We’ve discovered why we’re so stressed and what implications stress has on our bodies, so now it’s time to dive into the cortisol connection.
Cortisol is one of several hormones secreted to provide energy in response to stress. Cortisol stimulates the release of protein from muscle so it can be converted to glucose, inhibits protein synthesis, increases the release of fatty acids from fat tissue, and stimulates the conversion of noncarbohydrates to glucose. All of the resulting extra blood sugar provides the fuel you need to respond to an immediate stress.
But what happens if stress continues indefinitely, as is the case for so many of us juggling careers, family, and menopausal changes? Then cortisol levels remain high, as do glucose levels. According to
the research conducted by Pamela Peeke, M.D., at the National Institutes of Health, if this excess blood sugar is not used for energy production, it is stored as fat, usually in your abdominal area. Central fat cells are deep abdominal visceral cells that have four times more cortisol receptors than the fat cells found just beneath the skin. Consequently, cortisol is drawn to the central fat cells, where it activates enzymes to store fat. This process is what gives you that midlife tummy bulge that’s so difficult to lose.
Cortisol influences overall weight gain in other ways as well. Increased levels of the hormone set off food cravings, especially for high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods, leading you to take in many more calories than you need. Cortisol also brings about the breakdown of muscle tissue, which causes your metabolism to drop and makes it harder for you to lose weight or to maintain weight loss.
Subpar Shut Eye
Cortisol affects the way you sleep, too. Under healthy circumstances, cortisol levels are highest in the morning to give you the energy you need to face the day. Then by evening, levels fall by about 90 percent, allowing you to get a full night’s sleep. At least one study has found that women with family responsibilities and jobs tend to have elevated cortisol levels at night. Other studies have found evening
cortisol levels rise as we age. Both of these factors may help account for the fragmented sleep and lack of deep, or rapid-eye-movement (REM), sleep many menopausal women experience.
Cortisol’s effects on weight gain can also be partly explained by its connection to the functioning of the thyroid gland. One of the ingredients needed to make cortisol is the amino acid tyrosine, which is also required by the thyroid gland to make thyroid hormone. As supplies of tyrosine are consumed to make excess cortisol, levels of thyroid hormone decline. This results in fatigue, weight gain, and hypothyroidism. Producing cortisol also uses another ingredient, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), needed to produce sex hormones. As DHEA levels decline, so do those of the sex hormones, leading to a lower sex drive.
Excess cortisol is associated with a wide range of other effects, including:
• increased cholesterol and triglyceride levels
• increased blood pressure
• increased insulin levels
• short-term memory loss
• damage to nerve and brain tissue
• decreased regeneration of connective tissue, related to wound healing and bone health
• decreased serotonin, leading to irritability, depression, and anxiety
Knowing When You’re Too Stressed: Understanding Adrenal Burnout
What happens when your adrenals aren’t operating at optimum function? We’ll uncover that next week.
Until then, I’d love to celebrate with you the official launch—as of earlier this week—of the updated and expanded edition of my New York Times bestseller, Before the Change. This page-turner is filled with time-tested natural remedies that turn your hormonal woes into a peaceful perimenopause. Plus, as a thank you, we are still offering FREE bonus gifts with your purchase!