You’re stressed. I mean, who’s not? Between work, meeting deadlines, taking your kids to soccer practice, planning family vacations, all while remembering to eat and having enough time to workout for yourself, can be challenging and make you want to pull your hair out. Added stress can affect sleep patterns, eating habits, and cause your hormones levels to go out of control, which contributes directly to added weight gain and body fat. While cortisol is a necessary part of life, it’s important to keep your cortisol levels under control.
What Is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone, specifically a glucocorticoid, which is made in the adrenal glands. Cortisol regulates a wide range of biological processes including metabolic and immune responses. It’s been widely studied that cortisol responsiveness is an important indicator and determinant in the metabolic response to stress, specifically the 'fight or flight response' which influences weight gain and obesity. Cortisol controls the body’s blood sugar levels, thus regulating metabolism. So how do you control this raging stress hormone, so that you don’t invariably gain weight?
How Does Cortisol Work?
Cortisol is regulated through daily activity patterns. When we wake up cortisol levels become elevated and decline throughout the day. In response to stress, additional levels of cortisol are released to help the body’s biological responses and actions. Cortisol is typically referred to when initiating the body’s “fight or flight” response to stressful situations when we find out ourselves in moments of crisis [R]
In response to stress, the body activates the release of cortisol, through three anatomical structures, which can be found in the central and peripheral nervous system. The principal effectors that mediate the stress response are localized in the periventricular nucleus (PVN) of the hypothalamus, the anterior lobe of the pituitary gland, and the adrenal gland. This collection of structures is commonly referred to as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis [R].
When our body contains low levels of cortisol, corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF), (the principal regulator of the HPA axis) is secreted from the hypothalamus, which causes the pituitary gland to release another hormone, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). When the blood contains high levels of ACTH, it goes through a biological process called the Negative Feedback Loop. During this process the body secretes cortisol to regulate and maintain a steady hormone level. When ACTH is too high, the adrenal glands stimulate the release of cortisol, causing cortisol blood concentration to rise. As cortisol rises, it blocks the release of CRF and ACTH. As a result, ACTH levels start to drop, which ultimately leads to a drop in Cortisol. Thus, cortisol is regulated through a constant loop and cascade of biological reactions.
How To Control And Lower Cortisol Levels
Adequately controlling and lowering cortisol levels is not only important to help with combating added weight gain, but it’s also important so you don’t drive yourself crazy since elevated levels will increase your stress. Cortisol is called the ‘stress hormone’ for a reason, and if you can manage to lower it more effectively, then you can better control weight gain and stress levels.
1. Eat Whole Foods That Reduce Inflammation
Controlling inflammation is key to lowering cortisol levels and correcting hormonal imbalances. Following an anti-inflammatory diet that consists of wholesome natural foods which include hormone free lean proteins, healthy fats high in Omega 3, quality carbohydrates, cutting out processed meats, and eating more food high in antioxidants will all contribute to a well-rounded anti-inflammatory diet. With less inflammation, your body will maintain steady levels of cortisol, so that you do not create added body fat. Remember, that cortisol is controlled through activity patterns, and if you can control your activity to be steady and incorporate healthier practices, you can successfully lower your cortisol levels.
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2. Reduce & Manage Your Stress
It’s easy to say, but it’s hard to follow and put into practice. Coming from personal experience, it can be extremely hard to find ways to manage and reduce your stress levels. However, it’s crucial to your overall well being to find activities or ways to control your stress and lower cortisol levels.
- Take a 15-minute breather and write it down as personal time in your schedule
- Turn off your cell phone and opt for an outside lunch without the distraction of stressors
- Commit to doing something fun with your friends once a week
- Take up Yoga, Pilates, or Stress Relief Mediation Classes
- Drink less coffee and drink more mind relaxing tea
- Cook a nice meal and have a glass of wine
- Take a hot bath just to yourself
- Workout and exercise consistently
- Stop doing anything work-related before dinner and relax
These are just a few simple ways to control your stress and lower your cortisol levels. The most important thing is to find something that works well for you.
3. Exercise On A Consistent Basis
Regular aerobic and anaerobic exercise will not only help you control your stress and cortisol levels; it will help you lose weight (mind blown). Exercise helps reduce cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins (chemicals in the brain, which act as natural painkillers and mood enhancers). Endorphins are responsible for feelings of relaxation and optimism following a workout. Regular exercise can also be used as a stress-free environment, a place to get away, or a solitary experience where you can get away from your normal everyday stressors in life. A place where you can get away from the kids, your husband/wife, put on your headphones, and relax your mind to ease your mental stress and fatigue.
4. Get An Adequate Amount Of Sleep
Getting an adequate amount of sleep can have a large impact on effectively controlling cortisol levels [R]. Overtime sleep deprivation can cause an increase in cortisol levels and have negative elevated stress [R]. Incorporating a healthy nightly routine can effectively help you get better quality sleep and establish a pattern to help calm your mind, so that you can reduce stress levels.
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5. Supplement With Tongkat Ali
Tongkat Ali also referred to as Malaysian Ginseng is a medicinal herb that has been traditionally used as an anti-aging remedy. Studies have shown that Tongkat Ali helps stimulate the release of free testosterone, improves sex drive, reduces fatigue, and improves well-being.
In a double-blind randomized control trial, 63 subjects were administered Tongkat Ali or a placebo for four weeks. The results showed significant improvements in the Tongkat A group for Tension (−11%), Anger (−12%), and Confusion (−15%). Stress hormone profile (salivary cortisol and testosterone) was significantly improved with Tongkat ALi supplementation, with reduced cortisol exposure (−16%) and increased testosterone status (+37%) [R].
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How To Control And Lower Cortisol: The Takeaway
Controlling cortisol levels effectively is important to combat unwanted weight gain and elevated stress levels. Like I said, it’s called the ‘stress hormone’ for a reason. By controlling your cortisol levels, you’re invariably controlling your body’s ability to produce unwanted body fat, by regulating blood sugar levels. Eat more whole foods; find a few minutes to yourself to just relax and breath, and most of all, exercise regularly. If you can incorporate these simple methods into your everyday life, you’ll feel more enriched, have higher energy levels, and be able to combat your cravings. Remember, stress can make us do crazy things, and cause us to make rash decisions, emotionally eat, or not even eat at all. If you can control your cortisol, you’ll be able to better manage your health and fitness goals.
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Abraham, SB et al. “Cortisol, Obesity and the Metabolic Syndrome: A Cross-Sectional Study of Obese Subjects and Review of the Literature.” Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.)1 (2013): E105–E117. PMC. Web. 26 Apr. 2018.
Smith, Sean M., and Wylie W. Vale. “The Role of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis in Neuroendocrine Responses to Stress.” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience4 (2006): 383–395. Print.
Hirotsu C, Tufik S, Andersen ML. Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions. Sleep Sci. 2015;8(3):143-52.
Niu SF, Chung MH, Chen CH, Hegney D, O'brien A, Chou KR. The effect of shift rotation on employee cortisol profile, sleep quality, fatigue, and attention level: a systematic review. J Nurs Res. 2011;19(1):68-81.