Cortisol: The Weight Loss Sabotaging Hormone

You may have heard that the formula to lose weight is simple – expend more calories than you consume. Not quite. Weight loss involves a dynamic relationship between eating, physical activity, hormones and even genetics.

According to Colorado State University, approximately 50 million Americans attempt to lose weight each year, yet only five percent are successful in keeping the weight off.

Recent research proves hormones play a crucial role in weight loss, particularly the stress hormone cortisol. Balance in your cortisol levels is required for optimal functioning of the body, including blood pressure regulation, kidney function, glucose control, muscle building and the breakdown of fat.

Insufficient cortisol disrupts metabolism and other essential body processes; whereas excess cortisol is associated with a growing list of health conditions, such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, depression, an impaired immune system and more.

During the “fight or flight” response, cortisol and other hormones breakdown fats and carbohydrates to supply your body the required energy it needs to respond to a threat. Once the threat is managed, cortisol stimulates your appetite to replenish the fats and carbohydrates lost during the “fight or flight” response.

A chronically elevated cortisol level intensifies feelings of hunger – especially for high-caloric, fatty and sugary foods.

Unfortunately, cortisol encourages fat to be relocated from other areas of your body to your abdominal region.

Studies published in the January 1999 and May 1994 editions of the journal Obesity Research found that men and women with larger waist-to-hip ratios secreted more cortisol during stressful situations, which played a role in their greater abdominal fat deposits.

Recent research indicates that cortisol has a companion in promoting abdominal fat accumulation, an enzyme known as 11-beta-hydroxysteroid-dehydrogenase-1, or HSD. According to Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., author of The Cortisol Connection, HSD is located within almost every cell in the body, and its prominent position amplifies cortisol exposure.

HSD acts to convert an inactive form of cortisol, called cortisone, back to the active form, which encourages abdominal fat storage. Talbott asserts that your HSD activity is genetically determined, so you will have high, low or normal activity. Higher HSD activity equals greater fat storage, especially in the abdomen.

Now that you have a good understanding of how cortisol influences your weight loss efforts, the obvious question is “How do I combat it?” The best way is to learn coping strategies that help you deal with stress better.

According to Melanie Greenberg, a Clinical Health Psychologist in Marin County, California, with expertise in managing stress, some of the most effective stress-busting strategies are:

Let go of perfectionism. Trying to be supermom or dad can add unnecessary stress and exhaust you. Develop a big picture view of things and prioritize your most important relationships, health, and achievement over trying to be perfect and impress others.

Breathe! The breath is a very important tool in managing stress. Learning to breathe deeply into your abdomen so that your stomach expands with every inbreath and contracts with the outbreaths, can calm anxiety and engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to regulate the flow of oxygen to your heart.

Learn to delegate and ask for help. Learn how to communicate clearly and describe your situation and what you need in specific terms, giving people the option to refuse.

Stand up to your inner critic. Many of us have a critical inner voice that tells us we have messed up or are not deserving. Learn to tune into this voice and, while you may not be able to stop it at first, take time to consider what it is saying and decide if it is valid.

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