Cortisol and its effect on weight loss/gain

Sunday, February 03, 2013

I split this into an intro (I suggest you read this part), symptoms, and managing cortisol (pills, exercise, lifestyle), so you can skip to what you want to read. This info is based on my experiences with cortisol issues.


There has been info of cortisol causing your belly fat problems and easy ways to fix this - magic pills or 3 servings a day of dairy (yup cortisol related).

I always tell people first, do the basic work – count your calories in and your calories out (exercise) and do the normal hard work it takes to lose weight. However, if you are doing this and the results are not making sense, it might be time to check some of the other things that can effect weight loss: cortisol, insulin, food allergies, thyroid issues, and I am sure there are several more.

I first learned about cortisol in about 2005 when I stumbled onto a weight loss group doing something different (turned out they were doing an insulin resistance diet). They worked with a Metabolic Doctor (M.D.) that I went to see. He suspected food allergies and cortisol (turns out my food allergies kicked up my cortisol big time) and sure enough the tests he took showed I was way out of whack big time. My cortisol was low in the morning and rose in a straight line till the last test at midnight, instead of dropping in the afternoon/evening. I have worked with my cortisol issues since then, learning more and more about what effects cortisol has and how I can control it. Finally the last year or two there is some real information on cortisol if you hunt for it – for many years what I learned was by trail and error and it was hard to fully control my cortisol.

These symptoms can be indicators of other issues and may/may not be cortisol. The best way to know if you have cortisol issues is to test (see testing below).

1) Not sleeping. That wide awake feeling or an inability to sleep.
This means I was a night owl – staying awake till 1 or 2 pm often, going to sleep only when I had to so I could function the next day. In fact in my early 30s, I had a Dr ask why I could not sleep and not eat and not feel bad – I said I felt like I was driving down the coast highway in a convertible with the top down, I felt great. I didn’t understand those people who could not easily do overnighters for work, even several in a row.
As I paid more attention, I can be very tired inside and really needing sleep, but not able to fall asleep. I can wake up way too early and feel wide awake and not be able to go back to sleep. I am not sure this is related, but because of how it feels I am suspicious this is cortisol related – I am sensitive to light (anywhere in the house, sunlight, night lights, computer/tv screens) and I have been “not sleepy” but turned of the tv/computer and all of a sudden I am very sleepy.

2) Sugar cravings. Carb cravings are common for high cortisol and for me this is sugar. When it is bad, it feels like a drug addiction – I HAVE to have that sugar. But the sugar doesn’t satisfy, I just “need” more and more. This can be a big sugar craving, or a more subtle one (I want fruits and veggies that are higher in sugar). I watch these cravings a lot – often taking a cortisol pill and hanging tough for 30 minutes and voila, not more sugar cravings.

3) What I call a revved up feeling inside. When I started taking the first pills that effectively lowered cortisol for me, I felt a calmness in my body I had never, never felt before. As I tested my “allergic foods” to see how I reacted (some kicked cortisol up very quickly very high), and paid attention to how I felt in general, I realized when my cortisol is high I am more speedy/revved up inside. When it is very bad, it is like 7000 rpm – race car revved up, but it can be just revved up a some. Outward signs – I talk faster, yup I think faster, I am not relaxed and this includes my muscles are slightly tensed.

4) Hot flashes - Cortisol being high interacts with sex hormones and as we get older cortisol raises. If progesterone drops and cortisol is higher, menopause symptoms are worse. This means more hot flashes than others - I am years past menopause, so I have learned if I am getting even a handful of hot flashes a day, that is a sign my cortisol is not under control. Note: I have never had PMS symptoms and my big peri-menopause symptom was running warm consistently for years, like a continually warm flash.

