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Hormones and Weight: Cortisol

Cortisol is one of the more commonly-referenced hormones related to weight regulation in the body, and rightfully so.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol, released in the adrenal glands just above the kidneys, is a steroid hormone. The “fight-or-flight” stress response stimulates the release of cortisol in the body.

How is it related to metabolic problems and weight?

Cortisol does many different things in the body. In times of stress, it triggers the release of additional glucose as a short-term energy source. This is handy during a quick burst of energy, but consistently elevated cortisol levels lead to consistently elevated blood glucose; this increases the risk of developing insulin resistance and diabetes.

Chronically high cortisol levels also promote visceral fat storage. Visceral fat is a type of fat deposited around organ tissue and elevated levels of it are linked to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Appetite is impacted by cortisol levels as well. Other hormones like neuropeptide Y (we’ll cover that one another week), which increase food cravings, are triggered by cortisol.

Why is excess cortisol a problem for many people?

Cortisol is meant to be a short-term solution to a stressor in our environment. Unfortunately, as a result of our sleep-deprived, stress-filled lifestyles, our body pumps out the hormone at a far greater rate than is ideal.

How can I control my cortisol levels?

The most important step to take in managing cortisol release in the body is to reduce chronic physical, mental, and emotional stressors. And while some stressors can be avoided, others are an inescapable aspect of daily life. For those, there’s no substitute for the development of healthy coping skills. People too commonly cope with stress by turning to behaviors that are detrimental to health such as alcohol consumption, smoking cigarettes, or mindless eating. These behaviors only compound the problem at hand and will further increase cortisol levels and overall health problems. Going for a walk, practicing meditation, listening to music – there are countless options for healthy coping skills to manage stress, but you’ll need to figure out which are most rewarding and effective for you.

Sleep deprivation is also perceived by the body as a stressor and can lead to increased cortisol levels. Aim for a minimum of 7-9 hours on a nightly basis.

Food choices can impact cortisol release – a plant-rich diet is a good start – but the best diet in the world can’t make up for chronically high stress levels and poor sleep. To address excess cortisol, look to these first.

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