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All you need to know about cortisol

Right now we live uncertain and stressful times due to COVID-19. We have been forced to change our routines. Our bodies have already paid the price… have you gained weight during quarantine? This new situation can cause discomfort and anxiety. Lately I have come across clients who had gained a lot of weight during quarantine. They blame lack of exercise and/or overeating, but in many cases there is another reason. I have had to explain to many clients how cortisol may be affecting their lives and their bodies. Today I will explain everything you need to know about cortisol, the stress hormone. I hope you find it useful.
 

Cortisol: what is it, function, normal values and alterations

 
Above the kidneys we have the adrenal glands, whose function is to release different hormones. The outer part of the gland, called the adrenal cortex, makes the hormones cortisol and aldosterone. The inner part of the gland, called the adrenal medulla, produces the hormones adrenaline and norepinephrine.
When you are facing a threat, your hypothalamus, a small region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. This system prompts the adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, raises blood pressure, and increases energy supplies. Cortisol, the main stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream and improves glucose use in the brain. Cortisol also reduces functions that would be nonessential or harmful in a “fight or flight” situation (immune, digestive, reproductive, and growth processes). This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of the brain that control mood, motivation, and fear.
 
Back in the day, this survival mechanism served us to flee from some dangerous animal. Nowadays, we face stressful situations a little different: not being late for work, finishing projects on time, meetings, not missing the bus to meet friends … In all these situations, our body reacts by becoming alert, hoping to overcome adversity and threats. In the short term, the release of cortisol is very helpful and serves as a form of protection for your body. In combination with adrenaline, the two hormones perform many important tasks in your body. Iin stressful situations, they prepare you to be on top of your game. Cortisol works to improve your performance. Essentially, cortisol activates you in demanding situations. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume normal activities. So far so good.
The reference values for cortisol levels in the blood are:
  • Morning: 5 to 25 µg / dL;
  • End of the day: less than 10 mcg / dL.
  • At very high levels it can reach 80 μg / dl.
 
When stressors are always present and you constantly feel in danger, that fight or flight reaction stays on. Long-term activation of the stress response system and overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that act accordingly can disrupt almost every process in your body. This increases the risk of many health problems, such as:
 
  • Weight gain
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Insomnia
  • Increase in blood sugar
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased thirst and urinary frequency
  • Memory lapsus
  • Difficulty in learning
  • Little growth
  • Decrease in testosterone
  • Decreased libido
  • Irregular menstruation
  • Increased probability of suffering from osteoporosis
Fortunately, it can reduce excess cortisol production. How does this work?

7 science-backed ways to lower cortisol

 
1.- Cut on sugar: One of the easiest ways to fight high cortisol levels, stress, and weight gain is to cut down on the simple sugars found in cakes, candy, soda, or white bread. Cortisol regulates the level of sugar in the blood. If you eat foods with a lot of sugar, your blood sugar level and consequently your cortisol levels will rise. Ironically, many people eat sugary foods to relax. However, sugar causes an increased release of cortisol. The combination of sugar with white flour, which is used in many cakes and sweets, raises cortisol levels even more. Choosing complex carbohydrates, rich in fiber, protein and healthy fats (whole grains, dairy, legumes or vegetables) will help you lower cortisol levels.
2.- Eat foods rich in phenylalanine and vitamin C: Phenylalanine is an amino acid that helps release dopamine. Dopamine will reduce the urge to eat carbohydrates and sugars and therefore wiil help reduce stress. Phenylalanine is found mostly in protein foods like dairy, eggs, red meat, fish, and some whole grains. Vitamin C, like dopamine, also helps to secrete dopamine and reduce stress. Vitamin C is found in vegetables and fruits.
 
3.- Cut or reduce caffeine intake: It is not just sugar, caffeine also greatly increases the production of cortisol. Coffee, energy drinks, and the like stimulate the adrenal glands, causing them to release more cortisol. Regular caffeine consumption can double the blood cortisol content. A good alternative is green tea. It only contains about a quarter of the caffeine, but at the same time the tea has a relaxing effect thanks to a special amino acid. A study from the Ben-Gurion University School of Health Sciences recently found that the amino acid L-theanine counteracts the production of cortisol and reduces its levels in the blood.
4.- Avoid or limit alcohol intake: A study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that men who only had one drink a week saw a 3% increase in their cortisol levels, and those levels can be even higher if they are under tremendous pressure. Since it is a depressant of the nervous system, it can also cause depressive states.
 
5.- Adequate hydration: Drinking enough water a day – around eight glasses – is essential to better regulate cortisol levels. According to a 2018 study of young soccer players, even mild dehydration can lead to an increase in cortisol levels.
 