5) Aches and pains – in muscles for me but can be joints also. I first ran into this as a problem during my 3rd year of menopause, when I think my hormones shifted some. But now I realize this has always been an issue to a smaller issue. I first started paying attention to my body in my early 30s, and realized my posterior chain (hamstrings, calves, back) would be tight many days. I would do a hanging stretch to check out how I was in the morning and spend some time stretching if I was tight. About my 3rd year of menopause my muscles were so achy it interfered with workouts – it felt like my muscles were burning achy even when I had not done a workout for several days/a week. I found new pills that helped for cortisol and voila, it disappeared. When I feel sore and creaky, that is a big symptoms that my cortisol is not under control.

The best way to test cortisol is by a saliva test as cortisol will raise and lower through out the day and you want several results for one day. It is hard to do a blood test 4 times a day but saliva tests can be done at home/work. There are a few companies that do this, you can decide to work with a Dr or not but I have never found a M.D. with even the basic knowledge about cortisol other than the metabolic Dr I saw (and yes I have looked). So thoroughly check the Dr out first. I have another blog that discussed my test results, I think I had the company I used there and the result explanations were through enough that I didn’t feel the need to discuss them with a Dr. Testing is expensive and typically not covered by insurance. An alternative if you think you have cortisol issues is to try one or more of the supplements below and see how they affect you.


Exercise - I have found (trail and error) that intense exercise without a heavy weight in my hands kicks up my cortisol, what I called fully engaging my muscles - making large groups Work! My guess, if the muscles are fully engaged they are using the cortisol, otherwise it just floods my bloodstream. Heavy weights lower my cortisol (a lot). So I do ST with heavy weights, kettlebells with bells that feel heavy. Next best is body weight exercises that fully engage large muscle groups like squats, lunges, pushups, pullups. I can do ballistic/plyo if I have a heavy weight, but jumping pullups, jumping jacks, etc. will kick my cortisol sky high in just a minute or two.

Sleep & downtime:
Funny thing, sleep lowers cortisol, high cortisol interferes with sleep. So getting enough sleep, and down time is essential for me to manage cortisol. That means no stressful days (pushing hard for goals, trying to do too much in a day, etc.) and no long work days.

Note: I tend to not absorb things as well, so I always take more herbs than other people need (e.g. an extra pill than others). I also have a pattern of something hitting me harder and then after the first few days it is less effective – I have noted any side effects I had.

• PS (Phosphatidylserine). This is a natural substance inside our cells, when our cells die the substance is released into our body. This is the number one thing that helps me these days, though I only found it this last year. It makes me think I have just always been low on this – my body just doesn’t produce it as well as others do. I take 3-4 pills twice a day and as needed during the day (often a third dose mid day). Note: When I first started I got some “side effects” at this dose, so I suggest starting a little low and working your way up. My side effects were not being able to fall asleep one day, and feeling “like life was absolutely wonderful” – that side effect was not bad – lol.

• Adrenal Schizandra Formula by Planetary Herbals. This is Chinese and other herbs. I found these when things went bonkers during my 3rd year of menopause and I instinctually felt I needed more cortisol management. This was my go to pills before I found PS, I took it as needed when Cortisol rose during the day as well as regular morning and night doses. I find it doesn’t work as well as PS, but it worked very well compared to the pills below, within 30 minutes of taking them the symptoms greatly reduced including sugar cravings. Once I found the PS, I tried to not take these, but they do a smoothing out that PS doesn’t and I find it helpful to take them. I now take 3-4 pills morning and night, but use PS as needed during the day.

• Serenegen by Metagenics. This is a standard Chinese herbal formula called Stressed and Wired. These create drowsiness about 30 minutes after taking them (just for a short time, so I need to be in bed ready to sleep when they hit) and I still take them for this. They were the first herbs I was given (after the DHEA didn’t work for me), and they do calm down my cortisol, but nowhere as well as the two pills above, so often I felt I was chasing the cortisol but not really managing it well.

• DHEA. My DHEA was a little low and raising this can lower cortisol. However it can also raise testerone and progesterone so doesn’t work for everyone. I was one of those – a baby dose made me ready to rip heads off people for no reason, even 1/5 of a baby dose just made me feel angry all the time. So no DHEA for me. Note: I have used Keto-7 without these side effects, but it did show a raise in testerone when I tested (can be a false raise). I do fine with the other pills above so I gave up the Keto-7 and didn’t feel like I needed it.

