This is a condensed version of our Ultimate City Bootcamps talk on the stress hormone cortisol. We will cover what cortisol is, what it does, why we have it, some of its effects and also some action steps in how to reduce it.
We hope after reading this, which you may have to do in a few sittings as it is still quite comprehensive, you will feel empowered and aware of what may be the sticking point in your life (as it is in the lives of many).
This little hormone that is so essential to our well being is also a thorn in the side of optimal health, fat loss, lean muscle gain, a good nights sleep, and can be the cause of depression, anxiety, food cravings, reduced bone density and the onset of certain degenerative diseases, as well as many, many other factors.
Definition of STRESS
‘What you feel when life’s demands exceed your ability to meet those demands’
a) What is stress?
Cortisol is a highly tuned and efficient hormone that activates when the body comes under stress. This is the hormone that activates for the fight or flight reaction to stress.
If we look at an example of cortisol in action there is an initial brief increase in energy levels, hormone levels, and ability for forceful muscle contraction. The body is prepared to deal with the stressor or escape from it (fight or flight). The simple science is that the cortisol causes the body to release sugars and fats into the blood stream as these are the fuels for this fight or flight response. Think of an example of a caveman foraging for food when he comes face-to-face with a Saber Toothed tiger. On first contact the body will release the cortisol instantaneously to allow the man to run away fast, or to sharpen his senses in order to find a weapon nearby to fight the predator.
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands which are walnut sized glands located on the tops of the kidneys. These glands produce many crucial hormones and are vital for our well-being.
Normal cortisol levels help the body function properly. It helps convert fats and proteins to energy, keeps us alert, balances electrolytes, calibrates the hearts beat and pressure and counteracts inflammation.
Cortisol is a very important hormone in the body but we need it balanced, not too much and not too little. It is naturally higher at about 8am to give us some get up and go for the days start and reduces later in the day at about 4pm when we should naturally be starting to wind down for the day. This is the natural cycle of cortisol… If we think about how we evolved, we had no electricity, so would wake when the sun rose and get to bed when the sun had set.
Stress rapidly increases cortisol levels but after removing the stress, these elevated levels come back to normal. In other words our bodies are not designed to be stressed for long periods.
The problem is that modern day stresses are not always removed which causes our cortisol levels to remain high and cause long term health problems over time.
In the past we would have seen the Saber Toothed Tiger, ran away/fought it, or got killed, and used up the extra sugar and fat in the bloodstream as fuel to get away and then have our cortisol levels come back to normal. Once the stressor is removed the Cortisol is back to where it should be.
Studies show that cortisol levels spike if we do not get the magic eight hours sleep a day. Back in the 1910 working adults got on average nine hours a night, now it’s at seven and this is just the average. As we stress more, we sleep less and so cortisol levels remain elevated… it’s a vicious circle. In many ways sleeping less than eight hours a day is as bad for overall wellness as gorging on junk food or becoming a couch potato and if you do all three.
In the modern world we have late dinners, meetings, nights out, family pressures, stressful work, etc. and all the while we consume stimulants like caffeine, nicotine and alcohol amongst others.
The job is long hours and high pressure, economic climate, money worries, family and relationship, public speaking, being late, illness, personality conflicts, kids, bills, chemicals at home and work, air pollution, bad diet, electromagnetic pollution (from electrical items at home and work), pollutants in the foods and drinks we consume, the list goes on…..
Is it any wonder that people are getting ill and have problems in their lives!
Also too much exercise can stress the body and lead to big health issues. Ever hear of the runners and athletes that drop dead from heart attack, that can be cortisol working it’s way over years due to lack of recovery, as the body is in constant stress.
A coffee a day is shown to have health benefits, but once you approach three and more then your adrenal glands start to get stressed out and produce too much cortisol. Many people drink far more caffeinated drinks too, such as Red Bull, Coke, Pepsi, and a whole host of others.
Also look out for supposed wonder diet pills. They come in lots of different forms and with marketing attached saying how they will strip the fat off you, or it is something that Amazonial tribes have been taking for years and they’re not fat…. right?
