While short-term stress can lead to health issues like headaches, stomach cramps, weight gain, and more, chronic stress can have detrimental effects on every part of your body. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), if left unaddressed, stress can increase your risk of digestive issues, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, depression, and more. On a much smaller scale, chronic stress can result in weight gain. You heard right, stress isn’t just making you more irritable—it may also be making you sicker and affecting your weight loss plans. That’s where cortisol comes in. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone. The higher your cortisol level, the higher your stress. But thankfully, there are little things you can do every day to manage your stress levels and, as a result, lose sustainable weight in a healthy way.
To learn more about the daily habits to help manage cortisol levels, we spoke with Johna Burdeos, a registered dietitian and health writer. She said that it’s crucial that you manage stress and how you respond to it, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and eat a balanced diet to help with stress and fat reduction. Discover more about cortisol and the habits you can incorporate into your day to reduce stress and help with weight loss.
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Table of Contents
What Is Cortisol?
Before we dive into daily habits to manage stress and help with weight loss, let's first determine what exactly cortisol is. Burdeos explains, "Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. It's produced by the adrenal glands in response to physical or emotional stress—or 'fight of flight.' In response to stress or perceived danger, cortisol triggers a series of bodily reactions—including [increased] blood pressure and blood sugar, heart rate, and breaking down stored glycogen (sugar) in the liver. This prepares the body to literally fight or flee from stress or danger." However, if you experience high cortisol levels when there's no danger to flee from or normal stress, she says that it's a sign of chronic stress which can lead to negative health effects. Yikes!
1. Manage Stress And How You Respond To It
These days, it's hard *not* to get stressed every once in a while. Between work, family, social life, and other commitments, it's easy to become overwhelmed. But, you must set time aside to unwind or your overall health will suffer. "Examine what areas in your life need a change to minimize stress," Burdeos says. "Practice healthy stress management habits like deep breathing, stretching, talking to someone you trust, and self-care like hobbies you enjoy or taking time to unwind." Learning how to manage your stress takes practice, but when you do, your body will thank you for it. And, if you can't identify the main causes of your stress, we recommend keeping a stress journal. That way, you can make note of when you become most anxious, see if you can determine a pattern, and then find ways to lessen those triggers.
2. Get Enough Sleep
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), approximately 1 in 3 American adults don't get healthy amounts of sleep—and stress can only make the problem worse. Adults need 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night to stay in good mental and physical health. "Inadequate sleep contributes to high cortisol levels. And it can make you feel more stressed out," Burdeous emphasizes. "Insufficient sleep has also been linked to weight gain. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep every night." Even one night of insufficient sleep can affect you the next day. So, be sure to get some shut-eye!
3. Exercise Regularly
You probably already know that you should exercise on the regular. Working out consistently can not only help with weight management, but it can also improve your brain health, reduce your risk of disease, strengthen bones and muscles, improve your mobility, and lower your cortisol levels. "Regular activity has numerous health benefits including strengthening the muscles, bones, and heart. It's also been linked to improved mental health, energy, and decreased stress levels," Burdeos notes.
4. Eat A Balanced Diet
Burdeos says that a healthy, balanced diet includes "lean protein like chicken, legumes, and eggs; healthy unsaturated fats like salmon, nuts, seeds, and avocado; high fiber foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains." She continues, "These foods can help keep cortisol levels stable. Unlike highly processed foods, which when eaten regularly drive inflammation and lead to spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels, which in turn elevates cortisol levels and other stress hormones over time and leads to chronic medical conditions." Noted!
The Bottom Line
So, experts like Burdeos say that managing how you respond to stress, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and eating a balanced diet are essential for controlling your cortisol levels. And, Buredos also wants to stress that healthy weight loss, "involves much more than these four because weight is impacted not only by food consumption and activity but also by medical conditions, medications, and other hormones besides cortisol."