We've all been told that to lose weight you need to eat less and move more.
In many cases, it is not as simple as calories in vs calories out. Some women are eating very little and continue to gain weight. Some are working out very hard and feel like they have nothing to show for it.
In many cases, hormones play a role in finding a healthy body weight. The one I come across most frequently in my work with athletes is cortisol.
Cortisol plays an important role in the body. When we are under stress, whether physical or emotional, our bodies release cortisol to help handle the stress. A little bit of cortisol is fine, but chronic, elevated cortisol levels can lead to elevated blood sugar and an influx of insulin which can cause insulin resistance and ultimately, weight gain or fat storage in unwanted places.
How do you know if you have high cortisol levels?
Cortisol can be tested, although the numbers can vary throughout the day and from day to day. HbA1c is another helpful measure which shows the average blood sugar over the past several months.
However, there are many common symptoms including mood swings, fatigue, difficulty sleeping (despite fatigue- called the 'tired but wired' syndrome), high blood pressure, or digestive issues.
What causes high cortisol?
The body reacts to any kind of stress. For athletes, this is most commonly due to over-training (too much activity) or too much training at high levels with not enough recovery.
Cortisol will also spike due to work stress, relationship issues, traffic, anxiety, worry, etc. so it is important to take a look at the whole picture. What's going on in your life that is causing you stress? How are you handling that stress?
How can you lower cortisol?
Start by minimizing the triggers that are in your control. For athletes, cut back on mileage and/or use a heart rate monitor to back off the effort for several weeks.
If your stress is due to other circumstances, determine what you can distance yourself from.
In addition, focus on:
1) More sleep
2) Less caffeine or other stimulants
3) Meditation or deep breathing, or prayer
4) Drinking plenty of water
5) Balanced exercise (not too much but not skipping it entirely either)
6) Supplements like magnesium, chromium, zinc or Omega 3s can all be beneficial
7) Minimizing processed sugar and processed carbohydrates
For athletes in particular, it is key to balance hard days with easy days. Going to a HIIT class every day will produce too much stress and cortisol. Hard days (speed workouts, spin classes, HIIT) should be balanced with easy days (long walks, yoga, swimming).
Remember that every body type is different. Just because your friend had great results hitting the gym hard every day, doesn't mean you will.
If high cortisol has stalled or reversed your weight, getting your system more balanced will allow you to lose extra weight- even if it means cutting back on the number of workouts that you are doing. While counter intuitive, it's effective!
Have you ever over-trained or experienced any of the symptoms of high cortisol?