Controlling Insulin and Cortisol for Weight Loss
By Danielle Wirick, MS, CSCS, FMSC
Hormones affect every aspect of how our body functions and carries messages between cells and organs. You are probably familiar with the names of many hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, insulin, thyroid, and cortisol.
But if you don’t know what they do and how they work in your body, you may be sabotaging your weight loss efforts. Let’s take a moment to understand the roles of what I feel are two of the most important hormones to have in balance for optimizing weight loss.
Insulin. When carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, good quality grains or highly refined sugary foods enter the bloodstream, the pancreas releases insulin. In a simple explanation, the more carbohydrates that enter the cells, the more insulin is released. If the carbohydrate is more refined or processed, then insulin release will be faster.
Once carbohydrates are absorbed, they can be used as fuel immediately; they can be stored as glycogen in your muscles for fuel later if the muscle reserves are low; or they will be stored as body fat if you aren’t in either of those categories.
So you might now see a simple problem: if you aren’t eating that candy bar while you are running to use the carbs as fuel, or if you aren’t very lean and muscular and in need of glycogen stores, then you fall into the category of storing those carbohydrates as excess body fat. Then add in the fact that most of our quick-to-eat foods are highly refined carbohydrates which just continue the cycle of high insulin and you can see how this can be a problem.
Exercise and diet solution to insulin dysfunction. Begin by staying away from the typical American breakfast of dairy and grains, which will increase your insulin early in the day and keep you from gaining control of your insulin levels.
Instead, opt for proteins, fats and veggies which impact insulin levels very little. Steak and eggs or a veggie frittata are simple solutions. Current research has also found that cinnamon can help lower blood sugar in diabetics by 20% with as little as 1/4 tsp. per day — barring you don’t make cinnamon/sugar with it!
Exercise helps improve insulin sensitivity for up to 16 hours after activity, so your muscle’s cells are better able to use insulin to take up glucose. As far as what type of exercise is concerned, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is the way to go.
In a study found in BMC Endocrine Disorder, 2009, the researchers concluded that a 15-minute HIIT cycling program that involved from 4-7 bouts of 30 seconds at a high intensity was able to “substantially improve insulin action.” If you are able, perform a 15-minute high intensity interval, which you can even ramp up a little more by following it with some steady state cardio and then another interval.
Cortisol. Cortisol is produced by the adrenals and is primarily in charge of breaking things down. Cortisol increases during exercise (a stressor) and breaks down tissue for fuel so we can keep working out.
But for many people it’s not the breakdown during exercise that’s the problem, it’s other stressors. During the workday, when you are mentally stressed, cortisol will also increase.
This increase causes an increase in blood sugar and therefore an increase in insulin. So being stressed at work causes insulin to be affected, and then we eat more, move less and ultimately increase our body fat. Many types of stressors cause cortisol to be increased.
If you have any type of mood disorder such as anxiety, depression or exhaustion, cortisol increases. If you have digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis or ulcers, you probably have higher levels of cortisol.
Exercise and diet solution to high cortisol. From a dietary standpoint, the vitamin C found in citrus fruits, potassium from avocados and bananas, the magnesium in spinach and seeds and the Omega 3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, flaxseed and walnuts all help in some way to control how we react to stress and therefore help control our cortisol levels.
Stimulants on the other hand increase stress, so limiting those highly caffeinated beverages will help as well. Although exercise causes a spike in cortisol while exercising (a stressor), it also causes endorphins to be released, which cause us to feel good, relax and lower our cortisol levels after we finish. Also, the longer you have been regularly exercising, the less of a cortisol spike you will have because of your body’s ability to adapt.
This is only just the beginning of how controlling your hormones can control your body weight. Estrogen, Testosterone, Thyroid, Melatonin, DHEA and other hormones all play a critical role as well. If you think your weight gain is related to hormone issues that you can’t control or don’t understand, talk to a medical professional for advice.
Controlling Insulin and Cortisol for Weight Loss