Over the last few years, cortisol has been blamed for a surplus of health problems, including depression, weight gain, heart disease, and lowered bone density, to name a few. But is this really a hormonal horror story or is cortisol just getting a bad rap?
The Back Story
“Cortisol is a great hormone and serves the human body well, as do most hormones, except when it doesn’t,” said Brandon Mentore, health coach and A.C.E. certified personal trainer.
Back when our ancestors were discovering fire and chasing woolly mammoths across the frozen tundra, cortisol was key to staying alive. Its role was – and still is – to prepare the body for fight or flight. Except now, instead of running from a lumbering creature with tusks the size of a Buick, we’re being chased by emotional rather than physical stressors, like paying bills and deciding how and when to retire.
Unfortunately, just because our 21st century problems aren’t physically bearing down on us, it doesn’t mean our body – or mind – knows the difference.
When Your Cortisol Levels Are Too High
Our bodies are no longer designed to be in a constant state of extreme survival mode, so when cortisol production kicks into overdrive, “it affects the entire body in a breakdown process that basically ages people before their time,” said Tracy Thomas, Ph.D.
Although cortisol can actually help maintain the immune system when released in small doses (or help us keep our wits about us when we really are in danger), it can also hinder the body’s ability to fight off disease when elevated for long periods of time. That’s why those who suffer from chronic stress are more prone to age-related diseases, like heart disease, obesity, osteoporosis, depression and high blood pressure.
What Triggers Cortisol
What’s more, because of the remarkably symbiotic relationship between our mind and body, sometimes even the smallest of stressors can trigger the body’s fight or flight mode. Have you ever had a rush of energy after the person in front of you slams on their brakes? That’s fight or flight at work.
“Whenever we’re faced with stress, our cortisol levels rise,” said Mentore. “Watching a scary or emotionally draining movie raises cortisol. Certain foods that are stimulatory can increase cortisol levels. Light in the evening, when it’s supposed to be dark, elevates cortisol.”
Cortisol and Belly Fat
Beyond the ability to disrupt our immune systems, cortisol has also been blamed for weight gain – particularly when it comes to hard to get rid of belly fat. However, it’s more likely that behavior, not cortisol, is to blame for an expanding waistline.
“The psychology of human beings is to alleviate the pain [of stress] by counteracting it with things like eating food,” said Thomas. “This self-medicating becomes a neurological habit loop.” In other words, we eventually train ourselves to eat whenever we’re stressed, which becomes our coping mechanism. So in reality, it’s our compulsion to soothe ourselves with food rather than the cortisol itself that can eventually cause weight gain.
“The actual direct relationship is more like a correlative one with mediating factors like “healthy coping mechanisms” versus “non-healthy coping mechanisms,” like eating for more than physical hunger and satiation,” said Thomas. “It’s not unrelated, but to say cortisol causes belly fat...has not in fact been scientifically proven.”
How to Handle This Hormone
All in all, like most things in life, cortisol isn’t bad in moderation. The so-called “Stress Hormone” actually has a serious role to play in the body when it comes to keeping the immune system in check and regulating blood sugar, circadian rhythm and blood pressure.
Unfortunately, because we live in such a high-stress world, our cortisol levels often remain elevated, which is when this otherwise helpful becomes destructive.
“In today’s world we no longer need to be in flight or fight mode from nature, but our society is so high strung, busy and active, cortisol is constantly in circulation,” said Mentore.
The best way to keep cortisol levels low: Maintain a healthy diet, practicing low-impact exercise – like yoga or pilates – and taking a few minutes out of each day to meditate and center yourself.
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