6.- Moderate-intensity exercise: We are not talking about training as long or as hard as possible. High intensity sport for about 15-20 minutes can stimulate cortisol production. The reason for this is again anchored in the human “fight or flight” response. For example, sprint can trigger a complex stress reaction. Your brain receives the message that you are fleeing danger and proceeds to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. However, if you want to lower your cortisol levels, you should do moderate-intensity exercise. A study published in The Journal of Endocrinological Investigation  has investigated the best ways to lower cortisol levels. The results indicated that relaxing sports, such as yoga or meditation, are the most appropriate. That said, other more active types of sports are definitely appropriate as well. 20 to 30 minutes of light physical activity – such as walking or biking – will reduce your stress and therefore consume excess cortisol.
In addition, including relaxation and meditation exercises in your routine will reduce the risk of experiencing chronic stress, a study from Ohio State University has concluded.
 

7.- Dark chocolate!!!

Believe it or not, dark chocolate keeps cortisol levels stable. A 2019 study published in the journal Antioxidants suggests that consuming just 25 grams of dark chocolate each day may lower overall cortisol levels.

Stressful events are part of life. And you may not be able to change your current situation. But you can take steps to manage how these events affect you. You can learn to identify what stresses you and how to take care of yourself physically and emotionally in stressful situations. The reward  is peace of mind and perhaps a longer, healthier life.
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How to avoid emotional eating

How to avoid emotional eating

You just finished your lunch and you’re already thinking about what you’ll have for dinner? Do you feel that in front of any plate of food, your life is on autopilot? Do you hardly remember any time when your desire is not simply to chew?

So, you need to accept that you eat emotionally. And although at this moment it seems that there is no way out, that you have no escape, I come to tell you the opposite.

  • To stop eating emotionally, you must change your attitude and mentality. You should change limiting thoughts, such as “I can’t eat much” for thoughts that take away frustration, like “I can eat much better.”
  • In addition, you should eat healthy foods more frequently. Don´t limit yourself to just three times a day! About this, I’ll talk to you in a second.
  • Include any physical activity routine, which not only allows you to connect with the body you want, but with the emotions that make you happy.

You will tell me, “David, it is very easy to say, but doing so is something else.” And you are right. Beating a compulsion is not easy, there will be difficult times, but the first step is to make the decision to do it from a completely healthy place.

Let me tell you Sofia´s story, whom I met through an email she sent me. An email that touched me to the last fiber of my being.

In that email, written with an open heart, Sofia told me about her despair, because she couldn’t stop eating. Her life had been transformed into endless binge eating, which didn’t even satisfy her.

The bingeing did not appear out of nowhere. In a year, she had moved from her beloved Sevilla to Paris, had broken up with her boyfriend and had changed jobs.

All these situations were leading her, without noticing, to a state of terrible anxiety, and she felt more out of control every day. Eating had become unconscious. When she was overeating, she swore that she would not do it again, and the next minute, she was already putting in her mouth one more bite.

And most of the time, they weren’t even foods that gratified her, she almost didn’t enjoy the flavors. At some point, when she felt that food was dominating her life, and she asked for help.

The first request for help, was addressed to a psychologist, and the second S.O.S, was the email she sent me.

She wanted my help to fix the nutritional issue, but also, she wanted someone to inspire her to find through physical activity, a way to control her anxiety.

Because, after all, emotional eating is related to anxiety. In Sofia’s words, she “ate to numb emotions.”

What if instead of numbing emotions, you let them flow through a physical activity that gratifies you? That was what we did with Sofia.

We worked with clear mottos to overcome mental blocks, agreed on a nutritional plan, where there were more “allowed” foods than “forbidden” ones, and established training routines, where she could release her tensions and negative thoughts.

Time heals everything, but you must help it. As did Sofia, who today has a healthy relationship with food, her body, and her surroundings.

Therefore, if you feel that you eat because of anxiety rather than hunger, do not move from there, because I will explain:

  • Differences between emotional hunger and physical hunger.
  • How to identify what generates emotional eating habits.
  • Some ways to leave behind the compulsion for food.

How to differentiate emotional hunger from physical hunger

Before you can free yourself from the emotional eating cycle, you must learn to distinguish between emotional and physical hunger. This can be more complicated than it seems, especially if you regularly use food to deal with your feelings.

Emotional hunger can be powerful, but there are some clues that can help you.

  • Emotional hunger appears suddenly. It hits you in an second and you feel overwhelmed. Physical hunger, on the other hand, occurs more gradually. The need to eat is not so serious and doesn´t require instant satisfaction, unless you have not eaten for a long time.
  • Emotional hunger leads you to eat certain types of food. When you are physically hungry, almost everything sounds good, including healthy things like vegetables. But emotional hunger craves junk food. You feel you “need” chocolate or pizza, and nothing else will work.
  • Emotional hunger often leads to meaningless eating. Before you know it, you’ve eaten a whole bag of chips without really paying attention or enjoying it at all. When you eat in response to physical hunger, you are generally more aware of what you are doing.
  • Emotional hunger is not satisfied once you are full. You still want more, and more. When you feel physical hunger, you feel satisfied when you have a full stomach.
  • Emotional hunger is not found in the stomach. Instead of a stomach that growls, you feel hunger as a desire that cannot get out of your head. You are focused on specific textures, flavors and smells.
  • Emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, or shame. When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you are unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed because you are simply giving your body what it needs. If you feel guilty after eating, it is because deep down you know that you are not eating for nutritional reasons.

