How to manage your cortisol levels to lose weight by Athletic Performance Dietitian Jessica Spendlove

How to manage your cortisol levels to lose weight by Athletic Performance Dietitian Jessica Spendlove

There are several factors which can impact an individual’s ability to lose weight including food, exercise, lifestyle and hormone levels. Most people appreciate that food can have the biggest impact on weight loss and as such one of the most common attempts to lose weight is through caloric restriction, or ‘dieting’. While creating an energy deficit is essential to losing weight, making sure an individual is not excessively exercising or severely energy restricting is important as these factors can result in immense physiological (physical) or psychological (mental) stress.

Physiological and psychological stress can ultimately have detrimental effects on any weight loss attempt. Cortisol, which is known as the stress hormone, is secreted by the adrenal glands as a response to stress. Elevated cortisol disrupts the bodies blood glucose control by stimulating glucose secretion from stores in the liver and limiting the release of the hormone responsible for removing excess glucose from the bloodstream, insulin.

This results in high blood sugar levels. Eventually, more insulin is secreted to remove the excess glucose once cortisol levels have dropped, but this cycle results in poor glucose control which also makes losing weight very difficult as the excess glucose can be stored as fat. Therefore, managing cortisol and insulin levels are both important when trying to lose weight Any stress on your body, whether that is being chased by a lion, excessively exercising, restricting energy intake or getting road rage, promotes the same hormonal response in your body.

While in today’s society it is highly unlikely you will be chased by a lion-like our ancestors may have been many years ago, stress from excessive exercising or severe caloric restriction is very much real and could be where you are going wrong. If someone is over-training and their intake does not match their requirements, this can place physiological and psychological stress on the body, which can stimulate cortisol secretion, making weight loss that much harder.

There are several dietary and lifestyle strategies which can be implemented to assist with losing weight and managing cortisol levels. These include focusing on foods which nourish the body, promising intake to match activity levels, avoiding excessive exercise and getting adequate sleep. In recent times, there has been some interest in Bluenesse, which is a lemon balm extract (
Melissa officinalis). The interest in this ingredient stems from preliminary research which has indicated Bluenesse may help provide beneficial physiological effects for mental health while simultaneously having calming and improved alertness effects. To date, there have been two pilot studies in humans which have shown promising results for the use of Bluenesse in maintaining and improving mental focus while reducing the effects of physiological stress.

The first pilot study showed Bluenesse is absorbed within 60 minutes and participants reported beneficial effects 1 hour after intake. The second study contained a larger cohort and also had some promising results. In this study, stress was induced by a multi­tasking ac­tivity. Participants also consumed a beverage and a fruit bar which contained 300 mg and 600 mg of the lemon balm extract. Study results demonstrated an intake of 300 mg lem­on balm extract per day showed the strongest effects. One hour after consumption beneficial effects could be seen relating to improvements in alertness, working mem­ory and word recall, as well as a reduction of cortisol levels which we know is elevated during periods of stress. While research is only in its infancy and it is still an emerging area, the preliminary research is promising and indicates Bluenesse may aid in reducing stress-induced cortisol levels and may also support mental focus and cognitive function.


Five effective strategies that can be used to manage cortisol levels and lose weight

1. Focus on foods that nourish your body, not on restriction and punishment

This means eating a diet that is rich in vegetables, lean proteins, slow-release grains and healthy fats. You should also make sure your diet is high in fibre and includes food such as chickpeas, lentils and oats which can help you feel more satisfied, manage your sugar levels and keep your hormones balanced. Having a breakfast high in protein, with some slow-release grains is also a great way to start the day from both an appetite and hormone balance perspective. Focusing on foods you should eat also helps reduce intakes of sweetened beverages, such as soft drinks and foods high in refined sugar (think lollies, cakes and biscuits, for starters) which are going to hurt insulin and cortisol levels.

2. Periodise your carbohydrate intake around your training

For the active individual, aim to have the majority of your carbohydrate intake before and after key training sessions to make sure you are providing your body with what it needs before to perform, and after to recover. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat carbohydrate-based foods across the day, in fact having small regular amounts of slow-release carbohydrates is beneficial for managing blood sugar levels. It is important not to limit your limit of slow-release carbohydrates across the day and then cluster your intake late in the evening. Good quality carbohydrates can play an important role in your weight loss journey, but you need to execute the distribution of them correctly.

3. Avoid overtraining

While movement every day is encouraged, it is important to vary your training routine and allow your body to rest. Each person will have an individual threshold for what constitutes overtraining so it is a matter of listening to your body and also assessing your results and energy levels. Too much exercise can lead to injuries, exhaustion and hormonal imbalance.

4. Sleep, glorious sleep.

When the body is not under stress, cortisol levels are naturally increased upon wakening and decreased at night. When the body is under stress, cortisol levels can be low across the day and elevated at night. Getting adequate sleep and regulating your sleep cycle is an important strategy in managing your cortisol levels.

5. Bluenesse – watch this space
This lemon balm extract has some preliminary research indicating it may help to reduce stress-induced cortisol levels as well as support mental focus and cognitive function.

Jessica Spendlove Athletic Performance Dietitian for GWS Giants, Cronulla Sharks and Giants Netball

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