When entering a competition prep or intense dieting phase, most individuals only consider the hunger pangs, lack of sweets, and mind numbingly boring hours they’ll spend doing cardio for several months. But one thing that should be considered above all else is the shifts occurring on a cellular level; effects that can long outlast a dieting phase.
Dieting is a massive stressor on the body, and if you’re doing it, meet your new roommate: cortisol.
First, let’s run through how cortisol should operate in the body:
- We’re faced with a stressor, causing our body to secrete cortisol from the adrenal gland
- This puts our body in a state of “fight or flight” response
- Cortisol inhibits insulin production to enable immediate use
- The stressor is resolved and the body’s hormones return to a balanced state
This is fine for the occasional instance. But it becomes an issue when cortisol levels remain elevated, which is the case among many dieters. What many fail to realize when they consider entering a diet phase, is that dieting itself is extreme stress. Not only psychologically, but physiologically. Our bodies are complex machines that require balance. When balance is thrown, there are shifts that take place in order to try to regain that balance.
The Many Functions of Cortisol
Cortisol stores fat as well as releases it, depending on the circumstances. For instance, it becomes fat-storing in response to elevated insulin, because of an increase in the fat storing enzyme LPL. When insulin levels are high, the body tends to store glucose as fat. Cortisol, in an attempt to give that surge of energy necessary for action during high stress, releases glucose into the blood stream.
When we’re chronically stressed and the excess glucose is not being utilized, it is stored as fat. Plus, the increase and prolonged elevation of blood glucose can trigger the release of insulin. Insulin also slows fat burning through the suppression of the fat burning enzyme CPT-1. On top of this, an elevation in cortisol causes your body to be insulin resistant, which leads to greater fat storage. This cycle can become a massive issue for the dieter.
Another factor that is rarely noted is the relationship between cortisol and thyroid function. Your thyroid is important because it affects your breathing, heart rate, nervous system, weight, mental state, energy levels, and strength, among other things. When cortisol is elevated, it causes thyroid function to slow. When thyroid function slows, side effects include frequently being cold, constipation, and weight gain. Obviously not what the dieter is hoping for. Elevated stress prevents the conversion of T4 into T3. This is important because it stimulates metabolism and energy production. When in a high stress situation, the body halts the conversion of T4 to T3 to slow down metabolism. So, while chronically dieting, the metabolism slows, thus halting or slowing weight loss.
Contrary to popular belief, cortisol is not all bad. It’s a necessary hormone that helps us rise in the morning, and tapers at night in order for us to get to sleep. But while dieting, cortisol levels elevate. This causes numerous effects and vicious cycles. I’m sure this is a familiar scenario for anyone who’s dieted before: You wake up after a not-so-restful night of sleep, dragging your feet out the door for work, large coffee in tow. As the day progresses, and you’re trying to wind down for the night, you feel a sudden surge of energy right before bedtime that leaves you wide awake, staring at the clock, dreading the fact you need to be up in five hours. Which leads me to the next point in this vicious cycle.
After your atrocious night of sleep, what’s a dieter to do? Likely reach for the coffee. It’s the only way to get you through the day. Since there’s a lack of calories to derive energy from, so many rely on caffeine. This works wonders. The only thing is, caffeine also elevates cortisol, adding stress on top of stress. In the moment, it’s a lifesaver, but paired with every other stressor including emotional stress and lack of sleep, it’s only adding to the problem.
Have you ever gone out with friends, let yourself live a little, and anticipated a weight jump the next morning, only to realize you actually lost weight? There’s a reason for this. When cortisol levels are elevated, the amount of water your body holds elevates as well. This massive weight drop is often referred to as a “whooshing” effect. The increase in calories reduces cortisol levels. This is why a refeed can be massively beneficial for a number of reasons. Stepping on the scale after an intense week of dieting and seeing no change, or even worse, an increase, is disheartening to say the least. But, more importantly, it only perpetuates your stress.
Cortisol, paired with high insulin, has been known to promote visceral fat accumulation. Visceral fat is stored in the abdominal region, generally around your organs. When insulin is elevated and remains high, your body will not release fat from your cells. Abdominal fat contributes to many biochemical stressors. More abdominal fat is associated with higher levels of oxidative stress (lower antioxidants and higher lipid markers), and greater number of inflammatory markers. So every morning when you wake up and do the ‘ab check,’ there’s no abs in sight.
In the case where we need to “fight or flight”, it only makes sense for the body to shut down bodily functions that are not needed in the moment. If your child is trapped under a car, all resources shift to that adrenaline spike. Your body doesn’t care that you’d like to digest that burger. When levels are constantly elevated, this can lead to indigestion and inflammation. Many ailments such as ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome are found in people with extremely high stress.
Similarly, the last thing you would be doing in an emergency situation is reproducing, so your body shuts that system down, too. Cortisol is derived from progesterone, which is the primary source for estrogen and testosterone. When you are chronically stressed, progesterone is converted into cortisol, rather than estrogen or testosterone. This becomes an issue when wanting to reproduce, because women need estrogen to produce an egg and adequate environment in the uterus. Also, low testosterone levels result in low sperm, lowering the likelihood of the desired result.
How to Get Off the Cortisol Train
Dieting isn’t the most enjoyable thing. Your calories are decreased, you can’t eat an endless supply of all the amazing food you love, your energy levels are low, and your weight is on your mind constantly. This awareness of our bodies and anticipating the changes we’re making is overwhelmingly stressful. Generally, if the scale isn’t going down, we worry that we need to make even bigger changes in an attempt to head in the right direction. The night before your scheduled weigh-in, you lie in bed, unable to sleep, thinking about the repercussions that come with no weight loss. Again, a vicious stress cycle.
Now that we’ve covered all the reasons you should avoid stress, let’s talk about how to implement strategies to deal with the inevitable. Below are a few ways to bring that cortisol down to a manageable level:
- A good night’s sleep or a nap
- A massage
- A relaxing walk
- Tea – more specifically chamomile, kava, valerian, etc.
- L theanine
Sometimes, a serious physical break is necessary to reduce cortisol. This could come in the form of a diet break. You can implement this is one of two ways: a full diet break or partial diet break.
- A full diet break consists of 10-14 days of no tracking your food. Assuming you’ve been tracking for some time, you’ll be able to intuitively eat in a way that won’t send you completely off the well-worn path. Continue eating at your normal times, and strength train as usual. Along with these changes, your amount of cardio should be reduced by 50%.
- During a partial diet break, you can either add roughly 500 calories, or increase calories by 20%, to about 10% below estimated maintenance. Rather than intuitively eating, you continue tracking as usual, but with a substantial increase in calories.
A break in dieting allows cortisol levels to come down, as well as balance any hormones that have shifted due to dieting stress.
More Harm Than Good
Contrary to popular belief, extended periods of dieting could actually be doing much more harm than good, mentally and physically. For your own health, consider implementing a diet break, or if that’s not a possibility, try some of the above methods to bring your stress down, as well as the number on the scale.