Now that we can differentiate physical hunger from emotional hunger, let’s look at the triggers that can lead to it.

Reasons why we eat emotionally, almost without realizing it

The first step to stop eating compulsively is to identify the reasons that lead us to do so. What situations or feelings trigger your desire to eat?

Stress: Have you noticed how stress makes you hungry? It is not only in your mind. When stress is chronic, as often happens in our chaotic and accelerated world, your body produces high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.

Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet and fried foods, foods that give you an explosion of energy and pleasure. The less you control stress, the more likely you are to rely on food to get that emotional relief you are looking for.

Eating can be a way to temporarily silence or calm down, negative emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, resentment, and shame. While you get numb with food, you feel that you can take away those feelings that overwhelm you. But, at the end of the day, you will face the inevitable: awkward emotions are still there.

Boredom or emptiness feelings: Have you ever eaten simply to do something, relieve boredom, or as a way to fill a void in your life? You feel dissatisfied and empty, and food is a way to occupy your time.

Childhood habits: think about your childhood. Did your parents reward your good behavior with ice cream, did they take you to eat pizza when you got good grades, did they give you candy when you felt sad?

If you are depressed or alone, call someone who makes you feel better, play with your dog or cat, or go for a walk in the park.

If you are anxious, spend your energy dancing your favorite song, squeezing an anti stress ball or taking a quick walk.

If you’re exhausted, have a cup of hot tea, take a hot bath and light some scented candles.

If you’re bored, read a good book, watch your favorite series on Netflix, or do an activity you enjoy.

And above all, do not miss the tips I offer below.

Tips to stop eating... emotionally!

Now that we know how to differentiate physiological hunger from emotional hunger, and that we can even know what originates it, it is also important to have a clear concept: when there is emotional hunger it is NOT about stopping eating, it is about eating what is right and the right amount of it.

But make no mistake, diets that restrict carbohydrates too much usually lead to failure and overeating foods that we shouldn’t touch.

Why does this happen? The reason is our response to insulin. Since low carbohydrate intake causes our blood sugar to drop significantly, our brain creates a desire to eat in order to stabilize blood sugar levels and replenish glycogen stores.

This, linked to the emotional tensions of our daily lives, such as stress, sadness, anger, worry, or even sleep, will make inevitable to fall into temptation.

So there are several important lessons to learn here:

1.- Include carbohydrates in your diet to keep blood sugar levels controlled.

2.- Modify your beliefs to improve your emotions, everything has a solution!

3.- Make five or six small meals a day.

More than three hours between meals decreases your blood sugar levels, and you´ll need sugars or refined foods to create high insulin spikes. But this will only create an unnecessary addiction for this type of food.

That is why it is important to make 5 or 6 meals a day of small portions and that your main meals include unprocessed carbohydrates and high in fiber: oatmeal, brown rice, legumes, fruits. Served along with vegetables and proteins, will generate greater satiety.

4.- Add protein into your diet.

If proteins are present in your main meal, for example, salmon, turkey breast, chicken breast, eggs, quinoa, veal and lentils, you will have your appetite controlled. Your need to eat is going to adapt quietly to 3 or 4 hours intervals without making you feel uncomfortable.

5.- Make physical exercise a priority in your life.

Physical activity works wonders on your mood and energy levels, and is also a powerful stress reducer.

If you don’t have enough will, you can always count on an online personal trainer.

6.- Try to sleep 8 hours every night.

When you don’t sleep as much as you need, your body craves sugary foods that give you a quick energy boost. Getting enough rest will help control your appetite and reduce cravings.

7.- Take some time to relax.

Give yourself permission to take at least 30 minutes every day to relax. This is your time to take a break from your responsibilities and recharge your batteries.

8.- Connect with others.

Do not underestimate the importance of relationships with your friends and social activities. Spending time with positive people that improve your mood will help protect you from the negative effects of stress.

You don’t always have to behave!

Everything in life is a balance, but definitely 85% of your behaviors are the ones that will have the most impact on you.

If 85% of your routine is healthy, that remaining 15% will not harm you so much. Sometimes it is necessary to get out of the routine a bit and then come back stronger!

As the Roman poet Horacio said: “Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero”, which if you do not understand Latin means, “take advantage of the day, do not trust tomorrow.”

It’s time to leave the limiting thoughts behind! If you need help to organize your nutritional plan and your training routine, just let me know.