These products are guaranteed to give the adrenal system an unwelcome overload (often on top of other stressors), which will alter your bodies natural process. People may lose weight short term, but they are lowering their immune system and once they stop the pills, the weight will often return. Avoid them!
Not sure if you know the stats on cigarettes, but we won’t go there…
Scientific research shows-
High levels of cortisol has a debilitating effect on long term health
1 – Increased appetite and food cravings
2 – increase body fat
3 – decreased muscle mass
4 – decreased bone density
5 – increased anxiety
6 – increased depression
7 – mood swings
8 – reduced libido
9 – impaired immune response
10 – memory and learning impairment
11 – increased symptoms of PMS
Lets look at the points –
Primary role of cortisol after responding to a stressor is to encourage the body to refuel, because it assumes you have used the fuel (fats and sugars) you dropped into your blood stream to escape from the stressor.
However in modern day stress cases, the cortisol remains there, which makes you, feel hungry all the time and craving carbs or sugar as these are what supposedly need topping up.
Many people don’t realise that losing that final few inches off their waists is down to removing stress from their lives and not the amount of time they spend exercising.
Stress induced appetite will cause us to gain body fat in the abdominal region, as this is the area that is supposed to be able to activate the fastest in the flight or fight response. In women the area may be more targeted towards the butt and legs.
No one wants a fat belly but more importantly belly fat is associated with heart disease, diabetes and cancer, so you don’t just look bad, you are now at a higher risk of these diseases.
If we are stressed we will keep storing fat in this way until the stressor is removed or we throw in some stress reducing tactics
Cortisol is catabolic meaning it will make your muscles smaller and weaker – vicious circle if you are trying to “tone up” or lose some fat of your bum or make your stomach flat.
The muscles break down as the cortisol allows the release of certain amino acids (proteins to you and I) that are also used in the metabolic process of fight or flight for a burst of energy.
In order to get the best results from exercise we need to make sure we are not constantly doing long, cardio based workouts and focus more on Weight Training and Circuit based classes. Read this from the blog for more info >>>SPINNING<<<<
Bone density also takes a hit as the bones are robbed of vital nutrients and minerals due to the presence of cortisol. If the cortisol remains in the body then the bones will not be allowed to properly maintain themselves.
This, over time, will open the door for such things as osteoporosis and arthritis. In later life people are more susceptible to falls through slowing down (the wasting away of muscles through lack of use) and through stress response. Once they fall down many may break a hip, or bone due to bone weakness.
The body then gets even more stressed through more cortisol being released and so the bones never repair. Another vicious circle. Start thinking now about looking after your bones.
This problem can be compounded with women after menopause and is another reason that weight-bearing exercise is so important for anyone of any age!
The anxiety is there for a reason. We are on edge to think fast and take action against that nasty stressor. Every sense is on full alert. Have you ever walked into a dark room that you were not sure about and someone stepped out and shouted boo. You were on edge to spring into action and away.
However, have you ever been in a traffic jam, with no control to get where you want to be on time? You get agitated and god help anyone that is in the car with you. This is cortisol and this was developed by evolution over thousands of years, whereas traffic jams have developed in the last century.
This is why shouting, or banging the wheel can be a good short-term stress reliever. Even stop the car and have a quick sprint, or do some press-ups. Sure you’ll look stupid, but it’s a great way to lower stress levels.
Many people turn to a coffee, a cigarette or an alcoholic drink in times of stress, not realising that they are actually adding to their already heightened cortisol levels. Green Tea is a good alternative to Coffee as it contains theanine which is shown to reduce cortisol levels as well as a whole host of other things… >>>>CLICK HERE FOR THEANINE INFO<<<<
Depression can be set off by many factors that are far too broad to discuss here, but it is important to understand one of the reasons that we may be getting depressed in the first place… Cortisol!
Who likes to be stressed? Depressing thought isn’t it? Who likes going up a trousers size, or a dress size? Who feels great after having a junk meal and who beats themselves up after being so stupid in eating that meal and then orders a desert to make them feel better?
