“Hey Lauryn, can I ask you a question?”
A girl came up to me at the gym the other day.
“I am just wondering: How can I lose or train away that extra fat on my hips?” she said, pointing to the sides of her legs. Adding, “It seems, no matter how hard I try, it never goes away,” she said.
Looking at her, I quite honestly did not see the ‘problem spot’ she was talking about, BUT…I completely KNEW the feeling.
Feeling ‘off’ in your own skin. Not 100% comfortable in your own body. Wanting what we don’t have.
I used to say the same thing.
My goal in my teens and early 20’s?
A thigh gap. I wanted a thigh gap hands down. I hated my thighs and while I highly doubt that anyone else noticed my thighs as much as I did…I just did not feel comfortable.
Later that same day—more messages and cries of discomfort.
Another woman shared with me, “No matter what I do, I just can’t lose weight or body fat. It’s so annoying and I am tired of not having a flat stomach.”
And still another, “I feel heavier than I want to be, and I just don’t get it. I eat healthy and exercise regularly, but just feel uncomfortable in my own skin.”
Why is it exactly that, for whatever reason, we get fixated on what we look like—or a particular part of our body, and feel completely disconnected with our own bodies?
AND, for that matter, why exactly are so many women trying to lose body fat, lose weight or change their appearance on a daily basis?
Think about the hundreds upon hundreds of magazines alone that have been published over the past two decades with tips and tricks for weight loss or body fat loss, month after month, and yet, there is apparently still a need for these stories—because the magazines are still selling.
Or, think about all the advertisements you’ve seen promoting, “Drop body fat.”
It’s a calling card at gyms, on billboards, doctor’s offices—you name it.
Body fat is the devil.
Blogs, articles, experts give women somewhat similar advice around such ‘issues’:
- Eat healthy meals
- Do more cardio
- Incorporate some high intensity intervals in there along with weight training for an extra metabolism boost
- Watch the carbs
- Cut out the sugar
While some of this advice actually does work…In many women’s cases, it works for a short interim…Only to have one’s body ‘revert back’ to its former set point, or struggle to really sustain such changes to one’s diet and exercise.
So what gives?
Although eating well and exercising regularly is definitely part of the equation for a healthy body, what many blogs, articles and experts fail to address is a potential underlying reason that you may be struggling with, ultimately, being healthy and comfortable in your own skin:
More specifically: Cortisol.
You’ve probably heard of cortisol before…but what is it exactly?
Cortisol is a stress hormone produced in the adrenal glands that is actually intended to help your body REGULATE stress throughout any given day.
In addition, cortisol also:
- Regulates energy by selecting the right type and amount of nutrients (carbohydrate, fat or protein) that is needed by the body to meet the physiological demands that is placed upon it
- Mobilizes energy by tapping into the body’s fat stores and moving it from one location to another, or delivering it to hungry tissues such as working muscle
In short: cortisol is a necessary hormone for keeping your body ‘in check’ with stress, as well as energy usage and fat usage.
However, like most things, ‘too much of a good thing is not a good thing’ and whenever you—or your body—go into a mode of high or chronic stress, cortisol production is kicked into HIGH GEAR and the body thinks something major is going down.
In response, cortisol “sounds the alarms,” setting off an increased rush of glucose from your tissues.
Elevated cortisol levels raise blood sugar, consequently causing a rise in insulin (even if you are NOT eating a ‘Standard American Diet’-sugar, processed foods, etc). This makes it extremely difficult for your body’s metabolism to stay regulated, ultimately signals the body to store fat. (The body thinks it will need it after all to deal with the stress).
In particular, cortisol drives abdominal fat deposition, around the organs, where there are more receptors for cortisol and a greater supply of blood. This is the case even for ‘thin’ women.
Popular blogger and founder of the Primal Blueprint Mark Sisson points to a study out of Yale University that looked at how thin women developed abdominal fat in connection with stress. Individual response to stress, not just “body shape” plays a significant role. Women in the study who reacted more severely to the study’s assigned stressors had more abdominal fat.
It’s confusing and twisted.
But the bottom line?
So how do our cortisol levels even get heightened in the first place? A few ways:
- When our body is put to the test. Think the: More exercise is better mentality. While it seems that the ‘calories in’ versus ‘calories out’ philosophy should apply to body fat and weight loss, when your body is being pushed more often than it needs (chronic cardio people), and/or overtrained, it ‘freaks out’, spiking your cortisol levels, which, in turn, fight to ‘hold on’ to the body it has in order to protect it (for when it needs reserves to ‘run from a bear’ at any point in time).
- Eating a low-fat or low-carb/no-carb diet increases cortisol. Just like exercising too much is a cortisol driver, so is not eating enough—particularly of these two food groups that many women avoid when trying to lose body fat or weight.
- Eating poor quality foods. I won’t elaborate on this. Sugar. Processed foods. Junk food. Fast food. When your body is missing out on key nutrition, stress is a natural by product-your bod will try to ‘hang on’ and survive off of what it can (ie. not optimal nutrition).
- Burning a candle at both ends. Poor sleep impacts cortisol (and hunger) levels. In addition, with lack of sleep, the hormones that stimulate appetite increase, while hormones that blunt it drop. You may experience an increased sense of hunger and/or tend to reach for carbohydrate-dense, sweet, and salty foods when sleep deprived. People also become less sensitive to insulin, experiencing ‘blood sugar handling issues’ (i.e. the ‘need’ for sugar). In fact, studies have shown that subjects who slept less than five to six hours per night were twice as likely to develop diabetes, and/or blood sugar dysfunction.
