There is probably nothing—and I mean nothing—like unrelenting stress to sabotage weight loss. Stress really does a number on your body. The sad thing is that stress, no matter where it comes from, will have the same detrimental biochemical effect—a spike in cortisol, your body's premier fat storage hormone. Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands as part of our "fight or flight" mechanism. While you may be aware of stress—whether it is physical, emotional, or psychological—you may be completely unaware of steadily accumulating "silent" stress caused by electropollution thanks to our smartphones, tablets, cordless phones, routers, smart meters and even baby monitors. All of these digital wonders emit biologically active, disruptive man-made radiation that surrounds us 24/7 in a sea of invisible energy—a major autonomic nervous system stressor that nobody is talking about.
It turns out that our DNA is exquisitely sensitive to even the minutest amount of non-ionizing (non-heating) electromagnetic radiation from wireless technology. Our bodies respond to this type of radiation in a number of ways including the secretion of heat shock proteins—around 20 to be exact—with a corresponding elevation of cortisol.
Out of control cortisol levels and non-stop stress can send your health into a downward spiral resulting in a series of negative consequences besides stockpiling on tummy fat. Practically every single disease known to man is due to unmanaged stress. Your brain can actually shrink; the happy hormone serotonin can take a nosedive, your bone density and strength can diminish, and mental illness can set in.
The two hormones that are most impacted by various types of stress are the ultimate fat promoting cortisol and insulin. Remember, the stress hormones, more than any other hormones, will inhibit your ability to lose weight even if you are on the best diet and exercise program!
STRESS HORMONE # 1 – CORTISOL
This fat storage stress hormone is blocked by omega-3 rich oils:
- Walnuts and walnut oil
- Camelina (wild flax) oil
- Fish and fish oil
When cortisol—your main stress hormone—is behaving itself, it truly is your BFF hormone. It gives you that "get up and go" and provides you with just the right surge of energy in emergency situations whether you are emotionally upset or physically challenged or suffering from low blood sugar. But when you can no longer hit the pause or refresh button, and that cortisol surge won't quit, then you run the risk of some very unpleasant side effects—including weight gain.
The human brain contains more than 60 percent fat. It also happens to need more omega-3 fatty acids than any other organ or system in the body. The EPA and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) fats are major players in regulating emotions, mood and warding off depression. These Smart Fats can help to reduce aggression and hostility in a number of clinical studies. They can help to fortify your system so you can mentally handle and cope with stress more efficiently to minimize the damage created by elevated levels of cortisol.
OMEGA-3 FATS EASE STRESS
According to the National Institute of Health, omega-3s help to balance stress hormone levels and provide direct weight loss benefits. They can be supplied by ALA-rich walnut and walnut oil, Camelina oil, as well as fatty fish and fish oil.
Walnuts and walnut oil contain high levels of the omega-3 plant-based ALA, which have many added benefits besides their ability to regulate stress hormones. Camelina oil is also a rich source of ALA, but contains an amazingly high amount of stable monounsaturated fatty acids (omega-7s), as well as vitamin E, which makes it a very beneficial oil for medium-heat cooking. Due to its high antioxidant content, it's known as the "better" flax. Of course, an even more direct source of the omega-3 fatty acids is fatty fish like wild caught salmon, sardines, anchovies and mackerel.
Walnuts, however, unlike fish or fish oils, are rich in trace minerals like zinc, selenium, calcium, copper, and manganese. Walnuts and walnut oil also pack a serious dose of vitamins B1, B2, B3 and vitamin E— all notably worthy vitamin stress relievers that soothe the nervous system. Walnuts are also one of the richest natural sources of melatonin—second only to tart cherries. Melatonin is the hormone that regulates your body's sleep-wake cycle. It ensures that you get the sleep you need for restorative rest that also prompts weight control.
Omega-3 rich foods right before bed—like a couple of walnuts or walnut oil in a smoothie—will come in very handy when you consider that just one night of poor sleep can raise cortisol by 45 percent.
As it turns out, sleep and cortisol are intimately entwined. Chronically high cortisol levels disturb sleep, and lack of sleep can make you fat.
SLEEP: THE SECRET WEIGHT LOSS AID
Sleep deprivation has reached epidemic proportions here in the US. Approximately 7 out of 10 Americans report sleep-related problems. Lab tests show that cortisol levels are much higher in sleep-deprived people. A landmark study in 2000 by the University of Chicago's Department of Medicine revealed that not only does sleep deprivation affect tiredness and immunity, but too little sleep impairs the way your body actually handles food, creating impaired glucose tolerance. This can result in insulin resistance and obesity.
And it's not just cortisol and insulin that become out of whack without proper rest. A lack of quality sleep also impedes surges of growth hormone, resulting in increased fat tissue and reduced muscle mass—just what you don't need. Growth hormone is released while you sleep, raising gradually from about 10 PM and peaking at about 2 AM. It also prompts your body to burn fat in order to repair the tiny tears in your muscles caused by exercise. This gives you a higher muscle-to-fat ratio, which boosts your metabolism, helping you to lose weight and keep it off.
