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Weight Loss, Cortisol and Insulin
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Summer is a logical time to focus on weight loss. The start of the swimsuit/ shorts season causes many to cringe in fear. Even so, the temptation to give into those carbohydrate cravings can sometimes be overwhelming. Even when we resist temptation and stay faithful to our diets, sometimes the extra pounds refuse to go away. This can become especially frustrating, since being overweight is far more serious than a cosmetic issue. Obesity is a risk factor for type II diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol as well as ischemic heart disease, cognitive decline, and strokes.
The Cortisol Connection

There is little doubt that a sedentary lifestyle and eating processed and sugar filled foods contributes to overweight and obesity. However, researchers have stated, “obesity should not be considered as a simple result of overeating and lack of physical activity.”

One under recognized reason for gaining unwanted kilos is excess levels of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal cortex gland though when produced under continuous stress over an extended period of time, can cause health problems. The stress can be physical, environmental, chemical or imaginary. The human brain is hard wired with automatic responses to protect the body from harm. It is proposed that cortisol's primary purpose is to mobilize the body's defences against water-losing intestinal diseases (diarrhoea) and corticosterone's against serum diseases. They do this by inversely controlling those immune cells, enzymes, and hormones, etc. that affect survival during infection. These glucocorticosteroids affect fight-or-flight mobilization as an adjunct made possible because most processes that enhance immunity have a reverse effect on fight-or-flight response.

In the "fight or Flight" response, the adrenal glands enlarge and secrete large quantities of adrenal cortical hormones. These hormones suppress inflammatory responses and mobilize the body's energy reserves. This puts the body on red alert and diverts all of the body's biochemical resources to immediate survival. The body's self healing mechanisms are arrested (healing diverts energy and raw materials away from immediate survival), the immune system is suppressed, glycogen stores in the liver and muscle tissue are mobilized to raise the blood sugar level and digestion and assimilation are inhibited. The stomach lining becomes thin and the thymus gland and lymphatic tissue shrinks. This "Fight or Flight" response works well when dealing with physical danger, but it is not suited for our modern lifestyle. Battling traffic, competing for parking spaces and watching the evening news produces the same physiological responses as surviving physical danger. Unfortunately, many of us have not learnt the art of consciously bringing our body’s to the balanced state easily and effortlessly.


Much research has been done on the effects of cortisol. Researchers have shown that cortisol levels and plasma levels of the appetite-controlling hormone leptin are related to each other in a negative and positive environments. In other words, when cortisol decreases, leptin decreases and when cortisol rises, leptin rises. In addition, stress is the most commonly reported trigger of binge eating, and high cortisol levels correspond to both central body fat and food intake after stress. After stress, increased cortisol levels have been associated with increased food intake and no doubt associated to the serum leptin levels.

In an other study researchers discovered that excess cortisol impacted greatly on what is referred to as insulin resistance; the inability of the cells to up take glucose due to the an over responsive reaction to insulin. The researcher stated, “Since cortisol promotes the development of visceral obesity, and has a direct negative impact on insulin function throughout the body, even a modest sustained up-regulation of cortisol production may have the potential to increase risk for insulin resistance syndrome and type 2 diabetes.”


Cortisol Control and Weight Loss

Several natural compounds have acted as cortisol-controlling substances. a extract from Magnolia officinalis bark and an extract from Phellodendron amurense bark. In a clinical trial, 49 stressed subjects, who suffered from stress induced overeating, were given two to three doses per day of Magnolia officinalis extract for two weeks. After consumption, there was a 76 percent decline in high fat/sugar/salt snack eating.

In another study, 50 stressed people were given 200 mg Magnolia officinalis extract three times daily for two weeks. Post-trial analysis revealed that 82 percent found the Magnolia officinalis extract effective in controlling stress-induced symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, irritability, emotional ups and downs, concentration difficulties and restlessness. Seventy-eight percent reported increased relaxation, while 74 percent had more restful sleep. No significant side effects were reported, although 24 percent reported some temporary initial drowsiness, and 6 percent reported mild and transient stomach upset.

Withania is another cortisol-lowering substance, is extract of roots and leaves from Withania somnifera, also known as Ashwagandha. Withania somnifera has been shown in a number of animal studies to reduce the effects of stress, indicating it may help people who are prone to stress related eating or whose excess pounds are due to unbalanced cortisol levels. Withania can be standardized to contain the proper amounts of glycowithanolides, Withaferin -A and oligosaccharides’ that research has shown to promote optimal anti-stress activity.
Cortisol and Insulin Resistance

The ability of elevated cortisol to promote insulin resistance may explain why high cortisol is linked to weight gain and how stress is one of the precursors to this modern day problem.

In one study of six normal volunteers, researchers administered cortisol infusions into the subjects, which increased the plasma cortisol concentration approximately four fold to values observed during moderately severe stress. These high cortisol levels increased plasma glucose and plasma insulin concentrations. The high cortisol also increased rates of glucose production and the rate at which the body used the glucose.

The Brown University Medical Student Study further illustrated the relationship between cortisol and insulin. The researchers examined students during a baseline control period as well as during two examination periods. During these timeframes, the researchers noted weight changes in self-proclaimed stress eaters compared to non-stress eaters. Stress eaters tended to gain more weight and demonstrated increases in nocturnal levels of insulin, cortisol and blood levels of total / HDL cholesterol ratio during exam periods compared to the baseline control period.

Insulin Involvement

High insulin is the enemy of dieters because insulin is critical for glucose metabolism, storage and maintenance, wasn’t meant to occur in excessive levels. When food is consumed, the digestive process converts carbohydrates into glucose, a simple sugar, which is absorbed into the blood stream. The pancreas releases insulin in response to blood glucose. Insulin then enters certain cells and triggers events that cause the cells to absorb glucose from the blood.

The consumption of excessive amounts of refined carbohydrates and sugar, however, can result in insulin resistance, the gradual loss of sensitivity to insulin by many tissue cells. The body responds by producing even more insulin, which results in high levels of insulin, glucose and other unabsorbed nutrients circulating in the blood stream. Because of cortisol’s ability to elevate insulin levels, when normalizing cortisol levels to achieve weight loss it is also helpful to stabilize blood sugar.

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