Cortisol is a steroid hormone released in response to acute stress. Small amounts of cortisol has a valuable role for stressful situations and is involved in the “fight or flight” mechanism. However, the problem today is that we don’t face stress occasionally, it’s often every day. We live fast paced, frantic and stressful lives meaning we’re constantly pumping out cortisol, increasing inflammation and making our health suffer as a consequence.
Cortisol and stress
When we’re faced with a stressor – like the neighbours big scary dog running at you, a complex hormonal cascade occurs and our bodies release cortisol which then prepares our body for the “flight or flight” mechanism. Glucose is made available for our muscles, insulin production is inhibited so we can use the glucose rather than store it. Cortisol narrows our arteries that supply blood to the body and the hormone adrenalin increases our heart rate which means our blood begins to pump at a faster rate and more forcefully around the body. This makes us ready to “fight” or “flight” our stressor. Great when we’ve got the dog chasing us, but the effects of prolonged, high levels of cortisol are not good.
Blood sugar imbalance
High levels of cortisol over the long term can lead to increased blood sugar levels. This may increase the risk for Type 2 diabetes.
Elevated cortisol can lead to an increase in fat where it’s least wanted – the health affecting visceral fat around the middle (internal abdominal fat). Cortisol releases fat from storage and relocates it to visceral fat stores. Another way cortisol is involved with weight gain is through it’s effects on blood sugar. When there is high blood glucose and low insulin, this leads to cells that are crying out to be fed with some glucose! Signals from the brain then tell us we’re hungry – and can lead to over eating. Unused glucose is then stored as body fat.
And to make matters worse, studies have shown that cortisol can increase cravings for high calorie foods.
High levels of stress increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, fertility problems, insomnia, depression and chronic fatigue syndrome. High levels of cortisol cause digestive issues and can lead to ulcers. All in all, too much stress wreaks havoc on our bodies and our immune system.
Eating to beat the effects of stress:
Chronic stress increases inflammation. Therefore if we decrease inflammation in our bodies as well as minimize stress, we can reduce cortisol levels and improve our well being and reduce our risk of chronic disease.
By reducing pro-inflammatory foods and maximising intake of anti-inflammatory foods, you’ll be doing the best for your body to reduce the effects of inflammation.
Dietary factors causing inflammation:
- high glycemic load
- saturated and trans fatty acids
- too much alcohol
- low fibre diet
- being inactive
- being overweight
Foods recommended to minimise inflammation
- elimination or reduction of caffeine
- low glycemic load diet
- elimination of trans fats
- minimal intake of saturated fats
- high intake of whole plant foods to maximise intake of fibre, antioxidants and pytonutrients
- eat enough omega 3 fats
- regular exercise
Today’s Dietitian Vo 11 No 11 2009 – Cortisol – It’s role in stress, inflammation and indications for diet therapy. by Dina Aronson MS, RD.