The latest study to look at the role of cortisol, a primary stress hormone, has been released in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism and it doesn’t make for good reading. The study found that in older populations (defined by being over the age of 65 in this study), high levels of cortisol led to a five-fold increase in your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Another study from the same journal also released recently that looked at type 2 diabetics also concluded that raised cortisol levels also increased the risk of ischemic heart disease. While previous studies haven’t always found such a strong link, it still all makes for rather grim reading and continues to highlight the powerful effect that our hormones exert on our health.
Of course, there are many other strong risk factors for heart disease, yet these often seem to be consistent with high stress lifestyles (excess alcohol, smoking, high blood pressure, obesity etc) and a review from the European Journal of Endocrinology reminds us that chronic stress can contribute to cause many of these factors, and that the chemicals involved exert powerful effects on the heart and our blood vessels, among other systems.
Now, the really bad news (if you aren’t too concerned about the mortality aspect of this) is the effect it may have on your body composition, and that’s where we come in.
Dealing with our client base in the heart of the City means that we often see people who show the signs of their high stress lifestyles in their body shape. The reason for this is that high levels of the stress hormone cortisol are strongly related to high levels of abdominal fat, which is easily assessed through skinfold testing and measurements such as the waist/ hip ratio. In fact, research is now showing that even in younger women, who are genetically and hormonally more inclined to store fat on the hips and thighs, the more stressed they are, the more they actually store fat on the waist line. It doesn’t help that so many young women are on calorie restrictive diets either, which tends to increase cortisol and raise stress (but more to come on that in a later piece).
Many other factors play a part in this, for example we know that people with adrenal health issues tend to have poorer sleep patterns, they often drink more, tend to eat more sugar and refined carbohydrates, and of course genetics also play a part. However, it is hard to escape the fact that chronic stress will drive many of these habits and continue to make the problems worse. Studies consistently find that women in particular with higher waist hip ratios (more stored fat at the waistline) secrete more cortisol in response to stress but interestingly often show poorer coping skills than those women with lower waist/hip ratios.
Here are my five top tips for decreasing abdominal fat.
- Cut our sugar and refined carbohydrates. We tend to see insulin resistance and poor blood sugar control in just about everyone with high stress levels. Getting to grips with this will set you up for lower metabolic stress and make huge strides in improving your health.
- Get to bed earlier. Sleep deprivation long-term leads to abdominal fat and total weight gain.
- Cut out the stimulants. Living all day on coffee or diet coke, or even worse using drugs like cocaine on a habitual basis will stress your adrenals constantly, disrupt sleep, and make flattening those abs impossible.
- Take regular exercise, supported with good pre and post-workout nutrition. Moderate intensity exercise can actually raise the strength of the immune system, which is compromised when under stress. Taking on a carbohydrate/protein drink during and after training can also help to blunt the cortisol response and shift the body into an anabolic state where it can build new muscle.
- Rid your life of energy robbers, get some happiness. Extroversion, a personality trait associated with positivity and optimism was found in one study to be inversely linked to a high waist/hip ratio
If you are concerned about adrenal health and would like to find out more, you can come to a lecture hosted by the London Trainer Network in which top Harley St nutrition expert Antony Haynes (author of ‘The Insulin Factor’) will be speaking all about nutrition and supplementation for the stressed out.
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