Cortisol Switcharoo: How Cortisol Makes You Fat and Angry, Plus 7 Practices to Rock Your Stress

by Kelli

Reduce stress and cortisol with these seven practices

Today we’re sharing an article from Dr. Sara Gottfried. She’s a Harvard-trained MD practicing as a functional gynecologist. She specializes in hormones and balance. We just recently discovered her, and Kelli has been blown away by the helpful insight and information Dr. Sara offers. We’re looking forward to sharing more about that soon.

For now, this article about the stress hormone (cortisol) will help you to balance yours any time you’re feeling overwhelmed.


Dr Sara Gottfried MDHave you heard of the “cortisol switch?”

Here’s the scenario. When you’re stressed, you feel the positive vibe of cortisol – the rise of energy, the focus, the charge, the ascent. Cortisol is the main stress hormone made in your adrenal glands and it’s designed to get you out of danger. It has 3 main jobs: raise blood sugar (to feed muscles so you can run or fight), raise blood pressure, and modulate immune function.

But here’s the rub…The “cortisol switch.” Your body ceases to register the positive aspects of cortisol, and you switch to the negative aspects of cortisol. It’s like when you drink regular coffee and feel like a rockstar, for 20 minutes. Then you get hit the wall, get all jittery and anxious. Thoughts erode. Blood sugar drops. Acidity increases. You get heavy and dumb.

Over time, high cortisol, when sustained, is linking to high blood pressure, diabetes, increased belly fat, brain changes such as atrophy of the hippocampus (where memory is synthesized), depression, insomnia, and poor wound healing. In fact, fat cells in the belly have four times more cortisol receptors compared to fat cells elsewhere, so you just keep reinforcing the muffin top as your cortisol climbs and stays high. It’s not pretty.

Cortisol is like that. It’s an impulsive little hormone that makes you feel smart and on your game one moment, and then turns on you. And the positive side of cortisol, prior to the switch, can be addictive.

I know about such things. I’m a Harvard-trained physician scientist and yoga teacher. I struggled 10 years ago with high cortisol, pre-diabetes, and a spare floating around my mid-section. I looked at a piece of chocolate cake and gained weight. Overall, I gained about 20 pounds over a few years, despite eating moderately and running 4 days per week. I was cranky. I barked at my kids and ran low on feel-good brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, which excess cortisol depletes over time.

Similar to many others who struggle with a stress-crazed life and the downstream effects of the Cortisol Switch, conventional medicine had no answers for me. I went to the doctor and was told to exercise more. That was probably the worst advice a doctor could give to someone with high cortisol.

I did what Harvard taught me well: I formulated a hypothesis that it could be my hormones were out of what. I turned myself into a guinea pig. And I fixed my cortisol, lost weight, and filled my tank with energy again. It took me years, but my cortisol is now normal. And (BONUS PRIZE!) the downstream effects are much more flexibility, emotional intelligence and dexterity, and sex drive! No more fat and angry!

What can be done about the problem of cortisol, and the shadow side of this important stress hormone? I’ve got 5 practices for you. (NOT tips, because tips are things you do once and then they fall by the wayside. Practices are something you take on more fully, and integrate into your day — ultimately becoming a habit.)

1. Eat nutrient dense food. Avoid refined carbs and sugar like the plague. Jonesin’ for sugar or alcohol? It could be a symptom of high cortisol. Don’t go there. It just keeps spiraling downward and doesn’t make you feel better.

2. Take that fish oil. You know it’s a good idea. So why don’t you take it? 2000 mg per day lowers your cortisol level.

3. Contempletive practice is nonnegotiable. This is especially true if you are struggling with your weight. A recent study from my ‘hood, The University of California at San Francisco, showed that obese women who began a mindfulness program and stuck with it for 4 months lost belly fat. That is radical, Baby. Just radical.

4. Adaptive exercise. Running raises cortisol. Switching to yoga and pilates made all the difference in my weight.

5. Rhodiola is queen when cortisol is high. Rhodiola is an herb and one of the forms of ginseng, and it’s the best proven botanical treatment for lowering cortisol. I just took mine, so I’m on the happy side of the mountain, of the “cortisol switch.”

There are many other practices I’d love to share with you (about 250, actually). Yesterday I met a new BFF named Dr. Jennifer Landa, MD. Dr. Jen is a pioneering hormone expert in Florida, and she gave me 2 more juicy tips for cortisol. Dr. Jen and I were sharing a glass of wine last night (note to self: alcohol raises cortisol and I have to limit myself, although I don’t want to be a complete monk about all of this. do you?), and she mentioned a bit of genius insight with me. Here it is (Practice #6):

6. When you are resentful, you probably need self care. I’m paraphrasing but you get the point. I love this. It shifts us out of a place of blame. In my case, my resentment is usually directed toward my darling husband or kids, whom I blame them for wanting something they probably completely deserve – such as wanting my full attention – and I need to take the feeling of resentment as a message that my self-care is not what it could be. Plus, my self care is my responsibility, not theirs. Only you can manage your self care. Don’t expect others to create the space for it. Claim it for yourself. Claim you minimally effective self care, every day. And notice that damn projections that get in the way as they are clues from your subconcious of something that needs healing.

7. Dr. Jen didn’t just create on “a-ha!” moment but many. Here’s another. No one cheers when you set a boundary. Get used to it. People love it when you overprovide. When you overpromise, and overdeliver. That may be with your spouse, kids, work, clients. Notice it. Own it. Change it. The change starts with healthy boundaries and all those people who enjoy your overproviding will not be cheering you on as you take from them the things they can do for themselves, and need to be doing for themselves. But I’m cheering you on as you set your bodacious boundaries. You go, Girl!

And if you need to go deeper, if you know from that still point within, if you know that you need external accountability and a daily reminder… consider my Mission Ignition: Energy! home study course. You can learn all about it here on a brand new web-jam I just completed. Check it out here: https://fooduciary.com/mission-energy. I want to shorten the years it took me to get on the adrenal repair train. I want to shorten your learning curve. Get it!

xoxo Dr. Sara

About the author...

, diagnosed with an auto-immune disease as a child, has always paid close attention to her health. But when that disease went beyond the care of traditional care medicine, she found answers, and healing, through lifestyle improvements and working with a functional medicine doctor.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Melanie June 4, 2013

So, I’m curious about the exercise part of it. I am a former EMT and always had to lift weights, run, do crossfit type exercise to stay strong for the job. But now I am a stay at home, homeschooling mom. I have always been a stress ball, even when I worked out everyday I have had a “muffin top.” Doesn’t seem to matter how great I eat, or how hard I worked out the darn thing is always there. So after an illness and a period (about 1 year) of very little exercise I am getting back into it. Lifting weights is fine but I have to be careful from repetitive lift injuries and I loathe running. I wonder what kind of exercise regime she follows? Strictly pilates and yoga? Any cardiovascular or weight lifting type exercise? How do you know if you exercise raises cortisol? This article intrigues me because I have struggled for a long time with high stress, low energy, depression, plain ol’ tiredness.

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