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Cortisol and optimum body composition

What is cortisol and how can it affect your body composition, particularly belly fat?

Cortisol is your stress hormone and can be your best friend or your sworn enemy. Produced in the adrenal glands, It’s an important hormone that’s essential for human survival and plays a role in the fight-or-flight response. Whenever your body experiences any type of stress (whether it be mental or physical) your body secretes cortisol, which then initiates lots of other physiological responses necessary for your body to keep functioning.

In a normal situation, cortisol production only lasts for a short period of time and afterwards, all metabolic functions go back to normal. But things can go wrong, because in many cases stresses that cause your body to secrete cortisol can occur way too often or stay switched on for much too long – a response to modern, chronic, everyday stress.

When your body experiences constant stress, it continuously secretes cortisol and that’s when cortisol becomes counterproductive. When cortisol is too high for too long, it can seriously compromise your health and alter your metabolic process causing you to gain stubborn unrelenting belly fat – also called visceral fat.

Therefore, if you tend to gain belly fat easily and have a difficult time getting rid of it, there’s a strong likelihood that you’re producing too much cortisol. Your stomach fat isn’t the only area that’s controlled by your hormones, but it happens to be the most sensitive.

Recent studies have shown an association between uncontrollable stress and abdominal fat distribution. (Department of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA).

Because cortisol increases due to stress, we should combine diet with stress management to reduce excess weight from this hormone.

1. Stress management

A large part of getting rid of cortisol fat is managing your stress levels. Learn to meditate, start taking a Pilates class. Don’t stretch yourself and your time too thin; learn how to say no when friends or family members ask you to do something you just don’t have the time or energy to do. Find time for fun and do things that you really enjoy. There may be some stressful factors that you can’t control, such as mishaps at work, but reducing the stressors you can control will have a big impact

It’s important to keep in mind that your body can’t tell the difference between emotional and physical stress… which is why even exercise is seen as stress. Although exercise is an effective component of weight loss, if you’re doing the wrong kind of exercise, it can actually increase your chronic cortisol levels and cause you to retain stubborn belly fat. Countless studies have concluded that the most effective way to exercise so you can burn fat and get lean WITHOUT increasing your cortisol is short intense workouts. When it comes to boosting your metabolism to increase calorie burn intensity is the KEY… not duration. Keep it short but always give your maximum effort.

2. Diet

Below are some simple but effective dietary tips that you can include to further help you balance cortisol levels in your body to target optimum body composition.

My personal top foods to help balance cortisol.

– Salmon ( Containing omega-3 oils to inhibit inflammation, but also help lower cortisol levels and reduce stress)

– Beef (high in zinc to help inhibit the production of cortisol. If you don’t eat meat, you can also get zinc from cashews, pumpkin seeds, spinach and white beans)

flaxseeds/ walnuts (contain protective polyphenols, omega 3’s and antioxidants helping to reduce cortisol)

eggs ( rich in antioxidants to lower inflammation, improve blood sugar balance and insulin release)

– dark chocolate (containing high levels of anti-oxidants that help decrease inflammation and slow the secretion of cortisol. Just make sure that it’s at least 70% dark chocolate)

Greek yoghurt ( containing live probiotic bacteria helping to reduce cortisol and improve gut health)

– spinach ( packed with magnesium to help balance your body’s production of cortisol)

– Citrus fruit (eg oranges and kiwis have high content of vitamin C, which help slow the production of cortisol)

b) My top 10 foods to avoid ( these can directly or indirectly increase cortisol)

trans fats
High sugar fruit juice
Foods you may be personally intolerant to
Milk chocolate
Processed baked goods
Fat free flavoured yogurts
Low fibre carbs
Caffeine in high doses
Vegetable and seed oils

However, remember that diet alone may not be enough to control cortisol and associated weight gain. There are other factors to consider that may be hindering your progress.

1. Are you sleeping enough?

Getting enough quality sleep (7-9 hours/night) is the most important thing you can do to minimise stress, optimise your health and help your body to burn more fat! During your sleep, your body utilises fat as it’s primary source of fuel. So getting enough sleep is key to making sure that your body burns off more fat! If you have a hard time sleeping, try reading a book (non-fiction or self improvement type of books tend to work best).

Sleeping in complete darkness also helps you sleep more soundly. Get rid of electrical equipment like phones, computers, TV’s, and radios in your bedroom (or at least switch them off when you go to sleep).

2. Do you feel tired all of the time?

If you constantly feeling tired, it means you’re not recovering enough. Inadequate recovery means that your body still has cortisol coursing through your body. In situations like this, it’s best to give yourself a break and and let your body rest. You’re only going to do your body more disservice by pushing through the fatigue. In fact, you’ll be increasing your cortisol production and making your belly fat even more difficult to burn off.

3. Do you need caffeine in the morning to get going?

Caffeine is a stimulant and it actually enhances your cortisol production! Drinking a cup of coffee is fine if you’re not suffering from chronic fatigue. If you need a stimulant to wake up, you’re definitely not getting enough sleep and/or rest. If you’re getting enough sleep but still have a hard time getting going in the morning without caffeine, try switching to green tea. It has about 1/4 the amount of caffeine than your regular cup of coffee and it also contains catechins—natural stimulants that helps boost your energy levels and fight fatigue.

If you answered yes to any of these questions, cortisol may be to blame. And if so, the solution is pretty easy…sleep, rest and recover! Improving these three seemingly unrelated, but very important factors can help reduce your cortisol, so you can finally start burning fat off your stomach.

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