Ten Simple Rules for Balancing Cortisol to Get Lean & Muscular for Life
Balancing your hormones is the ONLY way to achieve fat loss that is sustainable for life.
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The “calorie is a calorie” hounds won’t agree, but the thing is that calories don’t control your metabolism. Hormones control your metabolism, meaning that the easiest way to fix a poor metabolism is to balance your hormones.
This article will give you ten rules for doing so by focusing on cortisol. Why cortisol?
First, when hormones are balanced, cortisol is protective and burns fat. But, when hormones are out of whack, cortisol is more harmful, triggering intake of junk foods and making our bodies more likely to store fat.
Second, hormones behave differently depending on the environment they find themselves in. Therefore, focusing on cortisol is a useful entry into understanding how hormones work in different situations, such as if you’ve just eaten, if you are working out, or if it’s bedtime.
#1: Do exercise, prioritizing strength training and interval workouts.
Exercise will improve the ratio between testosterone and cortisol, and it helps to balance cortisol in people with a poorly functioning metabolism.
Here’s what happens acutely:
During exercise is a time that you want cortisol to be elevated because it will improve fat burning and reduce pain. When you start working out, cortisol and energizing hormones like the adrenaline hormones and growth hormone (GH) are released in order to free fat stores so the body can use them for energy. Insulin, a storage hormone, will be lower at this time.
Any time insulin is low, an enzyme called hormone sensitive lipase (HSL), which mobilizes fat so the body can use it for energy, will be elevated. Lipoprotein lipase (LPL), which stores fat, will be blocked. This is the perfect fat burning environment because LPL is blocked, but HSL is up.
Here’s what happens over time:
The hypothalamus is a part of the brain that is involved in the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands. When you are sedentary, it becomes less responsive and cortisol balance is altered. By doing strength training or other intermittent types of exercise, the hypothalamus becomes more responsive and cortisol balance improves.
#2: Don’t do long workouts (more than an hour). Don’t do intervals and lifting in the same session.
Why do workouts need to be less than an hour?
First, if you have energy left after an hour of training, you’re not working hard enough. A properly designed workout will fatigue your central nervous system and your muscles in 60 minutes. Go in with focus and drive and get it done.
Second, when workouts extend beyond an hour, cortisol just keeps on going up. This is counterproductive because the body tends to call on amino acids from muscle tissue to use for fuel, while preserving carbohydrate stores. Doing this regularly will overly stress the body so that it’s unable to recover effectively.
For similar reasons, interval workouts need to be separated from strength training to maximize recovery.
#3: Be physically active throughout the day.
It’s super important that you avoid sitting around all day because lack of physical activity also leads to high cortisol and hormone imbalances. Sedentary people with elevated cortisol who increase physical activity improve cortisol balance and report feeling less stressed.
So, easy exercise such as walking, doing yoga, cycling, or other active endeavors that don’t stress your body or mind are beneficial for balancing cortisol.
#4: Eat in a way that allows you to avoid hunger and cravings.
If you’re just starting to fix your eating habits, or you’ve been living on high-carb processed foods for a while, try eating 5 to 6 meals a day for better metabolic hormone balance.
Chances are, you’ll benefit from more frequent meals (3 to 6) if you answer yes to any of these questions:
1) Are you new to exercise and/or smart eating habits?
2) Do you have a history of unsuccessful dieting and calorie counting?
3) Are you under a lot of stress and anxiety?
4) Do you have a lot of trouble sleeping? Are you tired all the time?
5) Are you hungry a lot? Do you have intense food cravings, especially for high-carb, junky foods?
Constant hunger and food cravings, especially for junk foods, are two indicators that your cortisol is out of balance. When you’re super busy and you don’t eat, blood sugar drops and cortisol increases to free energy stores and raise blood sugar.
Having this happen on occasion is not necessarily a problem. But if it happens day after day, metabolic hormones become unbalanced. Sometimes, parts of your brain become resistant to hormonal messages that regulate hunger effectively.