- Mental stress and lack of balance. In our rat race society, stress is a ‘norm’ of our to-do lists with 22 items to complete in one day, deadlines, expectations (on ourselves and from others), and on and on. When we are mentally constantly on ‘alert’ to all these stressors, our body stays in that ‘fight or flight’ mode…and consequently throws our cortisol out of whack as well.
- Caffeine Strikes (Again). According to a study out of Darmouth University, repeated doses of caffeine over a single day result in markedly increased cortisol levels, regardless of the stressor involved or the sex of the individual. Although the extent of the link has not been fully elucidated, a positive relationship clearly exists between caffeine intake and cortisol release, and this relationship is exacerbated when other stressors are introduced. Thus, supplementing a lack of sleep with multiple cups of coffee or energy drinks actually reinforces the negative effects of the stress response and further undermines performance.
So what can you do to promote optimal cortisol levels in your body—especially considering SOME stress is just a part of life (i.e. normal)?
Eat. Sometimes (often times) women are not eating enough. Calories are not evil. They are necessary. In fact, if your calories are below 1800 per day, get them up as best you can. Such restriction below that is certainly not necessary for fat loss. Unfortunately, you may not have an appetite for more food after years of conditioning your metabolism and body to function off less. And, above all, if you happen to be a ‘calorie counter’ (i.e. chronic dieter or worried about your calories), the optimal goal is for you to stop counting calories—and instead focus on mindfully nourishing your body with fuel; and getting in touch with your hunger-fullness cues. It’s amazing what happens when you are able to ‘hear’ you body ‘ask’ for what it wants, and concurrently you start to give it what it needs. That sound like a foreign, far-fetched goal? I love nothing more than working with people to do just that through nutrition therapy along with the below:
Have no fear. Carbs and fats ladies. Both, in balance, promote healthy hormones. If you’ve restricted either one lately, consider what it may look like to bring some back into play. Wholesome whole foods sources, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, even (gasp) some properly prepared rice, oats, sprouted grains and/or beans can find a rightful place in some women’s diets if you are able to tolerate them. Again, nutritional therapy can help you navigate bio-individuality for your nutritional needs.
Slow down. Did you know digestion starts in the mouth? Chew your food! Instead of inhaling that protein bar on your way to work, scarfing down a salad at lunch, and mindlessly eating in front of a screen at dinner…take good, thorough bites. This calms the stress of digestion alone significantly; affecting the stress process hands down.
Do something different. Vary your exercise routine. Pounding the pavement every day, hitting the cardio machines for exactly 45-minutes. Doing the same legs, back, or arms routine every week. Instead of repeated stressors…consider an ebb and flow to your routine. Run one day, swim the next, weights the next. Even if CrossFit or high intensity interval training is your preferred style of training, vary your intensity levels. One day may be more aerobic focused, another strength, one day maybe nothing at all. Not sure how to structure your workouts? Or feel like you are spinning your wheels in the gym? This is where Individualized/Remote Coaching can really come into play—partnering with a coach to ‘take the thought out’ of your training, with a program individualized to you. Not necessarily personal training, but instead, whatever your goals are, a coach writes up your fitness program to help you get there and monitors your progress weekly, guiding you along the way.
Sleeping Beauty. Unfortunately, there’s no escaping it…sleep is restorative and try as we might to build Rome in a day…we can’t. Reality. Cortisol is at its lowest and growth hormone is at its highest during slow wave sleep (deepest stage of sleep). Ensure that this stage of sleep is attained every night. If you can’t fall asleep, try some Sleepy Time or Chamomile tea, take a hot shower, detox from screens, listen to calming music, put some lavender essential oil on your pulse points, black out your room—whatever it takes.
Time out. Sometimes you just gotta take a step back in order to re-set. Even if that means calling in ‘sick’ for a much-needed ‘me day’ or tearing up your to-do list for the day. Realign.
Focus. Consolidate that to-do list. What are the top 3 things you need to do today? Write em on a sticky note and focus on those alone. No budging.
Just say no. Empowerment at its finest. Stop overcommitting. Just stop.
Stop saying “I’m so stressed out.” Ever heard the phrase, “As we think, so we become”? Bingo. It’s ok to acknowledge you are stressed—but stop dwelling on it.
Honor your body. Negative energy in and of itself can contribute to added stress (mental and physical). Think about it: Overthinking or over stressing about what you hate about your body, or what you need to do to change it (i.e. lose weight, gain weight, tone up here or there) can have the reverse effect in what it is you are actually trying to accomplish. I felt this way at one time while trying to gain some healthy weight, and yet, the more I thought about it, and planned it out, and stressed about it…the harder it was to reach my goals. It wasn’t until I threw out the scale and started focusing more on positive energy: nourishing my body, strengthening my body, that I began to realize success.
You know what? Ultimately, we are our own worst critics..and, with that ‘dangling carrot’ analogy, the ‘perfect body’ and complete happiness with our body does not exist if we continue to have an ‘ideal’-other than ourselves-in mind.
Do any—or all of the above—and not only will your hormones will thank you…but you may actually stop the war with yourself.