Stress hormones aren’t all bad. Your body appreciates a boost in adrenaline and cortisol in short-term, high-stress situations, like having your wallet swiped or jumping out of the way of a car or bike.
However, chronically elevated cortisol levels, the result of long-term stress over your job, finances, or health, can put a damper on your weight loss goals.
Cortisol is really destructive. It suppresses almost all hormones that help you burn fat. It lowers levels of metabolism-boosting thyroid hormones, promotes the loss of muscle tissue, increases appetite-stimulating hormones, and makes you crave comfort food. Not a good combo when you are trying to lose body fat.
So how do you know if your cortisol levels are high? A blood test is always a good idea, but a telltale sign of chronically high cortisol levels is stubborn belly fat according to a Yale University study published in Psychosomatic Medicine. When researchers asked both lean and overweight women who stored fat either around their waists or on their hips to perform a series of stress-inducing tasks, women with more abdominal fat, even if they were otherwise slender, secreted higher levels of cortisol.
In addition to pudge in the abdominal area, signs of cortisol imbalance include difficulty falling asleep, waking between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., digestive problems, sugar or salt cravings, muscle tension, headaches, anxiety, and depression.
Getting back in balance
In addition to managing the stress in your life, by simply taking more time to relax, take long walks and do things that make you happy, you must focus on quality sleep. Aim for 7.5 to 9 hours of slumber each night. I recommend sleeping in the pitch black, and avoid warm clothing or heavy blankets. Letting your body cool down as you sleep optimizes fat burn and enhances the recuperative benefits of sleep. Sleep increases growth hormone, which burns fat while it rebuilds bone, muscle, and skin cells during slumber, and keeps the hunger and satiety hormones, ghrelin and leptin, in balance.