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Cortisol: the silent hormone that could be making you fat

Hormones play a pivotal role in all bodily processes and are essential to the fat loss and muscle gaining process. High levels of Cortisol in your body may be the reason why you are carrying excess fat. So what exactly is a hormone ?

Hormones

They are the chemical messengers that are secreted in one part of your body, travel through your blood stream and then bind to a receptor in another part of your body.

Their main job is to keep everything in your body in balance and they work much like the central heating in your house. If the room gets cold the heater kicks in, if it reaches the ideal temperature that you’ve set it at it will turn off again.

Just like you can set an “ideal room temperature” in your house via the thermostat on the wall, you can change the “ideal set points” or homeostasis for lots of your body systems, like your level of fat storage or your metabolism via your hormonal system.

“So how do we change these set points in our body?” Your daily actions and behaviours. The different foods you put into your mouth and different types of exercise you perform will have different responses on your hormonal system and will therefore change these “set points” in your body.

Cortisol

Cortisol is the most important performance hormone in your body. It’s secreted from the adrenal glands in response to physical or psychological stress, prolonged exercise or sleep deprivation and it should naturally coincide with your normal waking cycle to be higher in the mornings to wake you up and lower at night when you should be winding down.

Your body is designed to deal with acute brief stress, such as that feeling you get when walking into the boardroom to give a talk in front of a audience. When this happens our “flight or fight” (sympathetic) nerve system kicks in, releases adrenaline and cortisol to increase our heart rate, blood pressure and help us cope with this stress for the short term.

The problem we face in our modern life is that our body is not under stress for brief moments, it’s under stress all of the time. We call this chronic stress…finances, work deadlines, relationships, poor nutrition, prolonged over training or impaired sleep all cause prolonged cortisol elevation.

The consequences of this can be dire. Increased levels of stress have been linked to heart disease, obesity, cancer, mental illness and autoimmune diseases and of course decreased athletic performance.

The vicious Cortisol Stress Cycle

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Chronic stress leads to high cortisol production that in turn interferences with your sleep. Lack of sleep then leads to more cortisol production and we get stuck in a vicious stress cycle.

Cortisols secretion is not only caused by stress and lack of sleep, but is also influenced by your eating habits. Every time you experience low blood sugar levels such as during a starved state, carb deprivation or the low blood sugar crash you experience after a high blood sugar spike, your body releases cortisol in response to this stressful situation.

Therefore, eating foods high in sugar all the time, or starving yourself all the time tells your body that you are stressed ALL THE TIME.

In fact, a high level of cortisol tells your body to store fat, break down muscle, and impair your immune system.

When your body is under chronic stress it requires more energy. Stress triggers the release of cortisol from your adrenals and glucose from your tissues (including breaking down your muscles). In response to this rise in glucose comes a rise in insulin (the fat storage hormone) and the body thinks it must now store fat while breaking down muscle!

Specifically, the body signals the storage of fat to be stored around the abdomen where there are more receptors for cortisol, which is why so many of us accumulate a “spare tyre” of fat just under the belly button.

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Stay tuned for part 2 next week when we tackle how to balance the amount of cortisol in your system.

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