I had three babies. I know all about bulging bellies. Beautiful and protruding, I welcomed not being able to see my toes. But now, at age 51, I have a different kind of bulge around the middle – something I endearingly call my “cortisol baby” (or "cortisol belly").
What is a cortisol baby? That doughy middle that grows on a stressed out body, it’s the sag that hangs to the floor when I do a plank. A mind of its own, it oozes over the waist of my skirts and pants. It loves to jiggle and basically says, “FU” to any type of dietary or exercise regime I use to try and get rid of it. It LOVES my body, and I'm beginning to learn why.
For the record, I am all about self-love and body acceptance, but this is different. The glut in my gut (the visceral fat surrounding my organs) can lead to other more serious health issues like metabolic syndrome. That fatty middle means I’m one step closer to insulin resistance, which is no walk in the park.
So, as much as I like to be the proponent of standing naked in front of the mirror saying, “I’m beautiful and I love every squishy part of me,” this burgeoning belly is a big red flag.
Time to make some serious changes.
First of all, the cortisol baby is conceived from high levels of stress. When we have chronic stress in our lives, our adrenal glands release cortisol, which instructs our body to hoard fat. Cortisol releases glucose into the blood, which raises our insulin levels (aka: the fat fertilizer). We’re in crisis mode! That bear might chase us into drought or famine! We need those energy stores! So the stress from sitting on my ass in my car all day long, and doing my job, may not result in a famine, but my body acts as if it will. A few cranky phone calls, a nonstop assault of emails, the ups and downs of a sales job, my body buzzes with cortisol. So, it stores fat just in case I need it for hard times. And where does it store fat? Where all of those lovely cortisol receptors live…in my belly. To make matters worse, women with higher hip-to-waist ratios secrete more cortisol in stressful situations that women with low hip-to-waist ratios. This happens because guess what visceral belly fat is really good at doing? Converting cortisone into cortisol, making more of this funky hormone.
So now we have an endless and vicious cycle of too much cortisol. Oh joy!
Don’t get me wrong. Cortisol has purpose. It gives us that increased energy, drive and focus. It gets us out of danger. But it can turn on you overnight if it's chronically high. That feel-good hormone goes all bi-polar when it’s sustained for too long a time. Too much for too long has been linked to high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, insomnia, slow wound healing, atrophy of the brain’s hippocampus (where memory is made) and, of course, the cortisol belly.
And guess what, Ladies? Cortisol dysregulation is associated with daily diary-reported hot flashes among midlife women. So we're in midlife, flashing at all times, thinking it's our plummeting female hormones. All the while, cortisol dysregulation might be the giant missing link.
So it’s time for me to take some steps to rebalance my body that is all out of whack with crazy cortisol.
For anyone out there who thinks their cortisol levels are too high, here are some steps you can take with me:
1. Have your cortisol levels checked. Salivary test you can do at home are easy to get. Inbox me for more information.
2. L O S E T H E S T R E S S!
Don’t risk your health. That’s the most important advice I’m giving myself. It could be a job. It could be a person. It could be anything. Identify it and get rid of it. If you can't get rid of stressors, create boundaries for yourself. Life is too short.
3. Choose exercises carefully. Exercises that don’t add to stress like yoga or walking in nature are preferable. FYI: Running has been shown to raise cortisol.
4. Eat nutrient-dense foods that are high in protein and low in simple carbs. High cortisol creates cravings for sugar and alcohol because studies show that sugar actually decreases cortisol in the short term, but don't let it entice you. Indulging in sugar and alcohol only perpetuates the vicious cycle and contributes to insulin resistance and overall cortisol dysregulation.
5. Stop multi-tasking. Women pride themselves on this skill to manage multiple tasks at once, but we're doing a disservice to ourselves by reacting in an externalizing way. Stay present to yourself. Do one task at a time well.
6. Breathe. One study shows that a mindfulness practice can decrease the cortisol response, and the belly fat, in just four months. Find your inner life and nourish it strong.
7. Turn off the electronics (she says as she posts this blog). "Plugging in" is the epitome of "externalizing" your life. In other words, we get in the mode of reacting or responding to what we're experiencing from others on social media versus a quiet internalized compass managing our next move. Set the clock an hour before bed and just turn off your electronics. Find something else to do. This might be the perfect time to implement your mindfulness practice.
8. Consult with your health care practitioner about supplementation. A good quality fish oil can lower cortisol levels. Also, rhodiola is a good cortisol-lowering herb.
At our age, there’s no reason to carry around more baggage than necessary.
Unpack that stress.
Lose the cortisol belly.
I'm taking my own advice and will keep you posted!