Note: High cortisol depletes other things, so I do supplements to replace these.
Vitamin B (I look for stress formulas), Magnesium (I use ZMA 2 pills am & pm), vitamin E high megadose but make sure it is mixed tocopherol not just the cheaper ones, and Vitamin C.

Higher protein lowers cotisol - I hit for 100-120 mg minimum but often go over that when I need extra for muscle recovery.
Typical sugar kicks up cortisol big time for me (despite many searches, I have not found any information that says that is true for others, and I was given pharmaceutical grade dextrose for a study and amazingly no cortisol reaction). But watch for spirals like I get for sugar - Cortisol makes me crave sugar, sugar raises my cortisol, I am never satisfied by eating the sugar, it just spins in a very unsatisfying spiral.

For me, it was an eye opener that one of the biggest things that raises my cortisol is foods. When I was tested for cortisol I was also tested for food allergies. I am allergic to foods that I didn't eat often or don't particularly like but was eating to avoid some food I knew I reacted to. So most of them were easy to give up. However, when I was able to lower my cortisol for the first time I realized a lot of foods will kick my cortisol high that were not on the testing list. Mostly I am allergic to man made ingredients, the things we can't pronounce. But I was tested as allergic to eggs and trail/error showed I am mostly ok with organic eggs, it is the non organic ingredients that I react to, often very strongly. I can't always tell by ingredients, for example I react to canned beets but not fresh beets or other canned foods. Therefore I tend to eat unprocessed foods for this reason, cooking mostly at home and trying to be picky about where I eat out.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    Thanks for sharing
    281 days ago

    As a newer member of the Renegade I thought I would check this out. I am so sorry that you have had to do so much trial and error when it comes to your health but it sounds like you are heading into the right direction. I am sure that this will prove invaluable for those also suffering from these hormonal issues (yes cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands when the body perceives a certain level of external stress). Good luck as you continue to find what works for you which is really what we are all seeking, right? emoticon
    283 days ago
    I know I have problems in this area and need to start managing my cortisol levels. Have you noticed if eating walnuts helps with cortisol problems?
    684 days ago
    Thanks for this blog! I am going to check into this for myself.
    883 days ago
    Man...I LOVE learning through other's Experience...Jane this Blog was very informative...Thank you for taking the time to sort out all of those thoughts and put it in a way that we could more easily understand. CORTISOL is a BIGGIE...There is no Doubt...If you are having trouble shedding those pounds and inches...even though you think you are doing everything else right...Check into your Hormones...FOR SURE! Great Blog...I'll keep checking back so ya can drop some more Knowledge on me...That was time well spent! Thanks! emoticon
    974 days ago
    Very interesting! Thank you for sharing!
    1004 days ago
    Very helpful information. Even for someone who probably doesn't think she has a corisol issue (now that I've read the specific symptoms) the stress management stuff is valuable info for everyone. Once again, thanks Jane!!
    1719 days ago
    Thanks for all this info! As I mentioned in thread, my issue is probably just WAY too much stress--especially way too much stress for too long, but some of the stuff I'm experiencing is similar--difficulty losing weight even when I'm eating and exercising like I'm supposed to, brain ramping up (including the talking too fast, LOL--and I can talk pretty quickly without the boost) and difficulties sleeping. The best exercise I have found for me is competitive sports, like fencing or tennis.
    1881 days ago
    AWESOME info...had read about a few things but mostly I had no idea...

    TY so much for putting this all together...must have took a good amount of time...
    1960 days ago
    Wow. Thanks for all the great info! Something to watch and think about.
    1960 days ago
  • DINKER0798
    This blog was awesome! I think (or secretly know) that I have a cortisol problem. With your help, I will be able to get to the bottom of this and get it under control:-)
    1962 days ago
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