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Cortisol & Caffeine

By Danielle C. Tworek

You may have heard of cortisol- the "evil" hormone that contributes to increased fat stores when you are experiencing intense mental stress. While this is true, cortisol is a steroid hormone imperative to proper biological function; but in today's overfed society, it seems to merely wreak havoc on your waistline. To make matters worse, recent studies by the National Institute of Health report that caffeine, an essential part of any stressful work environment, increases cortisol secretions.

What is Cortisol

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal cortex at the top of each kidney. Its secretion follows no routine pattern, but is influenced by a variety of factors including waking up, exercise, eating and stressful psychosocial events. Its primary function is to meet the energy needs of the body under stressful conditions, like those previously mentioned. In the event of ongoing stress, cortisol mobilizes its inactive form, cortisone, located within the fat tissues of the abdomen, creating a readily available "storage unit" of energy. A 2000 study from "Psychosomatic Medicine," also found that cortisol increases cravings for sugar and foods high in fat. Foods that would provide immediate, usable energy as well as storable energy. These mechanisms were designed to ward off starvation in "extreme" conditions, however scarcity of food is rarely the stressor in modern society, and therefore results in undesirable belly bulge.

How Caffeine Impacts Cortisol

If you are making trips to the coffee shop and the soda machine every free moment to pummel yourself through a stressful workday, you may want to rethink your strategy for staying alert, especially if you are battling your weight. In 2005 and 2006 studies by the National Institute of Health, researchers found that caffeine intake increased the secretion of cortisol. Furthermore, researchers discovered that individuals who are older or have a higher percentage of body fat experienced a greater level of cortisol excretion when caffeine was added to their diet.

What This Means to You

Before you give up on a healthy lifestyle because you know your stress is not going anywhere, know that there are solutions. The effects of caffeine on cortisol are less extreme when you are not experiencing high degrees of psychological stress, so you do not have to consider giving up caffeine forever. In a 2006 study in "Pharmological Biochemistry & Behavior," scientists discovered that both men and women see a decrease in cortisol after exercise. Interestingly, men see a decrease in cortisol excretions when consuming a meal following exercise, while women see an increase.

Controlling Cortisol Levels

Aside from weight gain, cortisol can contribute to heart disease, hypertension, or depression, if left uncontrolled. Due to the fact that many of life's stressors are out of your control, curbing your caffeine intake is an obvious first step to overcoming the negative effects of cortisol. Develop a plan for mental relaxtion, so when life hands you the unexpected you know what keeps you calm and will see you through the difficulties. A healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep and exercise, or having good friends can help manage stress. Although, cortisol may stimulate cravings for sugary, high fat foods, keep healthy snacks on hand to pacify your appetite. Consult your doctor for the best ways to counteract the effects of the stress you are facing.

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