Cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, can be confusing. On one hand you might have heard that excess cortisol in the body leads to belly fat and weight gain so you’ll want to exercise when you’re stressed to keep belly fat at bay. On the other hand you might have heard that exercise IS a form of stress and it will have your body sending out more cortisol which brings us back to the belly fat problem. So what’s the truth? Does cortisol make you gain weight? Can heavy exercise put your cortisol levels out of balance? Read on for the in’s and out’s of this important hormone and how stress and exercise relate to cortisol.
What is Cortisol
Cortisol is a steroid hormone in your body, in fact, it’s your body’s main stress hormone and plays a major role in your body’s response to stress. Cortisol is responsible for regulating several processes through the body and works with your brain to control mood, motivation and fear. This hormone is well-known for fueling your body during a “fight-or-flight” type crisis but it also helps keep inflammation down, regulates your blood pressure, increases your blood sugar, controls your sleeping cycle, boosts your energy during times of stress and even manages your body’s use of carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
This important hormone is produced in the adrenal glands and cortisol receptors are in most of your body’s cells. If your hypothalamus and pituitary glands sense too little cortisol in your blood they signal the brain to make more. If your body is on high alert — experiencing high stress — then cortisol can change or stop functions that might get in the way of responding to the stressful situations– systems such as the digestive, reproductive, immune system.
Problems Associated with Too Much Cortisol
Stress is the trigger that causes your adrenal glands to release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to give your body what it needs to handle the stressful situation. Because the body doesn’t differentiate between physical danger (a car swerving into your lane) and perceived danger (a big presentation at work), you’ll experience the physical effects of an adrenaline rush and cortisol being released in the body either way. This works great when you need to react quickly in a dangerous situation, giving you extra strength or speed, but can be harmful when you are not dealing with on-going stressors properly, leaving your body in a state of constant stress.
Long-term release of cortisol to deal with stress can wreak havoc on your body and show up in health issues such as a decreased immune system and problems with digestion, reproduction and growth. This means you can be dealing with a list of problems including anxiety, depression, digestion problems, headaches, heart disease, sleeping problems, weight gain, and memory difficulties from stress and too much cortisol in your system.
Cortisol and Weight Gain
There are many factors that lead to weight gain, including overeating, lack of exercise, an unbalanced diet and hormone regulation. Hormones like cortisol are usually kept in a healthy range by the body’s endocrine system, but if you’re in a state of regular stress your cortisol levels can become elevated too often and weight gain can happen.
Part of this reason could be that living with extra stress leads to eating more or eating foods that make you feel good but might not be good for you. One study found an association in women between elevated cortisol levels and an increase in appetite which could lead to weight gain. Another study found an association between an increased amount of belly fat in men and women with high cortisol response.
Cortisol and Exercise
If stress is causing weight gain you should probably exercise, right? True, however, you should also know that exercise is perceived by the body as a form of stress which then stimulates the release of cortisol. If you are just starting to exercise or upping your intensity the odds are higher that your body will be perceiving your beneficial high-intensity workout as a stressor. The good news is that the more your fitness improves the better your body gets at dealing with physical stress — so less cortisol released.
Research has shown that endurance athletes deal with long-term cortisol exposure at a higher rate than those who train with short high intensity exercises like sprinting, HITT or weight training. Allowing time for breaks and training for less than 60 minutes can help stop the burn-up of your body’s glycogen stores which signals the release of cortisol. If you’re going through a period of high personal stress at work or home, consider working out fewer days during the week or at a lower intensity. Your body will still get all the benefits from exercise but won’t add a cortisol surge on top of the stress you’re already dealing with.
Another tip? Try working out first thing in the morning. Working out in the morning has been shown to be beneficial as cortisol levels are already naturally higher in the morning.
Cortisol and Stress Management
While exercise can cause a spike in cortisol, it’s important to not layer that increase of physical stress on top of life stress. To keep your body in balance it is important to learn stress management techniques to stay healthy. The good news is, you won’t need to quit your workout routine, but there are several stress-busters that can help to keep your body from going into long periods of elevated cortisol.
- Diet Matters. Don’t let stress send you into a spiral of mindless eating. Pay attention to your hunger, and be aware of when you feel full. Avoid treating yourself with foods that won’t treat your body well and eat a well-balanced diet with lots of fresh foods.
- Get More Sleep. Getting adequate sleep each night has a significant effect on cortisol levels. The general recommendation is 7-9 hours of sleep per night (varying by age). Poor sleep, or not enough sleep can lead to a negative effect on your metabolism and increase appetite.
- Stay Active. While you may not want to train for an ultra-marathon if life stress is throwing you a curve ball, you still want to stay active and engage in regular physical activity even if it’s at a lower intensity then you are used to.
- Practice Relaxation. If you’re feeling stressed try yoga, deep breathing or meditation to practice relaxation.
- Help Others. Volunteering in your community and helping others has been shown to reduce stress, so look around for opportunities to help others.
- Focus on Relationships. Seek out and build healthy relationships. Having people to share your burdens with or who you trust can go a long way in reducing stress.
- Learn Something New. Take a moment from your life stress to foster time for hobbies, a simple way to create more balance and reduce stress.
- Get Professional Help. Seek out the advice and counseling from a professional if your stress feels overwhelming and unmanageable.