Who enjoys the thought of being on a diet? It’s actually been proven that one of the main factors that diets don’t work is that the thought of starving ourselves and having to miss out on our favourite foods, releases cortisol and makes us crave even worse foods even more than usual. We may begrudgingly resist the foods for the duration of the diet, but as soon as we come off it then the body is now primed for fat storage as it needs to top up the stores for the cortisol to be able to act and boom we put all that weight back on.
Serotonin production, the bodies feel good hormone, is supressed when cortisol is high.
This ties in once again to the feeling of anxiety and also to how we feel as a result of eating foods that satisfy our cortisol spiked hunger, but not the well being functioning of our bodies.
We feel good after eating a balanced meal that is high in good fats and good protein. When we eat junk food we get sluggish and moody due to another hormone being worked overtime called insulin which as many of you will know, is a big factor in diabetes.
A good way to see how food is affecting your mood is to keep a food diary. Note down what you have eaten and then what your mood is thirty minutes and one hour later. It can make for very interesting reading! If you have children then keep a food diary for them too and you may see that they are playing up due to the food you are feeding them and not because they particularly mean to.
Increased cortisol decreases the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen. Testosterone is the major hormone for the males amongst us, but females need it too to feel frisky. Women also need estrogen, and a few other hormones.
Cortisol also supresses endorphin production which is the hormone that makes you feel up or down as mentioned when we’re depressed.
Some men take supplementary forms of testosterone to try to increase their levels, but this may not work as the cortisol is still too high and overpowers them.
Cortisol is the enemy of Testosterone, so if you’re stressed you’re unlikely to want to get undressed!
This is one of the stranger effects of the release of cortisol, as it would seem to make sense that the body would not make a hormone that actually can cause self-damage.
However on closer inspection it is shown that the immune system actually gets a boost initially upon cortisol release and as we were programmed to only have occasional spikes in cortisol then this worked just fine. Remember the stressor would usually have disappeared in the past.
Now that cortisol is high day and night then the problems occur as the finely tuned bodies response system is now confused the response system is blunted and the high spike in immune response has to adjust, as what goes up must come down.
In certain cases the body may be open to attack from certain autoimmune diseases such as cold sores and mouth ulcers. However as time goes on and as stress is not combatted then the body will possibly become open to attack by certain degenerative diseases such as Heart disease, Cancer, Alzheimer’s, Osteoporosis, and so on.
I’m sure everyone now is getting the idea that once the body is stressed then priority is given to some areas over other areas all in the name of survival.
In much the same way that you would not go outside and paint the garage when a tornado is approaching, the body does not see memory as an important requirement when in a life or death predicament.
The area that is given low priority as brain function moves over to being in the moment and focused at first so to be able to escape or to know where to strike first in the case of a fight. Remembering what you have to do next week does not really matter if a predator eats you now!
Once the body has been exposed to the stress for too long though cortisol takes hold and starts to play more havoc with the brain chemicals called the neurotransmitters.
Well if you have a quick look at what we have covered so far in the effects of cortisol on the effects of cortisol on irritability, mood swings, even anger and rage then you may be able to make the tactful connection as to why Cortisol can have drastic effects on PMS.
Couple this with the statistics by a physicist named Guy Abrahamson which discovered that PMS patients ate 62% more refined Carbs, 275% more refined sugar, 79% more dairy and a whole host of other percentages and we can see how PMS and cortisol combine.
c) What can be done to alleviate stress and reduce cortisol
if you’re not just a little bit stressed out from listening to that, then you’ve not been listening very well.
However there are proven effective ways to help us counteract this very modern problem that most of us face without realising the harm it can cause.
If you are anything like us, then a light bulb has gone off in your head and you now realise there is a potential answer to a few questions of why we don’t feel as ‘on the ball’ as we used to.
It is also important to note that some people have much higher thresholds to stress than others and seem to thrive in high-pressure situations. These people must be careful of burnout, however, and make sure they get a balance in life or cortisol will eventually take its toll.
