If you have picked up any health magazine or you enjoy watching late night infomercials like my crazy grandmother, which in turn makes you crazy, because, let's be honest, no one normal is buying 50 Sham-Wows on a Saturday night at midnight, then I am sure you have at the very least heard about cortisol and it's relation to stress.
What is cortisol?
The first thing to know about cortisol is that it can be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Cortisol is a hormone that is produced by the adrenal cortex in the adrenal gland in response to stress. It helps wake us up in the morning, regulate the metabolism of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, as well as control blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and immune response among other things when dealing with stress.
Whenever stress is perceived by our body, we release cortisol in order to respond to and deal with the stress appropriately. Cortisol is a necessary hormone in order to maintain homeostasis, however, the issue comes about when there is too much stress in our daily lives and cortisol levels never return to baseline.
Why is this bad?
The daily life of an average human being right now is a stressful one. Lifestyle habits such as long work hours, lack of sleep, illness, alcohol, and eating out among other things are all huge stressors to the body. Even exercise will result in an increase of cortisol to deal with the stress of said exercise. After responding to any form of stress it is crucial for cortisol levels to return to normal. The problem here is a high-stress lifestyle which results in cortisol levels remaining elevated and never returning to normal.
During stress, cortisol stimulates gluconeogenesis (making of glucose) primarily by bringing amino acids to the liver. It also can inhibit insulin from bringing nutrients into muscle cells resulting in elevated blood glucose levels as well. This is a good thing in order to respond to the stress presented to the body. The problem again occurs here when this cycle doesn't shut off. This is when this becomes catabolic for muscle tissue and anabolic for fat cells, especially in the belly.
How do I combat this and ditch the belly?
The number one thing that needs to occur is the overall minimizing of stress levels. Whether that is taking more time for yourself, eating better, finding a new job, or switching up your training regimen, then it needs to happen. Below are some perfect ways to start managing your cortisol and stress levels to help shed that belly fat.
1. Maintain a healthy regimen of controlled strength training with varied intensities and volumes. Excessive endurance training should be avoided. Cortisol is produced in response to training, therefore, excess volume should be avoided. The focus should be on building muscle and strength. Although, there is a place for low intensity conditioning being performed for 45 minutes or less to help control stress as well.
2. With the cortisol response to exercise it is crucial to eat an ample amount of protein and carbohydrates following your workout. Protein and carbohydrates post-workout will help replenish muscle glycogen stores and stimulate muscle protein synthesis. This will also offset the cortisol response.
3. Unplug 1 hour before bed. With so much technology surrounding us it is very easy to be staring at your phones and tablets until the wee hours of the morning. Now I prefer to chillax to the sweet sounds of Barry White while my cheek gets intimate with the cool side of my pillow, but hey that's just me. Shut everything off, read a book, and do some stretching and breathing. Try to make it a habit to get 6-9 hours of sleep each night.
4. Avoid alcohol, processed foods, and processed drinks as much as possible.
5. Avoid low calorie diets. Undereating can leave your body deficient from many nutrients and can elevate cortisol levels.
6. Eat frequent protein meals every 3-4 hours. Protein helps suppress cortisol, build muscle, and has a high thermogenic effect on the body helping to burn fat.
7. Switch to consuming your coffee mid afternoon. Cortisol levels are elevated in the morning between 7-9am when most people are starting their day and dips to its lowest mid-day. Research has shown caffeine actually increases cortisol. Take advantage of your coffee intake when cortisol naturally dips.
8. Go blow up a balloon! If you are unfamiliar with the Postural Restoration Institute, then I suggest you check them out. I use their techniques with my clients to help reposition posture and correct certain imbalances, but I also really like their techniques for stress management as well.
9. Go play with a puppy.