Do you eat right, work out, yet gaining weight? Watch your stress, because that might be at play. Your mind and your body aren’t separate and what you think impacts your belly. Stress is linked to cortisol, or the body's stress hormone, which can make you gain weight. This hormone, secreted by adrenal glands, situated on top of the kidneys, initiates the body’s ‘fight and flight response’ in the face of danger. Although some amount of cortisol is needed at crucial moments, for eg when you are faced with a wild animal, it triggers a swift response. However, a high level of it over a long time is detrimental.
How cortisol makes you gain weight
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When you are stressed, the adrenal glands release cortisol. At the same time, the body’s insulin response gets suppressed. This is because the body needs a certain glucose amount to either ‘fight or flight’ the source of stress. A suppressed insulin response over a prolonged time leads to glucose-starved cells. This in turn triggers hunger signals. You automatically reach out for food. This over a long time can make you an over-eater and in turn triggering weight gain.
Also, whenever you are stressed and that cortisol levels kick in, you often do not reach out for healthier foods such as fruits or vegetables. It is generally high fat, calorie-dense, generally sugary foods, such as chocolate or a piece of cake. This is because sugar tends to have a calming effect on you. And it gives you that kick, making you feel better. And no one needs to tell you the connection between sugar and gaining weight.
Studies have shown that cortisol makes your body store fat in your abdominal, or belly, region. And this is not the subcutaneous fat, between the skin and your muscles, which is not allowing your abs to show. It is the visceral fat between the abdominal muscle and organs, which makes you prone to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and other illnesses.
What you can do to manage cortisol level
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Now that you know how that high amount of stress affects your body, it’s crucial to understand how to manage it:
- Food: As per a study, high amounts of sugar, refined grains and saturated fat are linked to high cortisol levels. Hence, replace these with whole grains, polyunsaturated fats and try to do away with sugar. Also practice mindful eating. Pay attention to your hunger, fullness, the food on your plate, its texture and the nutrition it carries. Such mindfulness not just relieves stress, it also prompts you to make better food choices.
- Exercise: When you work out, your body releases endorphins, or happy hormones, which helps you manage stress. This not only helps you with cortisol but regular exercise also makes you lose weight.
- Smile, laugh, have fun: Laughing does the same what exercise does -- it makes your body release those happy hormones. If not natural, have a forced laugh. We have a kind of Yoga, completely based on that. Laughter Yoga involves loud, forced bouts of laughter that have shown to lower stress.
- Journaling: With stress, the idea is not to ignore it or fight it. You have to manage it. And for that journaling can help. Just take a diary or a notebook and write down what is making you stressed out. Once you know the root cause of that, it gets easier to manage it.
- Sleep: Sleep is nutrition for your brain. Having an uninterrupted, deep sleep is essential to manage stress. Also, try to sleep and wake up at the same time. Your body has the highest amount of cortisol in the morning after which its level comes down. If you wake up at different times, it will play with the cortisol level, thus impacting the stress level. So, have 6 to 8 hours of good night’s sleep for good mental and physical health.
As you have seen how persistent stress and a high level of cortisol messes up with your body, hence there’s a need to manage it by taking the required steps for good health.
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