There’s no denying that we live in a time when everyone seems to be stressed the f out. To counter our fast paced, overstimulated lives we are becoming more cognizant of stress’s effects on our minds, with practices like yoga and meditation becoming more popular and accessible. We might be making concerted efforts to put our phones down and be more present. We eat clean and exercise regularly. And we still. Can’t. Get. Lean. Does this sound familiar?
I’ve talked a bit about my struggle with PCOS and how it has affected my body, and many of you have reached out and suspected you might be suffering too. But there’s another hormone that could be affecting your progress. CORTISOL! (The “STRESS HORMONE”) Rob Yang, my wellness guru, explains “Knowing how you’re handling stress is the first step in balancing your hormones to create an environment for optimal body composition.” He says:
“Hormones are very powerful in the body. Think about it. When it’s the “time of the month”, a woman can go through big changes. The power of sex hormones such as estrogen is undeniable. Just ask her husband or boyfriend!
Another hormone to consider is cortisol. Cortisol is the hormone that manages stress. Cortisol is produced when you’re stuck in traffic or if a bear is chasing you. The body treats stress the same. Cortisol is not bad. You need some. Not too much, not too little. Although, chronically high levels of cortisol have major consequences on body composition. First and foremost, there is some evidence pointing to chronic high levels of cortisol and abdominal fat gain. The visceral fat cells have 4 times as many cortisol receptors than subcutaneous fat cells. So, the more stressed you are, the less chance you’ll see your 6-pack.
Cortisol is catabolic. Meaning it’s tissue destructive. In particular, it breaks down muscle. When you’re stressed from work or fighting with your boyfriend, the body thinks you need to get away from the “bear”. So it produces cortisol. Cortisol in turn breaks down muscle tissue. Muscle is converted to glucose for energy so you can run away. This is ok in the short term. In the long term, chronically high cortisol burns up your muscle. Remember muscle is your metabolic engine. A Lamborghini has a bigger engine than a Prius. The bigger the engine, the more calories you burn. The more calories you burn, the leaner you get. Losing muscle is like trading in the Lamborghini for a Prius.
I work with many people in chronic pain. One of the many jobs of cortisol is to manage inflammation. Often, many people in pain are prescribed exogenous cortisol (prednisone). As with any medication, it comes with side effects. I remember one client was prescribed prednisone and she was on the “see-food diet”. She constantly craved foods and was hungry all the time. I see this effect on appetite with many of my high stress clients. Many of them constantly crave “comfort” foods because of the chronically high cortisol levels. Obviously, this is not conducive to eating clean to lose body fat.
Cortisol is necessary and important in the body. However, chronically high levels are a big issue when it comes to leaning out. But how do you know if you have too much cortisol? Get tested. A saliva test is a simple and reliable way to test cortisol levels throughout the day. A sample is collected 4 times during the day. It’s important to test yourself on a “normal” day. Meaning, it should be on a stressful day at work or at school. Testing on the weekend when you’re relaxed is not going to give you a screenshot of how you’re tolerating stress. Knowing how you’re handling stress is the first step in balancing your hormones to create an environment for optimal body composition.”
Rob hasn’t tested my own cortisol because I am weaning myself off a corticosteroid that I have been on for 2 YEARS for GI issues (which was simply treating my symptoms, whereas Rob was able to get to the bottom of my condition and identify the root cause), thus making it impossible to get an accurate reading. That said, I do suspect my cortisol levels have contributed to my struggles. I reached a point last fall when my body seemed to just quit on me; no matter how much sleep I got, how much I worked out, how low my macros went, how long I walked on the treadmill – I lost muscle and gained fat. I attribute this to to myriad things, namely imbalanced hormones and bacterial overgrowth but also stress.
Lately I have been focusing on healing my gut, eating really clean, getting good quality sleep, and working out for about thirty minutes 4-5 days a week and I feel and look different. It is important to note that workouts themselves can stress your body out and if you’re doing too much, this could be having an adverse effect! More on that soon. Here are some of the things I’ve done to combat stress:
- meditate in the morning for ten minutes or more
- Read the physical newspaper rather than phone in the morning
- Avoid said newspaper when I know it will upset me and get me anxious
- Walk my dog in the morning with no phone
- Meditate for 5 to ten minutes in the afternoon if possible
- Do LISS
- COOL DOWN after workouts – I sometimes even meditate right after! This is SO IMPORTANT! If you just finish your workout and go on to the next thing, your body is still in fight or flight
- Read before bed
- Take a bubble bath
- Go to sleep early to ensure 8 hours of sleep
I’m still a work in progress and will keep you all updated on my journey to gut and hormone health, but this is just another example (of what will be many!) of how the formula is SO MUCH MORE LAYERED than eat less + workout more.
If anyone wants to get their tested by Rob (or consult with – life changing I promise) his contact information is below. Xoxo