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Cortisol: The Hidden Culprit Behind Stubborn Pounds?

Feeling fatigued, restless, foggy, irritable, or frustrated? Maybe the pounds won’t budge, or you can’t seem to lose the last bit. Have you considered your cortisol? Cortisol is a critical hormone influencing how our body responds to threats or stress in our lives. Unfortunately, keeping us “safe” and keeping us “slim” do not always go hand in hand.

Cortisol and Weight Loss Resistance

The release of cortisol actually has an adverse effect on our ability to lose weight. Evolutionary research tells us that our bodies are designed to respond to stress by increasing “storage hormones” – which allow for survival. One of these is cortisol1.

Key Insight: A main function of cortisol is to raise blood sugar, in order to allow for additional energy to respond to whatever task we have in front of us. This is what we might refer to as the “fight-or-flight” response.

The “fight-or-flight” response is essential for circumstantial stressors that require an immediate response. When stress becomes more recurrent, cortisol is then constantly being released into our system.

This constant release of cortisol creates an imbalance, one which ultimately strips our cells of the energy molecule glucose. This sends signals to the brain that tell us that we need to consume more glucose for energy.

Cortisol also increases the amount of fat deposited in the abdominal area and will not let go until the stressors that triggered the storage are reduced or gone2.

Bottom Line: Basically, when we are stressed we make more glucose which signals us to eat more which leads to weight gain which makes us more stressed – and this vicious cycle continues3.

The Truth About Cortisol

Many health advocates claim that various solutions lie in “less carbs”, “lower carbs”, or “appetite suppression.” The truth is that every single one of these can worsen the problem, rather than solve it.

Furthermore, some individuals reach for:

  • Caffeine
  • High-intensity workouts
  • Fad diets

These folks ultimately feel more guilty when they are unable to achieve their weight loss goals.

Bottom Line: We need to dispel the notion that there is a “silver bullet” that some health advocates rely on. Instead, let’s consider the science and our clinical experience.

Case Study: Cortisol Curve

I recently discussed this common misinformation with a patient who had the goal to “drop her last 10 lbs of luggage” that she had been carrying around for less than 10 years.

This patient was previously involved in the fitness world and no stranger to exercising and dieting. She had exhausted her efforts in various diets and extreme exercise regimens and even extreme caloric restriction to achieve her goal – none of which provided her success.

She was defeated and had no idea where to turn. After assessing her adrenal health, completing both an adrenal quiz and a salivary cortisol collection, we discussed her cortisol curve.

We also discussed how outdated recommendations to cut carbs, work out more and eliminate stress are all unrealistic and unproductive.

Solutions For Your Adrenal Function

Improving adrenal function can seem like a daunting or impossible task, but there are many proven methods (1) to help you lose weight.

Bottom Line: One important key factor is identifying your specific state of adrenal dysfunction, which you can do here (2).

Embracing (Good) Carbs for Weight Loss

Many of us have been told to avoid carbohydrates later in the day, thinking that weight gain is inevitable. On the contrary, carbs can actually be one big solution to supporting healthy adrenal function and bringing you back into balance.

Good carbs are efficient fuel in that they take the longest to absorb and maintain a steady blood sugar. Because of this, these good carbs provide more steady energy and more satiety4.

Some common “good carbs” include:

  • Legumes (lentils, black beans, and chickpeas)
  • Root vegetables (beets, parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas)
  • Whole grains (quinoa, buckwheat, and black rice)

Finding Herbal Support

It is important to note that every individual has different needs, therefore selecting herbal supplements must be done with proper consideration of each case (3).

You can even find everything you need in one handy package…

Daily Reset Packs - Complete Nutrition - Dr. Alan Christianson

Some herbs encourage raising cortisol while others support lowering, some herbs improve our HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) communication and other herbs support general resilience.

Understanding which is best for you first requires identifying what your state of dysfunction is. This can be done by talking with your health practitioner and completing some data collection. You can also asses for adrenal function here (4) and determine which herbal combination may be right for you.

Light Exposure

Treating the body to a certain level of light can intentionally manipulate the body’s natural circadian rhythm of cortisol. So much of what we do is dependent upon when we wake up and when we go to sleep, and light therapy can be used to facilitate correcting any imbalance. Exposure to bright light in the morning can help to restore it5.

Key Insight: To maintain an ideal cortisol rhythm, 15 minutes of 10,000 LUX exposure is recommended within the first hour of waking.

For other stages of dysfunction, other variations of light exposure are recommended. Blue light exposure also influences your body’s release of cortisol. Specifically avoiding blue light at night serves to suppress cortisol in the evening hours6.

The patient I had mentioned before completed their 4-week Adrenal Reset Challenge and ending up losing 6 pounds, within the first 4 weeks, while also building:

  • Energy
  • Stamina
  • Motivation

She went on to achieve her weight loss goal of 10 lbs over the next few months, and was able to keep this weight off for years to come.

What Can I Do To Start?

Learning more about your adrenal levels can help you create a specific plan to provide success on your weight loss journey. Consider the Adrenal Quiz today to get started (5).

Here’s to knowledge along your journey to wellness!

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4 – Lyons PM, Truswell AS (1988) Serotonin precursor influenced by type of carbohydrate meal in healthy adults. Am J Clin Nutr 47: 433–439.
5 – Bechtold DA, Gibbs JE, Loudon ASI. Circadian dysfunction in disease. Trends Pharmacol Sci. 2010;31:191–198.
6 – Figueiro MG, Rea MS. The effects of red and blue lights on circadian variations in cortisol, alpha amylase, and melatonin. Int J Endocrinol. 2010;2010:829351

Written by Dr. Lauren Beardsley of Integrative Health. Dr. Lauren Beardsley is an Associate Physician with Integrative Health, specializing in Thyroid, Adrenal and Male/Female Hormone imbalance.

Learn more about Dr. Beardsley here