What every woman over 40 needs to know about CORTISOL before attempting to lose weight
If you are a woman over 40, it’s very common to feel like weight loss is an uphill battle. You are either eating the same as before but packing on the pounds or eating less and merely maintaining the same weight with that feels like double the effort. No doubt, this can feel very frustrating and plain out painful!
This is why it’s important to know that if you are a woman over 40, weight loss is a more complex process that involves many hormonal regulations. Your body is not a bank account; calories in versus calories out does not result in a simple calculation of how much you should eat or exercise in order to lose a certain amount of weight.
There are some key hormones you need to know about and make sure they are working for you and not against you! While you want to optimize the entire hormonal system, in this post, we wanted to familiarize you with one key hormone that tightly regulates all others: Cortisol.
Let’s start by exploring why age makes a difference.
Why does it matter if I’m over 40??
While women of all ages struggle with weight gain, in your 40’s (and sometimes earlier!) there are several hormonal changes that become prominent over the next 10+ years. First of all, women in their 40’s start entering a phase called perimenopause. If you never heard of this, let us make the introduction.
Perimenopause is the period before menopause when women’s ovaries gradually begin to make less reproductive hormones. While on average it lasts 4 years, for some it can last up 10 years or even longer. Its end is marked by 12 months of missed periods, a phase now classified as menopause.
Because hormonal production is more sporadic, symptoms associated with perimenopause can range from heavier and more painful periods, to skipped or lighter periods, mood changes, sleep changes, decreased libido and menopausal type symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats, and vaginal dryness.
For the sake of managing your symptoms, cancer protection, and improved quality of life, you want to make sure that your estrogen and progesterone are in balance and are not being under or overproduced for your age. Do proper testing and address any imbalances that exist.
However, this duo does not have as direct of an impact on weight gain as other hormones, specifical cortisol. In our Centre, when it comes to balancing hormones, especially when one of the main concerns is weight gain, we tackle cortisol for everyone! Here is why…
What is cortisol?
Cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that sit on top of our kidneys, is produced to help our body respond to stress. Now stress is not just in the mind or a reflection of your attitude on life; it’s a true, physiologic response that has a measurable impact on your body.
Don’t get this wrong, it doesn’t only get produced when you are stressed, but it’s pumped out every day in a predictable and highly intuitive pattern called a “circadian rhythm”. Cortisol levels should be highest in the morning within the first two hours to give you the best energy and prepare your body for the day. It should then drop gradually during the day to reach its lowest point at nighttime, to allow you to fall asleep easily.
Over- or under-production of cortisol or producing levels outside of the norm could all lead to dysregulation and symptoms such as low energy in the mornings, difficulty sleeping at night, cravings, poor stress response …all which can lead to weight gain. On testing (specifically the DUTCH adrenal urine test), we can learn a lot about your cortisol response.
What’s the connection between cortisol and weight gain?
Besides managing stress, cortisol has several actions in the body including regulating our metabolism and immune function. It can cause stubborn weight gain, especially in the mid-region, because cortisol dysregulation can lead to:
- increased blood sugar levels
- increased insulin resistance and diabetes
- increased cravings
- decreased energy and lower motivation
- slower metabolic rate
- hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
- poor sleep (we’ve had patients lose weight as a “side effect” of correcting their insomnia)
- worsening estrogen/progesterone balance and increased water retention
All of this adds up to excess weight gain that is hard to lose through just diet and exercise alone.
It’s also important to know that cortisol dysregulation does not happen overnight but is typically accumulated over years worth of poor diet, sleep habits, and poor stress management, which is why often it’s women in their 40’s that are starting to feel the aftermath of this dysregulation.
While we can’t promise that tackling cortisol alone will make the pounds just shed (we wish weight loss was that easy!), but we can say that addressing cortisol will go along way in setting the stage for a better metabolic rate, blood sugar regulation, reduced cravings and removed barriers that prevent your body from losing the weight.
In our practice, we find that starting with supporting the adrenals, often proves to be most beneficial and imperative part to support hormonal health and weight management, especially for women in perimenopause/menopause.
Tips for Supporting the Adrenals:
- Get tested. In our office, we recommend the DUTCH urine test to look at an adrenal function because it measures cortisol in 5 points throughout a 24-hour cycle. As mentioned, cortisol fluctuates during the day, therefore it’s very beneficial to get a visual look at how much you are producing at each part of the day to correlate this to your symptoms and tailoring treatment to correct your specific imbalances. If you want to learn more about cortisol and urine hormone testing, make sure to download our free Hormone Testing Cheat Sheet.
- Feed your Adrenal Glands. Some key nutrients to restore your adrenal glands and “feed” them what they need to work optimally include B vitamins (especially B5), vitamin C and magnesium.
- Use Adaptogens. This is a class of herbs that help your adrenals adapt to stress and restore their own function. These include Rhodiola, Ashwagandha, ginseng, holy basil, licorice root (avoid if have high blood pressure) and maca. Note that some herbs are more stimulating, some are calming and some are very balancing. Don’t self-prescribed as you may find yourself feeling worse.
- Balance Blood Sugar Levels. If your blood sugar levels fluctuate a lot, this creates a stressful situation in your body. I can cause you to feel shaky, moody, worsen your memory, and can even disrupt your sleep. Blood sugar dysregulation leads to cortisol dysregulation, which in term worsens your blood sugar control and becomes a perpetual cycle. Limit carbs and processed sugar intake and eat lots of healthy fats and protein and this will go a long way with your stress response and your waistline.
- Sleep. This sounds obvious but this can’t be stressed enough. Let poor sleep become your norm and you stand no chance at having balanced hormones and or an easy time losing weight. The problem is that cortisol dysregulation can be the cause of your sleep problems or symptoms of it (or both). Similar to blood sugar balance, it’s a vicious cycle. Nourish the adrenals and consider melatonin or herbs such as valerian, passionflower, lavender or lemon balm to help you sleep. For peri/menopausal women poor sleep could be tied to a drop in progesterone or estrogen levels, which causes night sweats that interrupt their sleep. If this is the case for you, you may need a more targeted approach for testing and balancing your sex hormones. Patients can’t thank us enough when we correct their sleep and for good reason!
As you can tell, to achieve healthy, maintainable weight loss there are many foundational factors you must address. Diet and exercise are the basics and if you don’t have this in place, this is where you must start.
With that being said, if you are a woman over 40, experiencing many other symptoms that are depleting your energy, will power, and compromising your quality of life, you must take a comprehensive look at all your hormones otherwise your weight loss efforts will leave you feeling like a fish swimming upstream.
While estrogen, progesterone, and thyroid are all important, tackling cortisol and its connection to insulin will give you the biggest return for your weight loss efforts and many times, will correct other hormonal imbalances you have. Win-win!