Our bodies produce dozens of hormones that control virtually everything we do: from how we think, eat, sleep and cope with stress to how clear our complexions are and how much we weigh. When levels of just one hormone fluctuate, that shift can have serious consequences for mental, emotional and physical health.
It’s not simply ‘calories in’ versus ‘calories out’ that controls your weight. It’s all about balancing the food you eat, how your liver functions and how certain hormones – including insulin, thyroid, estrogen, serotonin, leptin and cortisol – determine whether you are lean or fat. By understanding how these hormones work together, you can regulate your waist size more effectively.
Stress produces cortisol, which produces insulin – and insulin is the fat storage hormone. Many people deny being stressed, but if you commute to work, have small children, teenagers, or aging parents, if you do not enjoy your work, sleep too much, sleep too little, eat too much sugar, take pharmaceuticals, take too many or not enough supplements, if you don’t eat vegetables, if you don’t breathe deeply, enjoy your life or are worried about your health or weight, you are probably stressed.
Also, there is a correlation between where you store your body fat and which hormones are unbalanced. Excess stored around your love handles could indicate an insulin imbalance; fat stored around your abdomen could indicate a cortisol imbalance.
Most importantly, your body experiences the same hormonal changes whether your stress is actual or imagined!
Insulin, produced in your pancreas, is essential to process sugar in your bloodstream and carry it to cells to be used. Your blood sugar level is the amount of glucose from the food you eat or from unbalanced stress levels. Glucose sugar circulates in your bloodstream to provide energy to your cells immediately or to be stored for future use. A well-balanced blood sugar level is crucial to your overall fitness and well-being, regulating your hormones, triggering your body to burn stored fat, and increasing your metabolism to help you lose weight.
Too much glucose leads to high blood sugar levels which your body can’t break down so it gets stored as fat. Ironically, insufficient sugar can also lead to extra pounds. Eating too little glucose can lead to a low blood sugar level, causing your body to go into ‘starvation mode’: it burns your lean muscle instead of the fat – a double whammy to your metabolic rate.
A diet rich in the following foods will help to balance your sugar levels, your hormones and your weight: leafy greens; lean protein such as eggs, meat, fish and chicken; whole grains such as quinoa and millet, plus nuts and seeds; beans and lentils; and healthy fats such as avocados, olive oil and coconut oil.
What causes insulin excess? Again, the list is long: too much nutrient-poor, carbs-processed food, sugary drinks, sodas, packaged low fat foods and artificial sweeteners; insufficient protein intake, inadequate fat intake, deficient fibre consumption, chronic stress, lack of exercise, over exercising, steroid-based medications, poor liver function and toxin exposure.
Possible signs of excess insulin include age spots, sagging skin, skin tags, vision changes or cataracts, heart disease, poor memory and concentration, type 2 diabetes, sleep disruption or deprivation, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
The Cortisol Effect
Cortisol is the stress hormone produced by our adrenal glands. How we react to each of our stressors determines how much cortisol we produce. Possible signs of excess cortisol include weight gain, hair loss, and infertility or absent menopause.
Excess cortisol also interferes with serotonin, which can lead to clinical depression, anxiety disorders and insomnia. The long list of effects also includes mental clutter and poor concentration, breaking down of collagen and an acceleration of the aging process, heart palpitations and loss of muscle tone, increased blood pressure, blood clotting and cholesterol levels, and the sensation of feeling ‘wired’ at night.
All stress, actual or perceived, can cause a physiological response. The brain triggers the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys, to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline speeds up heart rate, increases blood pressure and boosts energy. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, shifts energy away from the digestive and immune systems to prepare for an ‘alarmed’ state, and increases blood sugar levels and the brain's uptake of glucose.
While some stress can be positive, the problem is ongoing, chronic stress. Day-to-day demands, worry, tension and poor lifestyle cause your adrenals to fire constantly and cortisol levels to be released in excess.
A poor diet can trigger stress. During periods of stress, our demand for nutrients increases, there is a faster turnover of protein, fat and carbohydrates to produce energy to keep up with the demands we place on ourselves, and vitamins B and C are rapidly depleted.
When the pressure is on, many of us don’t take the time to eat. When the stressful moment has passed or we finally have time to eat, we typically reach for a treat. By then we’re low in blood sugar, extremely hungry and need to eat NOW. This energy slump, typically at 3 or 4 pm, sets us up for poor food choices.
While the concentrated shot of sugar found in soft drinks or sweet treats provides a quick energy boost, it’s short lived. We feel more tired and irritable than before the sugar fix. When our sugar level increases from food choices or stress, this again increases our insulin levels, and remember, insulin is the fat storage hormone. These high levels of sugar are taken out of the blood via the production of insulin, the sugar converts to body fat, and our blood sugar levels decrease causing us to crave sweets again.
Too much caffeine can also lead to stress. Caffeine increases anxiety, mimics the stress response and causes the body to lose B vitamins, necessary for vitality and energy, as well as calcium, important for muscle and nerve relaxation.
It’s a vicious circle: stress affects mood; mood affects food choices; food choices affect mood which once again affects stress levels – especially if we are upset about the food we just ate.
When it comes to weight control, never underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep. Getting enough sleep helps you maintain your weight, while sleep loss goes along with an increased risk of weight gain. Why? Part of the problem is behavioral. If you’re chronically overtired, you might be less likely to have the energy to go for that jog or cook a healthy dinner after work. Why? Lack of sleep increases stress which increases cortisol levels which increase insulin levels.
The other part is physiological. The hormone leptin plays a key role in making you feel full. When you don’t get enough sleep, leptin levels drop. Tired people are hungrier, and crave high-fat and high-calorie foods.
Melatonin can also influence weight loss: without the release of melatonin, we have less growth hormone production, which repairs and maintains metabolically active muscle tissue while we sleep. The more muscle mass, the higher your metabolic rate which allows you to burn more calories even while sleeping.
To control stress and its influence on your weight, try to diminish or remove the sources of stress in your life. Scale back your commitments, learn better time management, become more assertive. Use exercise, meditation and yoga to cope with stress you can’t eliminate.
Change your psychological responses. For example, if you tend to overeat when stressed, develop a list of non-food ways to handle the pressure. Learning to wait out the urge to eat – usually just 10 to 15 minutes – is a simple change that can make a big difference. Take a walk, breathe deeply, listen to music, read a book or do some yoga to decrease your cortisol levels so your insulin levels don’t increase. But don’t restrict your calories too much because a lack of calories can also cause stress to your body.
Yes, it is a real balancing act!
Shawn M. Nisbet, is a registered holistic nutritionist (RHN), yoga teacher and Nordic pole walking master instructor. Tel: 416.804.0938. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. www.shawnnisbet.com; www.shawnsharesjuiceplus.com.