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.”
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.”
Control and Weight Loss
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
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.
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.