As we age, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to lose weight. This is partially due to the inevitable changes in our hormones. As we get older, a myriad of problems with our hormones can arise, including menopause, oestrogen dominance and a decline in our fat burning hormones.
The effects of hormonal imbalance in men and women
For women, the delicate balance between oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone and a ‘friend or foe hormone’ called cortisol becomes increasingly important. For men, testosterone deficiencies, cortisol and even oestrogen balance all become paramount as they age.
When your hormones are not working in harmony, it can affect your mood, libido, body composition, energy levels and fertility. Even exercise can have an impact on your hormones.
Most of us are familiar with oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone, as well as their imbalances and the corresponding symptoms. However, cortisol is a lesser understood but equally important hormone that can be either a friend or foe to your exercise routine.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone which is produced in the cortex of your adrenal glands. Almost all the cells in your body contain cortisol receptors, so cortisol has many different impacts on your body. It controls blood sugar levels, acts as an anti-inflammatory, controls your salt and water balance, and it influences blood pressure, immune function and even digestion.
The relationship between cortisol, stress and exercise
Cortisol is called the ‘stress hormone’ because it is released into your bloodstream as a response to stress. Stress is not limited to having a bad day at work or tensions in your family. Physical stress, resulting from exercise, can also increase your level of cortisol.
When you exercise at high intensities, for an hour or more, your body responds to this stress by releasing cortisol. Cortisol is a very important hormone and without it, we would not be able to handle stress adequately. However, too much cortisol can cause your body to work against you, even in your health and fitness goals.
The symptoms of high cortisol
The symptoms of high cortisol include:
- weight gain
- inability to lose weight
- water retention
- high blood pressure
- muscle weakness
- poor thyroid function
- sleep disturbances
- blood sugar imbalances
- slow wound healing
- poor immune function
If you are experiencing these symptoms, it could be because cortisol is working against you and not for you. The good news is that there are simple lifestyle modifications that you can make to help you balance your cortisol levels throughout the day.
Reduce cortisol with lifestyle changes
If you are experiencing symptoms of high cortisol, it’s very important that you favour low intensity exercise over extended high intensity exercise. Take a long walk, do a session in the gym with weights, go to Pilates or take a yoga class.
Reduce high cortisol through diet
Cortisol levels fluctuate throughout the day, with levels peaking in the morning to help you get up and go! Eating to match the diurnal rhythm of cortisol can be very helpful. Since cortisol influences your blood sugar levels, you can match your complex carbohydrate intake to your daily cortisol rhythm.
This means eating a small amount of low glycemic, complex carbohydrates in the morning, when your cortisol levels are at their peak, and then a larger amount in the evening, when your cortisol levels should be declining to prepare you for sleep.
You can easily manage your cortisol levels with exercise intensity, healthy eating and meditation. Let’s get your hormones working for you and not against you!
Written by Melanie Mack
About the author
Melanie Mack is a health and fitness enthusiast who has been passionate about holistic wellness for over 12 years. After dealing with the uninspiring approach of western medicine, Melanie decided to change careers and work towards truly healing people through functional and integrative medicine. With a core belief that you can heal the body through food and lifestyle changes, Melanie’s approach is “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates. Melanie is currently studying to become a Nutritional Therapist and Naturopath at the Natural Healthcare College & College of Naturopathic Medicine, both out of London. She looks forward to opening her own practice in Mallorca in January of 2018. Melanie currently lives in Mallorca with her husband and 2 dogs.