Is cortisol affecting your ability to lose weight?

You’re eating right. You’re drinking plenty of water. Your protein levels are high, and you’re staying active and working out regularly. So why aren’t you losing weight, no matter what you do?

In today’s society, one thing many women (and men) have in common is chronic stress levels. We’ve become used to living constantly on the edge, burnout being the norm, with little respite for our body and mind to relax and restore. Stress can be detrimental to our health in all sorts of ways – but it can also be at the root of stubborn weight loss.

Stress increases cortisol and insulin levels

Stress actively alters our physiology when we are in a constant state of anxiety or pressure. Our ‘fight or flight’ response was designed to kick in when we most needed it – in a life-threatening situation, adrenalin pumps through our veins and our body prepares for intense physical exertion. When this occurs occasionally, the body is able to absorb the excess glucose. But when we are chronically stressed, our fight or flight response is switched on almost all the time, causing a multitude of issues for us physically and mentally.

Stress keeps us in storage mode

Hard to lose belly fat is a key indicator of chronic stress being the culprit behind our stalling weight loss. Cortisol helps our bodies to produce excessive amounts of glucose over time, which is then converted to fat, which is stored by the body. It also raises blood sugar, which makes it easier for the body to store fat rather than burn it.

Breaking up with stress – how to reduce cortisol levels in the body

The first thing to pay attention to is the daily habits and aspects of your life that can keep you trapped in the cycle of stress. Chronic stress doesn’t appear to have a root cause on the surface – because everything irritates us in this state. Often we don’t really know why we’re stressed – we just feel strung-out, overwhelmed, crabby and exhausted.

You might like to start this process journaling in the morning and evening to discover which aspects of your life give you the most stress and anxiety. Once you’ve identified where the source of much of your stress is coming from, how can you make a change?

Whether it’s therapy, meditation, yoga, gardening, walking or working out – invest in eliminating the stress in the first instance, whatever that might look like to you.

Whilst you are finding balance mentally, seek out ways to support your body with the impact of stress to help bring back some balance and control over your emotional state.

Lack of sleep continues the cycle

When we are stressed, the quality of our sleep is impacted. Since high cortisol levels can also be caused by a continued lack of sleep this then becomes a vicious cycle which feeds into chronic stress levels.

To remedy this, practice proper sleep hygiene as closely as possible. Put away your phone (or anything with a screen) for at least an hour before bed, and try to stick to the same times each day to wake up and go to sleep. Experiment with techniques to help you sleep more soundly, such as a darker room, weighted blankets or a cooler temperature.

Hormonal imbalance

When cortisol is dominant in our system it throws our other hormones out of balance such as estrogen and progesterone. It can also impact on proper thyroid function, causing weight gain and making losing those extra pounds more difficult. This again perpetuates the cycle of stress, as many people who are running high on cortisol find they are lower in stores of serotonin and dopamine, which help us to feel calmer, happier and more balanced.

Over time it is thought that prolonged stress can also result in a sluggish thyroid, making it even harder to shed stubborn fat. If you suspect there is an issue with your thyroid, make an appointment to see your doctor to diagnose and treat the issue. When treated and functioning optimally you should see a difference as you move towards your weight loss goal.

Indulging in too many high sugar, high caffeine foods and drinks

High levels of stress can cause us to binge on unhealthy foods or adopt not-so-healthy eating habits that can harm our weight loss progress. These foods actually increase stress within the body themselves, as they are often inflammatory and hormone-disrupting. Just like sleep, this becomes a vicious cycle that’s hard to break.

If your diet is currently less than desirable, it’s time to start introducing more whole foods. Start by upping your protein intake to help you feel fuller for longer, avoid blood sugar peaks and crashes, and prevent mindless snacking. Introduce non-refined carbohydrates such as quinoa, sweet potato, black rice and legumes. You can swap out unhealthy snacks with something tasty yet wholesome – think energy balls, fruit with nut butter and seeds, or raw cakes.

Practice intuitive eating – considering the motive behind your ‘hunger’, and whether it could be your body trying to tell you something else. Similarly, don’t deny your body food if it’s hungry or starve yourself for hours on end – this only increases stress levels (the body releases even more cortisol when blood sugar gets low). If you’re always on the go, make time to eat. Sit down, switch off and savour your food.

If you’re struggling on your own, work with a qualified nutritionist to help you put together satisfying meal plans and a healthier lifestyle you’ll stick to in the long-term.

Tackle stress early to prevent stubborn fat and weight gain

Stress builds over time – as do the detrimental effects it has on the body. Slowly but surely, the problems compound one another until a chronic condition of stress and illness develops.

As soon as you notice that stress is a problem for you, start to take small steps towards a healthier, happier lifestyle. The earlier you start, the easier it will be for your body to restore and recover.