Our Grandmothers had it right when they said get enough sleep, eat good food and get some exercise. If we look after our bodies then our bodies will look after us, after all there is a lot of sense in the words of the well-known nutritionist Michael Colgan; “If you don’t look after your body then where are you going to eat!”
Step one is to be aware of the factors that stress you out. This sounds simple but most people live in a world where they do not take the time to stand back and ponder why they are lacking energy, sleeping badly, overweight, down, etc. and put it down to being just how it is or the best excuse ever… that they are getting old.
You should now be aware of a few areas where you are stressed, such as lack of sleep, too much coffee, too much exercise, bad late night eating habits and maybe work pressures.
Naturally some stressors are easier to remedy than others with a strong mind-set. For example stopping to drink so much coffee is far easier that quitting your job.
Be aware in order to take care!
This is the one where the most of us can make a difference quite fast if we take the steps.
Ways to improve sleep. Cut stimulants such as alcohol, caffeine and nicotine after 17:00. Alcohol can have big effects on the quality of sleep, even though people assume it’s relaxing, and caffeine and nicotine are no brainers. (please note the removal of all of these will make a big difference)
Cut junk food (processed, high sugar and saturated fat foods) completely and especially after 16:00.
Eat protein with every meal. Eat more good fats. Are you taking supplements? A good quality zinc and magnesium supplement before bed may be the thing you are missing. f you are missing just one millionth of a gram of a certain mineral every day, over a period of time then you now have an imbalance and that imbalance may effect a whole host of things. Sleep can be one of them.
Try to get a set time to go to bed every night in the week and stick to it, we should be able to reprogram our sleep habits within a week of consistent sleep timing. You have to stick with this, think of having jet lag and re-adjusting to the new timezone. If you can do it then, you can do it for anytime.
Try to do something relaxing before bedtime, like having a herbal bath or having a relaxing tea. Reading a book can help some too, as long as it’s relaxing. (Notice the use of relaxing multiple times). If you watch a horror film that gets your pulse racing, don’t be surprised if sleep is not in abundance.
Make sure you room is dark. Light pollution is a major problem in cities and we will not get the best sleep if even a little light is present. Black out blinds should be fitted to the windows.
Drink plenty of water. Once dehydrated the body will respond as if it is experiencing stress, thus increasing cortisol levels and increasing the likelihood of disrupting our sleep.
Be aware of excessive amounts of electrical equipment in your bedroom and especially around your bed as the electromagnetic pollution can affect sleep/wake cycles. Make sure any alarm clocks, mobile phones on charge, music systems, TV’s etc. are turned off near the bed, or make sure they are placed well away from the bed. Any electric cable running under the bed, or close to it should also be powered off.
It’s not a case of saying you have no time for exercise, it’s a case of finding the time for exercise. Three times per week is ideal and if you see the exercise as part of your working day, a client if you will, then you will find the time to schedule this important activity into your life to improve your life. You are your most important client!
Exercise is proven to reduce cortisol levels, through hormonal changes and through using up the sugar and fat that is flowing about in the blood.
Serotonin and dopamine levels increase during and after exercise and exercise is thus shown to be more effective than anti-depressants over e 4 month period if exercising for 30 minutes a day three days per week.
Naturally good exercise will decrease body fat, increase muscle tone, gives bones better density, improve mental function. It also stimulates the immune response, reduces appetite and makes you look great naked…… I’d say that’s a pretty good trade off for investing three hours a week keeping active.
Make sure you always take the stairs, your body will thank you for that one tip.
However exercise to most is about as interesting as watching paint dry, so that’s why we are offering everyone here a free trial session at out indoor Ultimate City Bootcamps gym near Liverpool Street
Yes Hippocrates knew what he was talking way when he stated. “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. What an amazing quote and the more we get to know about what we do and don’t eat, the more this rings true. Conversely a modern version could be; “let food be thy poison and poison be thy food.”
So from this nutrition can be crudely split into two areas; what to eat and what not to eat. There are some crossovers between the two and we all want to have a life and one of the pleasures of life is a great meal! Through simple choices in the majority of the week we can easily enjoy those meals that in the past would have weighed down on us…. Literally!