Eating resets your entire hormonal cascade and improves the body’s biological circadian rhythm. After you eat, cortisol is reduced, as is the hunger-causing hormone ghrelin. A hormone cascade follows a few hours later, and you get a decrease in insulin and an increase in leptin, blunting hunger.
#5: Don’t fast unless you’ve got your metabolic hormones balanced.
If you’ve got your nutrition dialed in and don’t get crazy hungry from a low meal frequency, 1 or 2 meals with intermittent fasting may work well.
However, if you are a woman, know that research suggests that fasting can be harmful to female metabolic and reproductive health. Scientists believe that calorie restriction, even sporadic restriction, causes hormonal dysregulation, and excess cortisol secretion with the body holding onto its fat stores.
Men can experience this as well if they have hormone imbalances going into it, but this appears to be less prevalent.
The vital point is to eat in a way that allows you to avoid cravings and hunger.
#6: Do eat a nutrient-rich lower carb, higher protein diet.
A lower carb, higher protein diet balances hormones because insulin response to meals is lower and insulin sensitivity improves.
This is important because any time you eat high-sugar foods, insulin is jacked way up. Remember from #1 that when insulin is high, HSL—the fat burning enzyme—is “turned off” and LPL—the fat storing enzyme—is “on,” so you’re more likely to store fat.
Opt for nutrient-dense foods to counteract the high levels of inflammation caused by elevated insulin and cortisol. Other nutrients that are depleted in the production of stress hormones include certain amino acids, B vitamins, magnesium, sodium, and zinc. Foods high in antioxidant compounds include berries, green vegetables, nuts, spices, chocolate, tea, and fish (for the omega-3 fats).
#7: Don’t turn to high-sugar, junk foods when stressed.
High cortisol literally blunts your ability to make rationale food choices. When cortisol is elevated, a part of the brain is activated that desires pleasurable foods, but goal-oriented parts of the brain are reduced.
So you’re never going to want steak and Brussels sprouts, but you’ll be overwhelmed with a desire for a bagel, cake, or other high-carb delight when your cortisol is unbalanced.
The best solution is to eliminate all processed, high-sugar junk foods. Having sensible cheat meals can help people who are in the process of balancing metabolic hormones. Carb cycling replenishes serotonin, a brain messenger that makes you feel good but gets reduced when you have high cortisol.
#8: Do stay hydrated.
Research shows that dehydration can elevate cortisol and lead to an unfavorable ratio between cortisol and other metabolic hormones.
Drinking adequate water instead of soda, juice, or sports drinks is a simple way to reduce cortisol and avoid walking around chronically dehydrated.
#9: Don’t dose caffeine throughout the day.
If you suffer anxiety, avoid caffeine.
Now, we love coffee because it’s packed with antioxidants and provides abundant health benefits. However, in people who suffer anxiety, caffeine needlessly spikes cortisol and can be harmful.
The scientific evidence shows it really depends on the situation:
• New caffeine users experience a large spike in cortisol that lasts throughout the day. The same thing happens if you don’t drink caffeine for 5 days and then use it.
• Once your body gets used to caffeine in the morning, the cortisol spike is abolished.
• But, if you drink caffeine in the morning and then consume additional caffeine in the afternoon, cortisol will be elevated, indicating that chronic use throughout the day is problematic for stress hormone regulation.
• Worst of all, in people who are anxious or mentally stressed, caffeine raises cortisol levels higher than they would be in the absence of caffeine.
• Having hormone imbalances or adrenal fatigue reduces your ability to metabolize caffeine. Certain genotypes have the same problem.
#10: Do fun stuff: Laugh, play with your pets, listen to music, be social.
Activities that make you happy have been found to balance cortisol.
Doing stuff you enjoy soothes the part of the brain, the hypothalamus, which is involved in releasing stress hormones from the adrenal glands. The parasympathetic nervous system also relaxes, having a calming effect on the body.