How Does Cortisol Relate to Weight? - Ask a Nutritionist

July 20, 2023

Cortisol helps regulates our body's stress response. It also helps regulate blood sugar, blood pressure, metabolism, and reduces inflammation. But what happens when cortisol is too high or too low? Tune into this week's episode of Ask a Nutritionist with Britni to find out cortisol's connection to weight.

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Welcome to the “Ask a Nutritionist” podcast, brought to you by Nutritional Weight and Wellness. We are thrilled to have you join us today as we discuss the connection between what you eat and how you feel, and share practical real life solutions for healthier living through balanced nutrition. Now let's get started.

BRITNI: Hello and welcome to Dishing Up Nutrition's midweek segment called “Ask a Nutritionist. I am Britni Vincent and Registered and Licensed Dietitian. On today's show, brought to you by Nutritional Weight and Wellness, I will be answering a nutrition question we have received from one of our Dishing Up Nutrition listeners. Today's question is, “What role does cortisol play in our bodies and how does it relate to weight?” I think this is a really good question because we have been in the media hearing a lot more about cortisol and its functions in the body, but it's a little confusing, you know, takes us back to science class.

What is cortisol?

So let me first explain what cortisol is. It is a hormone produced and released by our adrenal glands. And our adrenal glands are triangle shaped glands that sit at top of our kidneys. Our adrenal glands are part of our endocrine system. We produce and need to produce cortisol on a daily basis, but we do have an optimal biorhythm. It should be highest in the morning. It increases with light. That's part of what gets us up and going for the day. And then it should slowly reduce and be at its lowest point at night. It does have an inverse relationship with melatonin, which is our sleep/wake cycle hormone.

Roles cortisol plays in the body

And some roles cortisol plays: it regulates your body's stress response. So cortisol will increase during stress. Cortisol helps to regulate blood sugar, blood pressure, metabolism, reduces inflammation. But when your cortisol is too high or too low, it definitely has negative impacts systemically in your body.

Cortisol’s relationship with weight

So moving on to the relationship with weight. Overproduction of cortisol can definitely cause weight gain, especially in the midsection, that belly fat that we hear about and around that belly button area. And simplified, what happens when your cortisol goes up from stress, your blood sugar also goes up, then your pancreas has to output more insulin. Insulin is our primary fat storage hormone, so insulin is also going to cause fat storage at this point around the midsection. This type of weight gain is often visceral fat, which has been found to be much more harmful for our health.

And then high cortisol can also cause your muscles to break down, so you start to lose that lean body mass, which can change your body composition. I think there's also an aspect of emotional eating. You know, when you're stressed, your cortisol's going to go up, but when you're stressed, you're also probably more likely to over consume carbohydrates or sugar during, during that time, which of course can also contribute to weight gain.

Should cortisol be tested?

You know, I get the question a lot: “Should I get my cortisol tested?” You can get it tested, but I really, for most people do not think that it's necessary at all.

What behaviors influence cortisol?

And I, I talked about stress increases cortisol, but I want to dig into more about what kind of behaviors specifically influence cortisol. So the obvious stressors: work, relationships, divorce, money, you know, losing a loved one, but there are other things that impact stress that are often just not thought about: sleep, lack of sleep or poor sleep throughout the night, blood sugar dysregulation, meaning that you're having a lot of peaks and valleys with your blood sugar throughout the day, having too much caffeine. And then the food that you're choosing to eat: all of those are stressors to the body.

So what you eat has a huge impact on cortisol, specifically sugar and processed carbohydrates are going to increase our cortisol. So even if you don't feel mentally stressed when you're eating sugar and a lot of carbohydrates, your body has a stress response, just like the same stress response you would get from a stressful work meeting or if you're even being chased by a lion. So our body does not necessarily discern the type of stress that we're having. Our body reacts in a similar way no matter what.

And another piece to this that I think is really important is your thoughts and response to stressors have a huge impact on how your cortisol responds. So for example, two people could have the same stressful event, but it's how they respond to that stress and handle that stressful event that impacts the cortisol response.

Real, whole foods help control stress response

So, you know, with the diet piece of it, going back to that, when you change your diet, your stress response will probably change. So when you do have those stressful events happen, which let's face it, that's inevitable, eating whole real foods, eliminating or completely eliminating those processed foods, that's going to reduce your stress, stress response from food, but also help you to handle your stress better. You know, clinically, I find when individuals are eating a whole real food diet, they have less anxiety. They have more energy. So when those stressful events do happen, they're able to be more resilient and in control of their thoughts and response.

Examples of real food

So examples of eating real food would be protein like quality, if you can find it organic, grass fed, pasture raised meats, pasture raised free range eggs for the protein; fish, seafood for protein, healthy fats like nuts, seeds, avocado, butter, olive oil, olives, avocado oil, coconut oil. Those will all be considered healthy fats. And then getting the bulk of your carbohydrates from vegetables and some fruits. By, by doing all of that and trying to combine the protein, carb and fat together, you're going to maintain a more stable blood sugar. And then again, you're going to feel better throughout the day. You're going to be more resilient as a person and, and that's going to help with your cortisol response in a tremendous way.

Exercise & cortisol response: how much exercise is okay for each individual?

I often get asked about exercise and cortisol. You know, sometimes exercise can exacerbate cortisol imbalance that's already happening. You know, the impact of exercise and cortisol I think really depends on the individual. So we can't make any blanket statements here, but if someone isn't sleeping well, they're eating a lot of processed food, they've got a lot of work stress, maybe high intensity workouts are not the best for them. They'd probably be better suited to just be going for walks, doing things that are going to help reduce the stress.

You know, I used to work with a lot more athletes and I saw this scenario more often where what these individuals were doing for exercise just exacerbated that stress response and when they modified things, they just felt better overall. So a question that you might ask is, is cortisol something that I should be concerned about? Generally speaking, I do not think people need to go and get their cortisol checked.

Other ways to reduce stress

But yes, I do think that cortisol is something to be aware of, and I really encourage my clients to focus on the stressors that they do have control over, like the food that they're putting in their mouth, getting adequate sleep, doing activities that help to reduce your stress, that exercise, meditating, being in nature, you know, whatever activities bring you joy, that's going to help to reduce your stress response.

Getting acute increases in cortisol is totally normal and okay, it's when we have these constant stressors day after day that it really wreaks havoc on our body. And our body is just frankly have not adapted to the stressors that we have in our modern day. There's, you know, a lot to consider with cortisol, but I do think if you are focusing on a real food diet, you know, controlling the stressors that you can and then finding some activities that you can incorporate into your life that help to reduce your stress, then chances are your cortisol is going to be at a much better, better level and follow that optimal biorhythm that I talked about earlier.

I hope I answered all your questions about cortisol today. You know, thank you so much for listening to Dishing Up Nutrition’s “Ask a Nutritionist”. If you do have a nutrition question you would like us to answer, we invite you to join our Dishing Up Nutrition Facebook community by searching Dishing Up Nutrition on Facebook.

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