How Chronic High Cortisol Levels Are Messing with Your Fitness Goals
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US culture around health is weird. We are at once a weight- and fitness-crazed society, and we’re also the most obese country in the world – according to the WHO, over 36% of adults in the US are obese. As a result, weight loss products, diet fads, books, workout plans, and more now saturate every aspect of our lives. And as many of us have discovered once or thrice, much of it’s little more than snake oil.


But on the other side of the coin, some of these health and wellness products and lifestyle changes are really helping us get to healthy weights and, more importantly, helping us be healthier! However, as many of us have also discovered once or thrice, we can be trying our best to keep a healthy diet and fitness routine and still have trouble getting the scale to reflect those efforts.


While weight and metabolism are extremely complex and a balance of numerous systems and signals, there are certain black hats that can do a lot of harm all on their own. One of those is cortisol, and if you’re like 100% of the population: chronically stressed – then your high cortisol levels may be a part of the reason you can’t lose those last 10 pounds.


What’s Cortisol & Why is it Bad?

Cortisol is the hormone your body releases as a response to a stressor. It triggers a series of events that puts your body into fight-flight-or-freeze mode in order to overcome a stressful event:


  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure: Cortisol causes the heart to beat faster and the blood pressure to rise to prepare the body to survive danger.
  • Increased blood sugar levels: Cortisol causes the liver to release glucose, which provides the body with energy to deal with the stressor.
  • Suppression of the immune system: Cortisol suppresses the immune system to free up more energy for the body to survive the stressful event.
  • Increased appetite: Cortisol can increase appetite in an attempt to provide the body with the energy it needs to deal with stress. It specifically causes fat storage around the abdomen.
  • Cortisol signals your adrenal system to go into overdrive. Adrenaline is released to increase focus and alertness, the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, and melatonin production is suppressed.


Here’s the issue: this survival system is meant for finite events: hunting a mastodon, fleeing a raiding party, overcoming the last 300 miles of a seasonal migration. Evolutionarily, it’s what helped us get to where we are today. Now, our 24/7, overwrought lives are low-grade signaling our stress response all the time. And long-term, these high cortisol levels wreak havoc.


What are the Negative Effects of High Cortisol?

Chronically-raised cortisol levels actually eat at your telomeres, which protect your cells from disease, dysfunction and death. High cortisol levels long-term are linked to a number of pretty serious issues:


  • Cognitive impairments
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Immunodeficiencies
  • Osteoporosis
  • Depression
  • Anxiety


Another one of these issues is that your stress response tells your body to keep, save, store. Whatever’s there, it needs to stay, because who knows when you’re going to eat or sleep again? It might sound dramatic, but this is what the stress response system is supposed to be for; it was never meant to fret over that contentious conference call, third job or upcoming thesis defense.


As a result, cortisol wants your body to keep all the fat it has. And it also wants you to eat as much as you can whenever you can, just in case. Evolution is slower than human progress, and our body’s haven’t yet figured out that rarely do we actually encounter a real life or death situation. So, how can we help ourselves chill out biologically and shed that feeling of the weight of the world… and maybe also some weight?


Am I Self-Sabotaging My Fitness Routine?

Let’s talk about cortisol and your health and fitness routine, because there are some misconceptions to address:


Myth #1: Low-calorie diets work.

Crash dieting, skipping meals and drastically cutting calories will all raise your cortisol levels because your body goes into starvation mode. In its mind, no food = imminent danger = save everything we have to survive. And “everything we have” is most often focused on the abdomen, which is why you can never find all your abs even with all the dieting in the world.


Myth #2: There’s no such thing as too much exercise.

In short: yes there is. Over exercising puts your body into overdrive; it’s always tired, so it’s always trying to overcome. This raises cortisol levels, but also over-fatigues muscles and puts you at risk for injury. Both of these things can sabotage your fitness goals.


Myth #3: If I’m in a calorie deficit, it doesn’t matter that I eat well, just that I eat less.

Nope. Processed foods, even in 100-calorie packs or advertised as diet foods, present the drawback of raising cortisol levels and the weight-retaining processes associated with them. Sugar causes blood sugar spikes that lead to dips and rebounds in cortisol levels. Unhealthy fats cause inflammation, which increase cortisol levels. If you have hypertension, sodium can raise blood pressure and contribute to high cortisol levels. Artificial sweeteners have also been linked to larger waistlines, so those chemical-packed protein shakes may not be as awesome as you think.


How to Lower Stress & Hack Back into Healthy Cortisol Levels

The keys to lowering your cortisol levels back into a healthy balance are in your hands. While you may not be able to quit that stressful job or drop out of your PhD program mid-dissertation, you can adopt self-care habits that give your body the relax-and-recharge resources it needs to get back into homeostasis:


  • Sleep is key. Lack of sleep triggers the production of cortisol to deal with the stress of being tired. Aim for minimum 7-8 hours per night.
  • Exercise regularly – not too much or too little. Exercising 30 minutes on most days at a moderate/vigorous level releases endorphins that improve mood and relieve stress.
  • A healthy diet low in sugars and fats and high in protein and veggies keeps cortisol levels in check and helps balance other hormonal processes, too.
  • Spend time with the people you love. All the feel-good hormones, including oxytocin, are released in meaningful social situations. These all have a mood-boosting, relaxing effect on your mind and body.
  • Pick up a relaxation technique or two. Whether it’s taking a half hour to watch old episodes of your comfort show for the 47th time each evening or taking up a yoga class 3 mornings a week, find something you like to do that also helps you unwind.


While you’re at it, plant-powered energy supplements like MTE can help keep cortisol levels in check. Adaptogens and nootropics help the mind and body deal with stress more effectively, offering support for sleep, mood, immunity, energy, inflammation, and more. Curious? Learn more on our Wellness Blog.

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