Cortisol Spare Tire?

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Photo courtesy of I Fucking Love Science, Facebook

Can stress make you fat? Absolutely. I coin it the “cortisol spare tire.” Cortisol, a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands, is normally stimulated for fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy, maintenance of blood pressure and blood sugar, and stimulation of insulin release. Cortisol is secreted more in the morning than in the evening and thus causes an increase in appetite.

When stressed, studies have shown that cortisol levels increase and cause an increase in appetite as well as an escalation in where and how fat is stored. In a cortisol stress response, more fat is stored viscerally, or around the midsection, which has been shown to be more dangerous because visceral fat is more highly associated with heart disease, stroke, and other metabolic disorders.

So what to do? It is impossible to avoid stress completely lest we live on a desert island and lay out and tan every day, drinking margaritas, and eating coconuts. Stress is a normal and valuable part of our day. But so often, we allow stress to run our show, and we end up taxing out our adrenal glands as if we were still living in caves, fighting off starving lions. How can we find ways to function productively and not let our adrenals and cortisol levels run wild? Here are some ideas:

1. Meditate. Yes, I keep saying it. And there is absolutely nothing better for stress reduction. I highly recommend you try it, even if it is only for ten minutes a day. I guarantee if you try it once a day, you will see profoundly positive changes in your life.

2. Breathing exercises. When you begin to feel stressed take a moment to pause. Inhale deeply and hold your inhale for five seconds. Slowly release your exhale and continue to do this until the majority of the stress has passed. It will pass, and you will have successfully stopped your adrenal glands from releasing too much cortisol. You have much more power over your body than you think.

3. Laugh. Find some way, in the height of your stress/panic attack, to find the humor in the situation. Laughing releases dopamine and serotonin and those are opposing hormonal reactions to cortisol.

4. Eat. But eat well. If your stress makes you hungry, eat a high energy snack such as dried fruit or nuts rather than allowing yourself to reach for the Cheetos. Eat an apple. Apples have been shown to increase energy levels almost as much as a cup of coffee. Try a natural pick-me-up rather than the standard coffee and donut. Your waistline will thank you. So will your heart.

5. Hug it out. Hugging releases oxytocin. Oxytocin is that feel good hormone that mothers secrete when they nurse their babies. Pet a puppy. It does the same. Do anything that increases your feel good hormones and decreases your fight or flight response.

Stress doesn’t have to run your show and give you a cortisol spare tire. A little maintenance on your part and you could be saving yourself weight gain and health deterioration. Give it a shot!

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