Cortisol and Weight Gain: How I Gained Weight Without Eating When My Husband Nearly Died
This is a story I haven't shared publicly before now. Certainly at the time I was too overwhelmed by the events happening in my life to share it, even though I was very much in the public eye and it's unlikely readers would have been anything but supportive. I'm sharing it today as an example of what extreme stress can do to your cortisol levels and weight gain.
Back in 2006 my manuscript A Desperate Journey, was selected to be in the American Title II contest. This contest was similar to the American Idol contest, but for writers. Eleven of us were competing for one publishing contract. It was an exciting and busy time, putting up a website, asking for votes, doing PR before any of us even had a book contract. Round one went great; I made it to round two.
Then my husband was told to go in for a "simple surgery." The doctor would put one stint in and he would either come home the same day or the next. No worries. When they wheeled him away, I went to the waiting room and read.
The first inkling something was wrong came when the doctor entered the waiting room, sweat visible on his brow and appeared shaken. He told me they'd almost lost my husband and whatever he said next I don't remember because I went into a state of shock. He led me into the surgical room without having me scrub or gown. My husband was on life support, tubes everywhere. The nurse said, "You can touch him if you want to."
He'd flat lined after they injected the dye and had been gone for three minutes while they sent for a larger defibrillator because the one in the surgical room wasn't big enough. Everyone was visibly shaken.
He was moved to the ICU. I sat by his side not knowing when or if he would come to, or what state he'd be in if he did. The doctors and nurses were worried. Three minutes is a long time.
I was in a state of shock. Though I'd never heard of cortisol before, mine had to have sky rocketed. During the week he was in the hospital, I was unable to sleep and stopped eating. Food didn't look or sound good and I couldn't taste anything.
When he did come to, he awoke angry and fighting the restraints and the tubes. But he was alive. And he is alive and fine today, five years later.
During the week he was in the hospital I gained weight rapidly yet I wasn't eating enough to keep a bird alive. One day all I ate was an apple. Another day my sister-in-law brought me half a sub and I only took bites because she was concerned I wasn't eating. Some people would drop weight eating as I was. But I was gaining. Later I would look back and not understand why.
Since then, I have learned what cortisol and stress can do to our bodies. And this is what I want to share here today. Because while we cannot control what happens to us, we can be informed and aware so we can take steps to combat the effects of stress when they happen.
That month I went from the roller coaster high of being in the contest and making it to the next round, to the plummet of almost losing my husband, to the high of having him wake again. I was bumped in the second round, a low, though a smaller one compared to what would have been a larger loss. But still a low, because my dream was to be a published author sharing my stories with readers all over the world.
Even the good roller coaster highs can come with stress, though it is of the good kind. And stress affects the body.
Cortisol is one of your stress hormones, which is secreted in times of stress. ANY kind of stress: physical, mental, or emotional.
If the stress continues any length of time and the hormone is released consistently it causes fat to be stored instead of burned and the place it usually stores it is on or in your belly.
Cortisol is even called the "stress hormone." It's one of the hormones released by the adrenal glands during the fight or flight response and helps prepare the body for stress by burning fat in the short term. It's the long-term effects of cortisol, which create weight gain. Why?
Because it remains in the blood for a long time. Adrenaline metabolizes quickly, but cortisol does not and continual stress will cause fat to be stored. It also breaks muscle down to use it as sugar and protein, one muscle being broken down to feed another, and it uses dense muscles like your thighs and glutes.
Fat in your midsection contains the greatest amount of cortisol receptors. So we end up with belly fat, love handles, possibly a pendulous and sagging abdomen. Fat from other parts of the body is moved to the abdomen. That stomach acidity or sour stomach along with increased digestive sensitivity you experience may be the cortisol at work.
Cortisol raises blood sugar which if you are not active releases insulin, which is a fat storing hormone. It also causes water retention due to potassium - sodium imbalance and cravings for salt. Sleep patterns are disturbed because adrenal hormones are there to prepare the body for action.
We need cortisol to help the body respond to stress as part of that fight or flight response. It becomes a problem when the body doesn't return to normal following a stressful event. Living in our high stress culture, the body can be activated so often it doesn't have a chance to return to normal. So it is important to find a way for the body to relax as soon as possible after stress triggers our cortisol levels. Making lifestyle changes can help keep our bodies from reacting to stress and well learning stress management techniques can help us to manage it when it happens.
Ways to decrease Cortisol levels:
1.) Talk to someone about the things that are stressing you. Or write them in a journal. Holding things inside is holding on to them instead of releasing them so your body can begin to relax.
2.) Get enough sleep
3.) Eat a healthy breakfast with protein, carbohydrates and water (skipping breakfast causes more cortisol to be released)
4.) Reduce sugar.
5.) Don't allow your body to get hungry. Hunger creates stress. Eat something small every three hours.
6.) Exercise (at the right intensity for you. The goal is to decrease stress not add more.)
9.) Hypnosis and self-hypnosis, guided meditation
10.) Listening to music
11.) Breathing exercises
13.) Reduce the sources of stress in your life if possible. (Saying no, even briefly to a stress you can't control by taking some time out for you will help. If that stress isn't going anywhere it will still be there waiting for you if you take a 15 min. walk, or do some yoga, or take quiet time to meditate.)
These weekly fitness tips are offered every Friday as part of my contribution to the Lucy Monroe Reader Fitness Challenge.
This is a 12 week challenge where readers and authors have joined together to get fit and healthy. Organized into teams, we encourage each other on and share tips for exercising and getting in shape. Every week there are prizes, but the real prize is better health and a longer life for each of us.
To read past fitness articles, visit the articles section of my website.
Till next time, love and light,