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Beat the Bulge: The Secret Culprit of that mysterious weight gain

When it comes to weight loss, people tend to focus primarily on “calories in, calories out” and neglect other lifestyle factors that keep our bodies holding onto those extra pounds. When your clothes start to feel snug, we're guessing your first thought isn’t “Oh Sh*t! My cortisol levels must be through the roof!"

But the truth is, the stress hormone called cortisol could actually be the secret culprit of that “mystery” weight gain. When we tell people that prolonged stress can lead to weight gain, they tend to reason that people get stressed, which leads them to consume more food (particularly high-calorie, sugary, fatty “comfort” food) to cope with the stress, and that these extra calories cause them to put on weight. While this may be true in some cases, what most people fail to realize is that stress alone can alter our metabolic functions in a way that causes us to gain fat. To put it simply, a person under a significant amount of stress will gain more body fat than a non-stressed person, even when both people are eating the same number of calories. And did you know that the fat that is created by increased levels of cortisol is even more toxic than plain old subcutaneous fat (the normal fat under your skin)?

Cortisol is designed to help you through dangerous situations and is actually beneficial when released for a short while—you experience a boost of energy and increase in focus. But according to exercise scientists Len Kravitz and colleagues at the University of New Mexico, when stress is sustained long-term, a cascade of hormonal pathways are activated that release large amounts of cortisol from our adrenal glands. The extra cortisol then enhances lipogenesis (aka: fat creation), as well as the break down of our delicate tissues and suppression of the immune system-- all problems that cause you to gain weight and feel like never ever getting out of bed.

Luckily, there are a number of good habits that you can practice to reduce stress and beat what we call the “cortisol bulge”:

1.      Eat Whole, Natural, Nutrient-Dense FoodsIf you’ve got a craving for fatty, sugar-laden, refined carbs, it could be a symptom of high cortisol. Don't even think about feeding that craving because you’ll send yourself down a spiraling hole, stressing your mind and body out even more. Keep your cortisol and your cravings in check by regularly eating whole, natural foods that are nutrient-packed.

2.    Be Present. Be Mindful. Say “Om”-  A study from the University of California at San Francisco showed that obese women who began a mindfulness program and stuck with it for four months lost fat around their waistlines. Try practicing light mediation by bringing conscious awareness to your thoughts, feelings, and surroundings—you’ll be amazed at the physical changes.

3.    Lay low on the booze- If you’ve had a long, stressful day, now is not the time to take to the bottle.  Studies have shown that large doses of alcohol lead to excess cortisol.

4.    Exercise smarter, not harder- Check out this study from the University of North Carolina, which found that low-intensity exercise actually resulted in a reduction in circulating cortisol levels. Workouts like yoga or pilates could be your ticket to a toned and stress-free you.

5.    Dream On- Getting enough rest, and doing so on a regular schedule, is crucial for healthy cortisol levels. Skimping on sleep has shown to raise cortisol levels so aim for at least 8 solid hours of beauty rest.

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