October 15, 2009

Cortisol and Weight Gain

Posted in Category : Common Ailments

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal cortex in the adrenal gland. It is commonly referred to as the ‘stress hormone’ since it is secreted in response to the body suffering stress or anxiety. Whenever we face a ‘fight or flight’ situation, the hypothalamus region of the brain directs the adrenal gland to secrete cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are essential in getting the body alert and ready for reaction. However, cortisol happens to increase blood sugar level and blood pressure (hypertension), while suppressing the immune system.

To understand how cortisol can lead to weight gain, we need to understand how the body reacts to a stress situation. One of the first requirements is a rapid source of energy. To get this, the hormones cortisol and adrenaline help the body to break down carbohydrates and fat deposits in the body. In addition, the body goes to an alert status; the pupils dilate, thinking appears clearer, and the lungs begin to pull in more air for oxygen. At the same time, the appetite is suppressed and the digestive system is temporarily shut down. Once the stress levels reduce, adrenaline quickly disappears but the cortisol remains active. This is required to help bring the body back into a ‘normal’ mode. Cortisol does this by increasing our appetite to replace the lost carbohydrates and fat. Unfortunately, sometimes our lifestyles lead to a state of continual stress, which means we are constantly pumping cortisol into our system. This artificially increases our appetite and increases blood glucose levels. This excess energy is then stored as body fat. Many experts believe that weight gain from cortisol is usually stored around the waist. This is because the fat cells in the abdominal area have a greater number of stress hormone receptors and are very effective at storing fat. In fact, this area has more fat cells than any other part of the body. Unfortunately, this is also the most dangerous place to put on weight, since it has been linked to serious conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

To avoid cortisol-related weight gain, one needs to focus on managing stress. This will usually involve some degree of lifestyle changes. Perhaps the single best defense is getting regular exercise, which helps you burn any extra calories, improves insulin sensitivity, and reduces stress levels. Many people also practice additional techniques like meditation to bring about a much-needed balance in their lives.