In order to boost growth hormone, even more, eat a light cortisol-containing snack of walnuts or a smoothie with walnut oil or even an omega-3 deviled egg—providing your gallbladder can tolerate eggs—just before you retire.
CORTISOL AS FAT MAKER
Cortisol is such a primary fat storage hormone because it activates enzymes to store fat when it comes into contact with any and all fat cells. Abdominal fat has four times the amount of cortisol receptors than any other fat cells and so is a telltale sign of cortisol imbalances that your body can't hide.
High cortisol levels over a long period of time have huge consequences, such as chronically high blood pressure, memory changes, depression, insomnia, slow wound healing and diabesity (diabetes + obesity, a term coined by my buddy, the late, great Dr. Atkins).
Elevated cortisol levels also depress thyroid function, interfere with progesterone (your body's natural anti-depressant), raise blood sugar and cause your body to break down muscle tissue to be used for energy—a big setback for weight loss since muscle is a natural calorie burner. The less lean muscle mass you have, the lower your metabolism and the easier you gain weight.
In contrast, extremely low cortisol levels are associated with thinning skin, brittle bones and fibromyalgia—probably due to burned out adrenals. Maintaining balanced cortisol levels that are not too high and not too low is truly a lifetime balancing act and one I find my most challenging!
Cortisol has a nasty habit of making you wake up in the middle of the night. Intermittent frequent awakenings—especially at 3 AM or 4 AM in the morning are often related to cortisol surges, which should be lower to allow you to sleep through the night. When melatonin levels naturally rise, cortisol should be lower. Taking melatonin before bed or drinking several ounces of diluted tart cherry juice may help neutralize excess cortisol and prevent it from keeping you up at night—when you need to be stacking ZZZs and snooze to lose.
FLOWER POWER FOR EMOTIONAL STRESS CONTROL
Repressed emotions can trigger over-eating and bingeing as many of us know. Also, this can impede our best weight loss efforts unless we can learn to cope with emotional issues. Impatience, discouragement, bitterness, frustration, and anger are often common triggers. Granted for many psychotherapy may a viable solution. For those that want to either augment this therapy or find a natural alternative, I would recommend the Bach Flower Remedies. They are a kind of energy medicine similar to homeopathy that offsets emotional turbulence that can be at the root of physical disorders. Developed in the 1930s by Dr. Edward Bach, an English immunologist, the most renowned formula, Rescue Remedy is a five-flower extract combo that is used to help alleviate trauma, whether emotional, physical or psychological.
COMMUNITY CALMS CORTISOL
Women, in particular, benefit from the support of others in being able to handle all aspects of life including stress. A landmark study from UCLA proves something that many of us have already suspected: a unique bond forms between women. A circle of friends makes life brighter and the tough times easier.
The researchers at UCLA demonstrated that women that were under stress produced brain chemicals that opened them up to making and maintaining friendships with other women.
It was generally assumed that when a person experiences stress, the hormonal release creates the typical "fight or flight" response. Women have a very distinct response to stress, as opposed to men. In women, the hormone oxycotin is released which acts as a buffer to cortisol and encourages females to gather with their girlfriends. Men do not have this response because of the high amounts of testosterone they produce. So, when men are stressed they tend to go off by themselves, and when women are stressed they gather others around them.
SMART TIPS: CORTISOL
Here are some smart tips to balance cortisol levels and tame the stress hormone monster so it can't scare away your best weight loss efforts:
- Eat walnuts and enjoy walnut oil. This omega-rich nut can be popped into salads and side dishes. The oil—when roasted—is absolutely delicious (one of the tastiest oils I have ever used) and packs serious health benefits. Roasted walnut oil will lift an ordinary salad to the sublime with a basic mix of Romaine lettuce, chopped green onion, cilantro, celery and Celtic sea salt. Serve one tablespoon of roasted walnut oil per salad.
- Count on Camelina! Camelina is also an excellent oil for those with heart issues—because of its high vitamin E content, it works wonders for blood clots! It's a tasty salad dressing and can be used in medium-heat sauteing.
- Eat fatty fish and take fish oil supplements. Try to consume some wild caught fish at least twice per week and also supplement with fish oil on a daily basis to help manage stress better. Just make sure that the fish oil you buy is molecularly distilled and free of heavy metals. Do be aware, however, that fish oil is a natural blood thinner so caution should be taken if you are also taking blood-thinning meds. Choose the newer orange and lemon flavored fish oil liquids or softgels, which seem to be better tolerated.
- Shake MORE salt. Yes, you heard that right. Most of us are sodium deficient and the right type of salt (I like Celtic sea salt) can support adrenal function and help your body better cope with stress. It may then indirectly balance elevated or depleted cortisol levels. I would recommend at least 1/4 teaspoon in warm water first thing in the morning. Gargle with this and then swallow, as the salt is anti-bacterial to your mucous membranes.
