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Is Cortisol and Stress Keeping You From Achieving The Body You Desire?

There’s no question that stress can negatively impact our way of life and our health. But what you may not realize is, everyday stress can stunt your fitness goals and ultimately keep you form achieving the body you desire.

I was recently talking to a client and although she is relatively young at 30 years old, single, and has no children, her stress level is high on a daily basis. She owns and runs a busy company with many employees. She also has a busy social life where she is out multiple days a week. Most days she is either rushing to work, where it’s a fast paced, high stress environment, works late most nights and then rushing to meet friends after work for dinner and drinks. Weekends are nonexistent as she works Saturdays and has one to two days to catch up on paperwork, grocery shop, and run errands. She’s often home late, up early and repeating the vicious cycle.

With her busy lifestyle, she certainly doesn’t have time to eat 4 meals a day. And her exercise routine is more often than not put off for another day. She’s often skipping meals and eating too few calories. So why is she struggling with her weight? The answer may be high cortisol levels.

When you are stressed, your body releases hormones such as cortisol. Cortisol prepares the body for a fight-or-flight response by flooding it with glucose, supplying an immediate energy source to large muscles. Cortisol inhibits insulin production in an attempt to prevent glucose from being stored, favoring its immediate use. Cortisol narrows the arteries while the epinephrine increases heart rate, both of which force blood to pump harder and faster. One can then address the stressful situation and resolve the issue. Hormone levels can then return to normal.

The problem is that when we are over-stressed with a fast-paced, busy lifestyle cortisol is being pumped out constantly, which can then reck havoc on our health. Elevated cortisol levels over the long term consistently produces glucose, leading to increased blood sugar levels. Cortisol can mobilize triglycerides from storage and relocate them to visceral fat cells. Visceral fat also invites more cortisol, thereby adding insult to injury.

Alternately, increased blood sugar levels due to high cortisol leads to high blood glucose levels. Along with insulin suppression, this leads to cells that are starved for glucose. The cells send a signal to the brain that it’s hungry, which leads to overeating. Unused glucose then turns into fat.

And finally, cortisol has an effect on appetite and cravings for high calorie foods. Studies have shown a direct association between cortisol levels and calorie intake in women.

When cortisol levels remain elevated, the following side effects may occur:

  • weight gain

  • high blood pressure

  • fatigue

  • changes in mood

  • irritability

  • flushed face

  • thinning skin

  • difficulty concentrating

  • insulin resistance

The good news is, each one of us can take the necessary steps to reduce our stress levels naturally by incorporating some or all of the below methods.


Making time to exercise will have a profound effect on relieving stress and reducing your incidence of raised cortisol levels. Exercise reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators.


Making time to shut down the world around you, even for just 10 minutes a day, will allow you to clear your head and silence the noise in your life. Meditation is a great practice to incorporate into your lifestyle that can greatly improve your quality of life and help reduce stress levels.

Attitude Of Gratitude

Attitude of gratitude. We can sometimes take for granted all the blessings we have in our life. When you wake up every morning and appreciate what you have, as opposed to thinking about what you don’t have, can set the tone for the rest of the day.

Taking Breaks From Social Media

Take a break from social media and your phone. Our new normal is the addictive device known as the “smart phone”. If it were so smart it would turn off when you've reached saturation. We spend an average of 4 hours a day checking our phones, scrolling through social media, checking email, and answering text messages. While cell phones are amazing at making our lives more accessible, they may be contributing to our stress levels. So limit the use of your smart phone, put it away an hour before bedtime, and try meditating before you turn it on in the morning.

Breathe Work

Research has shown that breathing exercises can significantly alter the body's stress response, and can even change the expression of genes, meaning that by using your breath, you can alter the basic activity of your cells with your mind, use the mind to change your body, and directly alter gene expression. Types of breathe work are many and varied. It’s best to research the numerous options available and try incorporating the right breath work for you into your daily routine. This is a great guide by Ben Greenfield of some of the most popular and effective breathing methods. (Link)

Limit Caffeine And Alcohol Consumption.

Excess caffeine and alcohol consumption have been shown to negatively impact cortisol levels. If your stress level is already high, it would be most beneficial to avoid alcohol and caffeine consumption until stress levels can be adequately managed. While alcohol may appear to take the edge off after a stressful day, it can have a negative affect on your body. It is also dehydrating, promotes overeating, and increases craving for processed foods.

Create Boundaries At Work

Whether you’re self employed or work for someone else, implement times of day where you're not answering your phone or checking email. Allow yourself to take time off for vacation or long weekends. Adhering to these “rules” will allow you more time to recharge your batteries and feel ready to tackle new challenges.


Implement Healthy Eating Habits And Limit Processed Foods.

When you’re stressed your cortisol levels rise making you more prone to crave junk food and overeat. By consistently eating healthy you will be less likely to reach for the cookies and chips when things go wrong. Processed foods are also shown to negatively impact cortisol levels as well as contribute to fat storage.

Take long walks each day. Even a 30 minute walk outside can help alter your mood and allow you to step away from whatever stressors you may be dealing with.

Get Adequate Sleep

Finally, make sure to get adequate sleep. Sleep deprivation has a profound affect on the human body. It has also been shown to raise cortisol levels, reduce glucose tolerance, and increase sympathetic nervous system activity. One study found that sleep deprivation reduces levels of the satiety-inducing hormone leptin and increases levels of the hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin. This makes you want to consume more sugar and processed food. (Source, Boundless by Ben Greenfield)

So if you're stressed more often than not, try to find a balance to reduce your stress levels and RELAX.



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