Dangerous Cortisol – Part 1

The sad story about how stress is making you fat.

I’m going to let you in on a big secret.. you can lose weight by DOING LESS. It’s this miraculous backwards thing that proves that teaching yourself to RELAX will help you shed those stubborn pounds that just won’t go away, even with all the exercise and meal planning.

Just HOW does this work? Well, let’s dive deep into why your body is too freaked out to lose those extra pounds.

Stats Canada claims that in 2014, 23% of Canadian adults reported that most days were ‘quite a bit’ or extremely stressful’ (read about that here). Stress has become such a buzzword that it’s not uncommon at all to hear your friend, partner, coworker (or yourself, I’m sure) say that their day was stressful, or that they are ‘just really stressed out lately’.

The stress response (the activation of your sympathetic nervous system) is biologically necessary – that is, when our ancestors needed to attack or run from prey, the sympathetic nervous system was there to go into hyperdrive and let the body take over. Blood pours away from the digestive tract into the extremities, to power us to flee or fight, in turn raising blood pressure and heart rate while systematically encouraging us to act quickly. This is meant to be a short term reaction used as a tool, rather than the everyday state some of us are living in.

Things that can cause stress in our modern world

  • sleep deprivation
  • alcohol overconsumption
  • repeated caffeine use throughout the day
  • emotional stress
  • traumatic events

Cortisol is at the heart of the stress response. It is the hormone secreted by the adrenal glands that function to help you fight or flee the stressor. Couple things about cortisol…

One of the roles of cortisol is to increase blood sugar.


Physiologically, this is because our muscles require more glucose to either attack predator or run from predator. Glucose in the blood stream goes up, our muscles utilize it by help us to run away really really fast and we are saved. PHEW. The body is magical. However, currently it looks more like this: You are driving and someone cuts you off, ugh, what a jerk, cortisol goes up. You are in traffic and going to be late, cortisol continues to stay high. This causes your blood sugar to elevate (thanks, cortisol) except you are just sitting in your car, not moving, with your high blood sugar levels. So insulin has to come to the rescue to lower those blood sugar levels.


This is a major bummer for the body because, really, insulin shouldn’t have to be used like this. Also, one of insulin’s function is to cause our bodies to STORE FAT. This was a really great thing for our evolution because it meant we could store fat for the winter when food was scarce, and not starve to death. This is bad news bears now because our unrelenting sugar habits cause insulin to be poured into the blood stream constantly, leading to obesity and (insulin resistance) diabetes. Yikes.


Cortisol is a necessary hormone, don’t get me wrong, it naturally has a diurnal cycle, meaning that it naturally raises in the morning and helps us get out of bed. This also means it should decrease in the evening, being it’s lowest between midnight and 4am or a few hours after the onset of sleep. However, in a high stress person, maybe it doesn’t lower enough in the evening and this has the possibility to cause bouts of insomnia.


Classically we’ve seen that just one night of sleep deprivation can then again increase cortisol levels further AND make us unaware of our caloric intake, making us eat more and yet again, gain more weight.

As if weight gain wasn’t bad enough, high cortisol actually starts to breakdown the hippocampus in the brain as well! The hippocampus is thought to be the centre of emotion and memory. So when we are in a state of constant stress we will also have impaired learning.


In addition, cortisol helps our body remember short term emotional events – presumably so that we can remember to not do-that-thing-that-caused-the-stress-again. But on the flip side of that, high cortisol makes us unable to retrieve previously stored information. So if you’re wondering why you keep forgetting things, whether they are life events or if you locked the house/car, then, just stop being stressed.

[chill out, man]

Easier said than done, I know I know.

Decreasing elevated cortisol levels is in and of itself a project. Treat it like it’s own special illness, like you have a cold that you need to get rid of.

Prevent it.

Treat it.

Work on it constantly.

Remember that you can take control of stress instead of falling victim to it. Stay tuned to the second part of this article, chock full of tips, appearing next week.

Madison Isenor CHNC

Madison IsenorAs a Wellness Advisor, I can offer simple and easy recommendations that will help you feel more energetic, happy, balanced and calm.




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