We don’t have much time today and our blog has lots of free information on food choice. Here are a few tips to reduce stress and lose fat in the process;
- Eat Breakfast!
- Do not drink calories
- Eat Natural Foods
- Read labels
- Eat protein with every meal
- Cut down on carbs
- Eat good fats
- Eat Breakfast – Breakfast is without a doubt the most important meal of the day. It sets you up for the day ahead and what you eat will determine what kind of day your body has on a biological level.
Step one is to start to eat breakfast, and i know you may not be used to it. We understand it’s a big step for some people, so even natural yoghurt with some oatmeal on it and a little something to sweeten it (say some berries, or cherries) is a good starting point. Maybe some nut butter on some brown bread. This is by no means an ideal breakfast, but it’s all about conditioning the body for step two.
Once you have got your head around actually eating breakfast it is time for step two. If you do this modern nutrition science backs up that you are having the best start to a day that you can give yourself as you will be eating foods that will give you the clarity, alertness, good energy levels, better moods and a whole host of other things. It’s hard for a lot of people to get their heads around, but then I imagine that was the case when people first heard that the world was round and not flat and that the earth orbits the Sun and not the other way around!
Read this article, take action and feel and see the difference >>>PERFECT BREKKIE<<<
- Do not drink calories – this is very simple, and will make a big difference to the vast majority of you. Stop drinking juice, eat the fruit instead. Juice is loaded with sugar, without the fiber to slow down it’s digestion. That leads me nicely to any fizzy drinks that have sugar in, keep away from them. The sugar free ones are bad too, but better than their sugared cousins.
Do you have sugar in tea and coffee? If you have two, then start to drink it with one and a half for two weeks. Then go down to one for two weeks, and then half… you get the idea. I did this and can now actually taste what I am drinking instead of a sweet nothingness.
Do you like lattes? Ever thought of how many calories are in a latte? Many people like a skinny latte….. Listen if you take the fat out of milk, then you are left with pretty well just the lactase (the milk sugar). When the sugar is there with no fat to slow down it’s absorption in the gut, then it gets digested far too quickly. This means you get fat storage from drinking a drink that you think will make you skinny, like the name. Do not be fooled. If you have milk in a coffee, switch to an Americano with a splash of milk. Far better for you.
Protein shakes post workout are the only times we would say to drink calories. This is the window of opportunity, when the body wants the nutrition in a form that it can digest quickly and provide the bodies cells with what they need to recover and build back stronger and leaner. Check out the blog and FB Page for post workout tips.
- Eat Natural Foods – when possible the lions share of the food you eat should have come from the following; It should have been grown on a tree, grown in the ground, or have had parents. For some tips on this type of eating then check out this blog post >>>>PALEO FOOD<<<<< Eat as much of your diet like this and see how you feel! Clue the word starts with a ‘G’ and sounds like weight.
- Read labels – no brainer here, just turn the product around and ignore all the marketing on the front. Read what the label says and that is where the truth is. Is the product market ‘low fat’ and yet loaded with sugar? Is the main ingredient fructose, or glucose, or both? Is flour one of the first ingredients? Is there lots of saturated fat? Is there lots of words and letter and numbers that you really don’t understand? Best to steer clear then and look to a natural unprocessed, natural, and real food instead.
- Eat Protein with every meal – The best way to provide your body with the proper nutrition to function at an optimal level is proven to be to feed it little and often and to include a serving of protein with every meal.
Protein is essential to life and eating it with regularity helps to keep the metabolism fired up, to stop cravings for other fatty and sugary foods, to help properly maintain blood sugar levels and thus keep us energised and helps provide the body with the nutrients to combat cortisol, rather than to fuel it.
Naturally the addition of vegetables, occasional fruit, nuts, seeds and other natural foods help balance this out.
- Cut down on carbs – different people have different views on the subject of how many carbs to have on our diets. Needless to say the average western diet is loaded with too many of them, and of the wrong type.
