When it comes to nutrition, cortisol plays a vital role from regulating energy by carefully choosing the right amount of carbohydrate, protein or fat that the body needs to meet the physiological demands placed on it. Cortisol can have damaging effects on weight, immune function and chronic disease risk, when chronically elevated.
What is cortisol (and what does it do)?
Cortisol (often called your stress hormone) is a steroid hormone. It regulates various processes in your body, including your stress response, immune response and metabolism.
Your cortisol secretion is regulated by your hypothalamus (your brain's command centre), your pituitary gland and your adrenal gland. This combination of glands is called your HPA axis. Although cortisol is most well known for its role as the primary stress hormone, cortisol has several other pretty important functions. Almost every cell in your body contains cortisol receptors.
What does cortisol do?
- Controls your blood sugar levels
- Regulates your metabolism
- Reduces inflammation
- Improves memory formation
- Controls salt and water balance
- Regulates blood pressure
- Assists with foetal development
- Triggers vital processes involved in giving birth
- Primary hormone involved in your body's stress response
Blood Sugar Imbalance and Diabetes
When experiencing stress, cortisol supplies the body with glucose by reaching into protein stores via gluconeogenesis in the liver. Long-term elevated cortisol levels will continue this process, leading to prolonged elevated blood sugar levels.
While blood sugar levels continue to rise during stress, cortisol levels suppress the effect of insulin, naturally leaving majority of the body’s insulin receptors as being insulin resistant. Over time, the pancreas eventually struggles to produce the amount of insulin needed and so glucose levels remain elevated. Somatic cells don’t get the glucose they need, the cycle continues and the risk for Type 2 Diabetes increases as a result.
Weight Gain and Obesity
There are three main connections between elevated cortisol levels and weight gain/obesity.
The first connection is through visceral fat storage. Cortisol is able to gather up stored triglycerides and relocate them to visceral fat cells. Cortisol also helps adipocytes mature into fat cells.
The second connection is through the glucose and insulin cycle. Having continuously elevated glucose levels along with suppressed insulin levels, generally leads to all cells being starved of glucose. One way to get energy back into those cells is to eat! So, what do your starving cells do? Send hunger signals to your brain, which can of course lead to overeating and therefore result in all that unused glucose being stored as fat.
The third connection is through cortisol’s effect on appetite and extreme cravings for high calorie foods. Cortisol can also influence appetite and cravings by binding to certain hypothalamus receptors in the brain, releasing hunger hormones like ghrelin and by adjusting other hormones and stress factors to stimulate appetite.
Read our article, The relationship between stress and weight gain, to learn more about how a cortisol imbalance can affect our weight.
Dietary Approach: Anti-Inflammatory Diet
The focus of the anti-inflammatory diet is to naturally decrease inflammation in the body as well as to try to actively lower stress, therefore naturally reducing cortisol levels and decreasing the risk for developing chronic diseases, therefore resulting in an improved wellbeing.
Focus on reducing the following foods that tend to increase inflammation:
- High GI foods
- Saturated and Trans fatty acids
- Red & processed meats
- Soft drinks & other sugar – sweetened beverages
- Excessive intake of alcohol
- Low Fibre foods
Focus on including the following to minimize inflammation
- Low GI, whole grain foods
- Focus on unsaturated fats and avoid saturated and trans fats
- Reduce caffeine
- Alcohol in moderation
- Variety of fruits and vegetables daily: rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients
- Increase fibre rich foods (e.g. fruit and vegetables)
- Meeting omega 3 need – salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout
- Regular exercise
If you’re looking for a diet plan that resembles the basic approach of the anti-inflammatory diet, consider following a Mediterranean diet plan which basically includes fruits, vegetables, mixed nuts, whole grains, fish and unsaturated fats.