For an extra boost, try my Adrenal Cocktail. I have used this for years for my overstressed and overworked clients. It's best taken mid-morning and/or mid-afternoon. Mix four ounces fresh squeezed orange juice, 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar and 1/4 teaspoon Celtic sea salt. Take a blood test to actually measure your serum sodium so you can better take care of your body's sodium needs. Without sodium, muscles become stiff and hardened. Sodium relaxes soft tissue and is incredibly important when you are under stress.
- Lights out! Let's talk sleep—a key underlying cause for stress fat. Do try to be in bed by 10 PM when your cortisol levels diminish to their lowest levels (three hours after sunset), and to give muscle-building growth hormone a fighting chance to properly release. Ideally, your body will start to lower cortisol between midnight and 4 AM. If this important cycle is interrupted at all, you can kiss the prospect of ever melting that belly fat goodbye!
- So, by all means, shut off lights and start to dim them after dark to prepare your body for sound sleep and melatonin activation. Unplug all electronics and keep digital gadgets out of the bedroom to reduce invisible EMF stress. Disable wireless routers before bed and put your cell phone on airplane mode. Aim for seven to nine hours of peaceful, restorative rest.
- Eschew the blue—at night that is. On the light spectrum, blue light is great for helping you stay alert. One reason: studies show it suppresses melatonin production. As you get ready for sleep, it becomes increasingly important to filter out blue light to keep melatonin production at its peak. That's why dimming lights before bed may be so helpful to protect melatonin so it can do its job. And, that also means that you should avoid the blue light emitted from computer screens, iPads and your smartphone at night—especially in the hour or two before bedtime.
- Go barefoot. Going barefoot on your lawn or on the beach for at least 15 minutes a day can help your body get grounded. When you are grounded you discharge chaotic electromagnetic energies and absorb healing electrons from the earth through the body. These healing electrons can start to repair stress damage from elevated cortisol and curtail inflammation and pain by quelling free radicals.
- Curb the caffeine. Caffeine is an underestimated cortisol spiker that gives you instant energy in the short term but will come back to haunt you later. It also makes you lose key minerals like calming magnesium and calcium due to its dehydrating effects. It is a known blood sugar disruptor and contributes to anxiety and sleepless nights. While a tablespoon of high MCT oil like coconut can help regulate coffee's blood sugar peaks and valleys, it is even better to opt for a decaffeinated green tea or dandelion root tea, both of which will help give you energy without the crash and fall effect. If you MUST drink your Morning Joe, however, along with that coconut oil, you can spike your coffee with vanilla whey protein powder for a dose of Smart Fats and healthy protein to prevent cortisol spikes.
- Axe the alcohol. It can raise cortisol and dial down metabolism by greater than 70 percent. You may hate me for this, but alcohol (yup, even wine) makes it difficult for your liver to keep up with its other metabolic duties so it's not able to balance the rest of your hormones properly.
- Walk, don't run AWAY stress. If you are a fitness buff, then you know that intensity, not duration, is the current exercise hot button. Yet, any type of daily movement with deep breathing is a terrific combo to beat stress. Think yoga, Pilates or Tai Chi. But, DO give up that long-distance running. It elevates cortisol—as will any continuous exercise over a two-hour stretch. Burst running is a different story though, so mix it up. As far as I am concerned, I prefer brisk walking or jumping on my mini-trampoline to get my lymph flowing and thoughts in order. At least 20 minutes a day—and 40 minutes is even better—of consistent movement and frequent breaks from sitting at the computer are in order here. Exercise can help you cope with stress more effectively while you rev your metabolism, increase lean muscle mass, burn off belly fat, improve bone mineral density and reduce insulin resistance. You can't afford NOT to move.
- Take supplements to relieve tension. In this regard, the very best dietary supplement of all, which controls over 350 bodily processes, is magnesium. It literally acts like a tranquilizer in a bottle. You can take an Epsom Salt Bath (two cups to a tubful of water) to relax your muscles, or consider an easily absorbable magnesium supplement. I am especially a fan of magnesium formulas, which contain a mix of the best co-factors for absorption like the glycinate, malate, taurinate and orotate forms that target blood sugar, muscles, cardiovascular health and ATP energy. I am also a fan of adrenal tissue glandulars and pair this with the highest quality Rhodiola (an adaptogenic herb from Siberia), ideally taken at 7 AM, 11 AM and 3 PM —the times when blood sugar can be at a low ebb, creating physiological stress.
Some of my clients also swear by phosphorylated serine—taken at least four hours before bed—to dampen cortisol surges that disturb peaceful sleep.
Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS
Visionary health expert Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS, has always been a trendsetter. With millions of followers nationwide, she has the uncanny ability to pinpoint major health concerns and provide solutions years ahead of anybody else.
Highly respected as the grande dame of alternative health and award-winning author of 30 books, she single-handedly launched the weight loss/detox revolution in her New York Times bestseller The Fat Flush Plan. A Connecticut College and Teachers College, Columbia University graduate, Dr. Ann Louise was recognized as one of the top ten nutritionists in the country by Self magazine and was the recipient of the American Medical Writers Association award for excellence. She has been a popular columnist for First magazine since 2003.