These days, there is a lot expected of us. Everyone is undergoing some kind of stress, whether it’s work or school or family life, or all three. Though most people think this is just a mental issue, stress affects the body in so many ways. One of these ways is through increased levels of cortisol, a hormone our body produces when it is experiencing intense strain. It is our fight or flight response, and it can often lead some individuals to gain weight rapidly, especially around the midsection (great, exactly what you need when you’re already stressed out).
When I was in college, I studied marketing at a business school that basically ingrained in us that if we didn’t get internships our freshman year, we would fail in life. So I did, and that marked the beginning of four years of working through school. Not only did I maintain a part time internship at a financial company while applying to the honors program (I know, nerd), I participated in multiple after school activities. This is normal for so many students these days, and even still, it wore me out to the point where I gained a whopping 30 POUNDS in a matter of three months. I also got walking pneumonia, a sinus infection, and bronchitis all at the same time that winter. When I went to a nutritionist the summer after my freshman year, she told me my cortisol levels were through the roof, and that if I didn’t learn to manage them, I would end up in the hospital from extreme wear and tear.
I was shocked – how could I have known? I was just doing everything that I was expected to do. I knew I had lessened my workout schedule (I was normally very active) due to being so sick for so long, but I didn’t feel like I was eating much more than I normally did. The truth was, my body was holding onto the food I was consuming and storing it as fat in case of additional trauma or the event in which it would need a supply of food. I was told I would have to take drastic measures at the beginning of healing, and then I would have to implement the basics of these methods to control my cortisol production for the rest of my life (it wasn’t like I was going to retire and sit on the beach any time soon).
So, that summer, I cut out all grains (I was already gluten free for years), dairy, sugar, and anything else processed. This was to decrease the amount of inflammatory foods that were going into my body, enabling this reaction. I also cut out all caffeine, which raises cortisol. I was instructed to do between 30-45 minutes of cardio every day in addition to strength training, and to take a rest day every third day in which I would just do some form of light cardio, like take a long walk and do some meditative yoga. Now, I eat grains but try to keep them unprocessed (still gluten free), I don’t eat eggs or dairy (I’m now vegan for a whole other reason), and I drink half-caffeinated coffee. I keep a similar exercise schedule, sometimes switching to one day on, one day off with resistance training.
As a summary, here is what you can do to keep your cortisol regulated and lose that excess weight:
- Cut down on the processed carbs.
Kicking carbs entirely might work for a few months, but isn’t sustainable in the long term. Try and get your carbs from whole foods, such as quinoa, oats, and vegetables. Potatoes are also a great way to supplement your carbohydrate intake. Stay away from sugar as much as you can (there are so many low-glycemic options now), but don’t stress the occasional candy bar.
- Ditch the dairy.
It sounds hard at first, but I am so glad I did it – it changed my life. Dairy is not meant to be consumed by humans and causes so many inflammatory responses, such as cortisol production. There are so many great dairy alternatives now that usually don’t feel like I am missing out. If you need or want recommendations, please email me! I’ve been doing this a long time J
- Cut back on caffeine.
If you can’t do it cold turkey, try making your next pot half-caf, and work your way down. Or stop there if that makes you happy (remember, the goal is to not stress). I would also recommend green tea, which has high levels of antioxidants and seems to affect some people a lot less than coffee.
- Exercise, but don’t overdo it.
Try to do 30-45 minutes of cardio every day in addition to strength training, and take a rest day every third day where you do some restorative yoga and meditation. I would also recommend taking a long walk or easy bike ride on these days just to get your blood flowing. Exercise releases cortisol from your body as long as it is done in healthy increments.
- Seek help from a nutritionist.
Nutritionists can be expensive, but I am so glad I went to mine when I did. I was in dire need of help and needed a professional to get me back on track. If you feel like you need further guidance and a more structured plan, please reach out to me and we can set up a time to discuss how my coaching could help you. I’ve been where you are, and I’ve gotten back on my feet – I know you can do it, too!
Below is me 30 pounds heavier than I normally am… and then two years later after finally realizing what was happening to my body and changing it from the inside out – in a healthy way! If you are struggling with this condition, please consider contacting me. I am here to help and know what you are going through.