After having spoken to some of you following the survey I have sent out to see what people are struggling with (especially in this period of teleworking and pseudo confinement due to the Covid pandemic), two of the ticket items that systematically popped up were: ‘ I have the feeling that with teleworking, my workload has increased and I am stressed!’ and ‘My sleep is all over the place, I can’t turn my brain off at night.’ …. Looking then at the goals of the majority of the people of the B3F community, the goal that systematically surfaced, was how to keep the weight under control.’.

Now here is the thing …. high levels of stress and/or poor sleep quality can lead to weight gain.

You may wonder why, but if we are in agreement that obesity is a hormonal condition predominantly caused by excessively high insulin levels (hyperinsulinaemia) then it only makes sense to question what other hormones may be involved. There is indeed a hormone which is regulated by stress and sleep that is directly associated with insulin secretion, this is called cortisol.

It is a steroid hormone released from the adrenal glands when one is under stress or in a state of low-blood glucose concentrations.  When we say cortisol we should think immediately about ‘fight or flight response’ as a reaction to (apparent) threats.

A threat (or stress) appears and your nervous system releases cortisol and elevated cortisol levels lead to the following.

The release and clearance of cortisol is very rapid, it is a hormone intended to quickly increase blood glucose levels to increase instantaneous energy availability to bypass or combat the immediate threat.

Consider this, in pre-historic times, when a caveman (or woman) came eye to eye with a sabretooth tiger, the sudden release of cortisol would have put-in-place all the essential physiological responses to outrun the tiger and get out of there alive. The cortisol would prime him/her for action. The amplified blood glucose was utilised quickly through vigorous activity and once the threat had passed (provided he or she could escape from the tiger) cortisol levels would drop back to normal, as would blood glucose levels. This pattern is how the flow of cortisol should be maintained. Quickly up and then back to normal levels.

Nowadays, for most of us there are few situations that require such a rapid increase in cortisol (except maybe if you work in law enforcement, the military or as a fireman in life or death situations). Yet what we see in present times is that cortisol level become elevated due to every-day stressors.

In modern days, everyday stressors such as work-related stress (meetings, deadlines, workload), marital stress, arguments with partners, family or friends, traffic, covid, etc…  lead to increased cortisol levels.

The problem is that these stressors are rarely followed by vigorous activity to clear the excess glucose in the blood and thus reduce cortisol levels, so what happens? The cortisol levels remain high, as does blood glucose and elevated blood glucose results in fat deposit in the fat cells.

High cortisol levels cause high insulin levels and elevated cortisol levels are directly linked to the development of insulin resistance (the precursor of Type 2 Diabetes). Increased cortisol levels also correlate with higher BMI (body mass index) and body weight and studies show there is a strong relationship between stress-related cortisol secretion and fat deposit around the waist.

Back to sleep now: Cortisol increases alertness and decreases the ability to sleep, as a result sleep quality is negatively affected which in-turn may increase cortisol levels further so it becomes a vicious cycle.

Poor sleep quality in turn is associated with impaired fasting glucose which is not conducive for weight loss and poor sleep results in an increase in hunger hormone (ghrelin), making weight loss even more difficult.

So, there you go…. Cortisol does play a crucial role in increasing insulin so managing your stress and sleep levels will ultimately aid in insulin regulation and will help you reach your health goals.

Start now before it is too late!


Author: Peter Koopmans