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Cortisol: Causing Weight Problem?

Most of us are now aware that stress can lead to health problems, including weight gain.  In order to combat stress-related obesity, a new category of weight loss supplements has been released on the market: cortisol blockers.  There is little evidence that cortisol blockers have any benefit whatsoever yet the allure of these weight loss supplements still remains, making them popular choices for dieters.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone which is found naturally in the human body.  It has numerous functions including increasing blood sugar levels, inhibiting immunity, and metabolizing fats, proteins and carbohydrates.  Despite these numerous functions, cortisol has been dubbed the “stress hormone” because it is primarily released in times of stress.

In small amounts, stress hormones like cortisol are very useful.  They help our bodies to survive in moments of danger (even if the danger is only perceived, like an upcoming deadline) by giving us more energy.  Cortisol helps survive stressful situations by causing fatty acids to be released into the bloodstream as energy.  It will also inhibit the immune system to prevent inflammation. Cortisol can become a problem when the body is constantly under stress and has incessantly high levels of the hormone.   When the body has too much cortisol, there will be excessive amounts of fatty acids in the bloodstream which can harden in arteries.  Cortisol also has shown to increase appetite, cause increase in stomach fat, raise blood pressure, decrease muscle tissue, and increase lipid levels.

Ways to Reduce Cortisol Levels

In order to avoid the numerous health problems associated with chronically high cortisol levels, people should make efforts to reduce cortisol levels.  The most effective method of reducing cortisol is prevention.  By avoiding stressful situations, one can prevent excessive cortisol from being released.  If stress cannot be avoided, then exercise is the next best method for combating the negative effects of cortisol.  Crying, sex, music therapy, and massage have also shown effective in reducing cortisol levels. There are also some dietary products which have shown to reduce cortisol levels, including black tea, vitamin C and omega 3 fatty acids.

As the information about cortisol and its links to obesity became clearer over the past decade, many “cortisol blocker” supplements have become available on the weight-loss market.  These products usually contain ingredients like vitamin C, calcium, amino acids, antioxidants, soy phospholipids, or ginseng.  While some of these ingredients in cortisol blocking supplements for weight loss have shown effective, there benefits may be insignificant.  Further, it is important to realize that supplements are not regulated by agencies like the FDA, thus giving them nearly full reign to make extraordinary claims.  For example, one of the most popular cortisol blocker supplements, CortiSlim, was charged with false advertising in 2004 by the Federal Trade Commission for making promises such as that users would lose 15 lbs and that their product was supported by 15 years of research.

Are Cortisol Blockers Worth It?

Scientific research does support that some ingredients typically found in cortisol blockers – such as omega 3s and vitamin C – are effective in lowering cortisol levels or reducing the effects of cortisol.  However, it must be noted that the benefits of these ingredients were generally negligible in clinical studies.  So, while you may get some benefits from taking a cortisol blocker, it is unlikely to live up to the advertising claims.   Many of the ingredients found in cortisol blocker supplements are readily and cheaply available, such as vitamin C.  Since cortisol blockers can cost about $60 per month, consumers are paying a high price for a minimally or negligibly-effective weight loss supplement. If you really want to fight the damage done by cortisol, your best bet is to start exercising, which also has the benefit of promoting weight loss.

References:

Bhathena, S. B.; Berlin, E.; Judd, J. T.; Kim, Y. C.; Law, J. S.; Bhagavan, H. N.; Ballard-Barbash, R.; Nair, P. P. “Effects of omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin E on hormones involved in carbohydrate and lipid metabolism in men.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 54;4 (1991): 684–688.

Scott, Elizaebth. “Cortisol and Stress: How Cortisol Affects Your Body, and How To Stay Healthy in the Face of Stress”. Stress.about.com. About.com. 22 Sept 2011. Web.

“Vitamin C: Stress Buster.” Psychologytoday.com. Psychology Today. 25 April 2003. Web.

Maglione-Garves, Christine A, Len Kravitz, PhD, and Suzanne Schneider, PhD. “Cortisol Connection: Tops on Managing Stress and Weight.” Unm.edu. The University of New Mexico. n.d. Web.

Shomon, Mary. “The Cortisol-Weight Loss Controversy.” Thyroid.about.com. About.com. 17 Nov 2009. Web.

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