Cortisol is part of a family of hormones called ‘stress hormones’. Other hormones in this family include adrenaline & noradrenaline (AKA epinephrine and nor epinephrine) and as I continue referring to cortisol, understand that it is more often than not accompanied by it’s family. As you can imagine these are released at times that the body is under stress or perceived danger.
Stress is not just emotional, think of it more as metabolic tension, going too long without eating or not enough sleep . Under deadlines at work, having an argument with your significant other or even over exercising are also forms of stress and all of these have the same reaction on the body, they release these stress hormones. Stress can be good or bad, short periods that helps us adapt is great, but long lived, it will fatigue our bodies.
Cortisol causes a rise in blood sugar levels and is in constant battle with insulin. Think of insulin and cortisol as two ends of a seesaw struggling to keep balance as we go through our daily lives. Infact there are a handful of hormones that increase blood sugar levels but only one (insulin) that lowers it. Looking at the history of mankind, anything that was important to us often had multiple assets, which shows we had a lot more issues with low blood sugar than high. Unfortunately in todays world sugar is everywhere, it’s getting harder and harder to get away from it. (Raising blood sugar is not the only opposite that cortisol has with insulin, where insulin builds muscle and stores fat, cortisol is catabolic, it strips muscle and burns fat). Muscle is the main attribute to your basal metabolic rate (it’s muscle that burns calories after all) and losing muscle will have a detrimental effect on your metabolism. Studies have proven that if on a diet you lose muscle, you are 15-30% more likely to put on 20lb of fat over the next two years. A key thing most “fad” diets rely on when they promise quick results is that you will lose “weight” not lose fat. Losing weight includes water and muscle, both very important in your metabolism. But the quick fix works, the weight drops off and you think “fantastic – this is going great!” then time goes by and you are off the diet, your low metabolism kicks in and the weight piles back on and you think… that diet worked realy well i’ll have to go back on that. but i digress….
Lets look at a “typical” person who is carrying some extra weight. The best way to get rid of this weight, eat less & exercise more….marooned on a desert island and maybe for a minority this will work, but for most there are several large holes in this theory. Forgetting about exercise for a moment lets look at eating less, a low calorie diet. This person, lets call them Bob, wakes up, adrenalin, cortisol and noradrenalin are raised. This is the bodies natural way of waking and perking you up in the morning. (not a morning person? stress hormones may be a reason behind that). Bob makes himself a coffee, black with no sugar (no calories), this causes a rise in adrenalin and cortisol in a lot of people causing blood sugar levels to rise and insulin to be released without eating a thing. Bob gets to work and, as he hasn’t eaten anything, his blood sugars have dropped, he starts getting hungry and stress hormones are released. He thinks about the crisps, chocolate and biscuits in the staff room but uses his will power to overcome. Lunch time comes and he has a chicken salad, very healthy, but no carbs, so no increase in blood sugars and more stress hormones are released. Maybe he has another black coffee just before returning to work and this has the same effects as this morning. He pushes through work and by now his body is crying out for sugary fatty foods (fat by itself will have no real affect on blood sugars but acts as a catalyst with carbs) and by the time he gets home his will power is drained and he gives in, the flood gates open and all the ‘bad’ foods are target. Often this can lead to a ‘continual’ meal, eating or picking from 7-11pm and passing out in an insulin coma. Bob wakes up the next day and feeling guilty and repeats the process. So you can get fat by eating yourself there or you can get fat by stressing yourself there! Now this is not true for all people, as I say to my clients, there is no one size fits all when it comes to nutrition, there is no wonder pill that will guarantee results. everybody is different and everybody reacts differently. Somebody with a balanced metabolism may not struggle with yoyo sugar levels and hence not get the cravings so may get good results on a ‘diet’ like this. But for the masses this will not work.
All this seesawing between cortisol and insulin can, if carried on for long enough, lead to insulin resistance meaning your blood sugars are harder to control and stay higher for longer, leading to organ damage. This can lead to hyperglycaemia which left undetected for long enough can lead to a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. Too much cortisol for too long can lead to problems with anxiety and depression.
Regular meals 3-5 meals a day will help balance these hormones and balance your metabolism. With a balanced metabolism and balanced hormones we can then start to look at what changes we can make to your diet to hit those goals.