If you have read above then you will know that we certainly say to steer away from any carbs for breakfast (that is after you have conditioned yourself with the protein and good fats breakfast).
Keep away from white carbs, like white bread, white rice, white pasta, breakfast cereals etc. Eat muffins for breakfast, then don’t be surprised if you get a muffin top over your jeans.
If you are going to eat carbs, stick to starchy vegetables and other pulses such as lentils, or certain beans, no not baked beans (read the label of a can of them one day).
I will have organic steel cut oats occasionally for a change, but I can tolerate carbs better than most people.
The occasional piece of fruit is ok, but look to have it for a mid morning snack or early afternoon. Also the type of fruit is important. Best to go for is apples and pears, or cherries and certain berries. Keep away from too many grapes, or bananas, or pineapples if you want to keep the sugars low!
- Eat good fats – there are fats that are good for us and fats that are bad. The really bad ones are the hydrogenated ones we find in spreads and margarines, biscuits, pastries, and a million other processed foods. Remember when I said check labels, well if you see the word hydrogenated then put that item down right away and walk away!
Contrary to old beliefs, some saturated fat is good for us and is important for hormonal function, so don’t get scared if there is a little saturated fat there. Butter is by far a better choice as a spread than margarine and other ‘butter type’ spreads.
For cooking use butter or my favourite extra virgin coconut oil. It has a high smoke point (so it does not go rancid) and tastes great. But it does not stop there, here’s the down low on this amazing oil >>>>COCONUTS<<<<
Want to know what we feel is the best oil and what should be taking pride of place in each person’s fridge???? If you get the right stuff then it will be the best nutritional step you have taken in years, think there is something fishy going on? Well check this link >>>>THE KING OF OILS<<<<
Not forgetting the other amazing oils that are found in nuts, seeds and avocados. When it comes to nuts, I do not include peanuts. They are actually a legume and can cause more bad than good. Stick to the super nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, cashew nuts, Brazil nuts, and pecans. Seeds such as sunflower, sesame, pumpkin, chia, and the big hitter flax. Flax is great milled such as the ones that Linwood’s produce that are bought in Holland and Barrett’s and can be sprinkled on most things.
“If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail!” This is one of my mantras and is so important in the subject of Stress relief and thus the regulating of cortisol.
You have hopefully gone through the steps of awareness and identified what stresses you out. Now you have that list, then plan on which stressors you will reduce first.
For example if the list was as such, need to sleep more, need to drink less than the four cups of coffee I drink daily, drink no alcohol on weekdays, need to get less stress at work, need to remove electrical items from close to my bed, need to black out my bedroom.
The easier ones there would be to get the bedroom blacked out and to remove the electrical items and place them elsewhere or turn them off (you’ll also save on electricity – bonus). These two may also help sleeping more!
Next up would be coffee. Go from drinking four cups a day, down to three for a week. The next week you go down to two and the final week down to one. Swop a glass of water into its place or a green tea (I know many people don’t like it, but drink it for it’s benefits as the theanine will also help with de-stressing you and fat loss as well as all the good antioxidants in it!). Once you are down to one cup then remove it all together – just to prove to yourself you can. Now see how much more alert you feel, and guess what, maybe you can sleep ok again now too. Now when you have a coffee you’ll get that buzz you used to get when you first started to drink it way back when and get the positive effects without the negative ones!
With the alcohol, just cut down from a few drinks a night to one, to none! You can do it, no doubt about it. You’ll also notice some fat loss from doing this and from removing the other stressors!
Next would be sleep. Well hopefully you are now sleeping better as you have removed the other stressors and added the blackout blinds. See the section on sleep for tips on how to improve it.
Last stressor was work. This is one that is harder to change. However now you have changed the others, then your threshold for stress and the release of cortisol is now much higher! The little things that used to bother you and stress you will now not even raise a eyebrow and now that you are aware of the stressors and what stresses you, then you’ll walk out of the office and hit the gym, or do some breathing exercises.
If you want to take your studies on Stress and Cortisol to the next level then here are two amazing reads.
Train Hard, Live Easy
Tom @ UCF