In some cases, exercise can backfire. Good workouts for stress reduction include:
- Short, intense workouts. Really, just 10-15 minutes can do the trick. This produces the beneficial effects of acute stress. However, intense workouts should be short. Exercising at high-intensity for a longer period of time can have the opposite effect. It can stimulate intense hunger and increase cravings. Play around and see what works. Just remember that more isn't always better. Sometimes it's just... more.
- Slower, low-intesity workouts. You don't need to be out of breath and sweating profusely to reap the benefits of exercise. A leisurely walk, especially if it's outside, is very beneficial for lowering stress. Gentle yoga, dancing and stretching are very useful.
- Avoid stimulants like caffeine and sugar. Doh! I know. You're sleep deprived and coffee is what's getting you through the day (am I projecting maybe?) Having a coffee in the morning is fine, but chain-drinking caffeinated beverages or sugary snacks will only exacerbate the problem. Sorry. So, less of this:
- Don't drastically cut calories. Living in a state of significant caloric deficit elevates cortisol, so don't get too gung-ho with the dieting. I could go on a nice spicy rant on this one and someday I will, but for now just focus on consuming high-quality calories, lots of fruits and veg, etc. More of these:
- Eat some quality carbohydrates! Carbs are your body's primary fuel source. Your body burns carbs first, then fat, which is why some advocate an extremely low carbohydrate diet. But eliminating them completely.... guess what? Elevates cortisol. So have a nice sweet potato, a bowl of quinoa, whatever non-processed carbs light you up.
The last thing I'll say about cortisol imbalance is that the whole thing is highly individual. These lifestyle factors impact people differently. Novices to exercise will experience more elevated cortisol levels than experienced exercisers, individuals will respond differently to stimulants, dietary changes, etc. Paying attention to your hunger and energy levels and food cravings can give you insight as to whether or not your stress hormones are in balance. And please, get some rest. Even if you can't sleep, rest, breathe, hug, love. Do lots more of stuff like this:
Sometimes that's the best thing you can do... for more reasons than just your middle.