Leptin and Cortisol – How these Two Hormones Make You Fat

Unless You Stop Them (and how to do that)

Hormones are some of the most powerful compounds in our bodies. Take Leptin and Cortisol for example. Did you know that tiny amounts of these compounds can almost force your body to gain fat? They work in different ways. If your levels of leptin are too low it is bad news, while the opposite is true of cortisol. Just knowing about leptin and cortisol is great, but what do they really do and why are they here (why are any of us here?). More importantly, what can you do to make sure the levels of each are correct in your body, so your fat loss efforts aren’t in vain?

Cortisol is a hormone that your body uses in response to stress. In today’s world, what with the Swine Flu scare, the abysmal economy, and the threat of job loss, you don’t have to find stress, it will find you. Given that pressures of your daily life will most likely induce at least some stress, you should know a bit more about cortisol and how it can sabotage your fat loss and fitness efforts.

What Cortisol Does to Your Muscles

From a fitness standpoint, one of the most critical things to know about cortisol is that is the enemy of muscle development. It is catabolic, which is the opposite of the stuff A-Rod was taking. Not what you want to promote muscle development. Elevated cortisol levels serve to reduce amino acid absorption by your muscles (the ones you’re trying so desperately to build) and inhibit protein synthesis. Obviously, if you are trying to increase muscle mass these effects are exactly the opposite of what you’re looking for.

Excess Cortisol also reduces T-cell activity, compromising the immune system. It has also been shown to increase blood pressure.

Cortisol and Belly Fat

Here is how cortisol can increase belly fat. Belly fat, also known as visceral fat, contains an enzyme that controls tissue cortisol concentrations. This enzyme is present in all fat cells, but is more highly concentrated in the visceral fat cells. There is another strike against belly fat when it comes to cortisol. Belly fat has approximately four times the number of cortisol receptors than subcutaneous fat. So, not only does it contribute more to cortisol production, it can possibly boost the propensity of cortisol to increase fat levels.

More troubling is that lengthy periods of high cortisol levels can cause existing fat to actually be moved around your body and redeposited as belly fat. Belly fat is the more dangerous fat that has been shown in studies to contribute to all manner of problems. This means that long term, elevated cortisol levels definitely pose health risks, in addition to the fitness issues that arise.

Here are some strategies to help you keep cortisol levels within acceptable limits. First of all, although  long term elevated cortisol levels are detrimental to your health, you need some to function normally, so don’t try to eliminate the stuff entirely. It is naturally secreted by the adrenal glands in times of stress so that your body can mobilize the necessary resources to escape the stressful situation.

It’s kind of catch 22 with cortisol. A high intensity training regimen can elevate cortisol levels. That doesn’t mean you should shy away from high intensity training. Far from it. You should embrace high intensity training as a way to reduce body fat, build muscle and generally whip yourself into shape.  Then, embark on a program to keep cortisol in check, despite your intense exercise.

One things that is effective for most people to reduce cortisol levels is to eliminate caffeine. Borderline sacrilegious, I know, but you have to prioritize.   Even though Starbucks announced this week they’d be cutting prices in most markets, cutting out the double caramel macchiato, can add up to healthy financial savings over the course of a year, too. Not only that, but each one of those grande tasty, caffeinated treats contains over 300 calories and 30 grams of sugar. Eliminating them will help fight fat in more ways than one.

More Cortisol Reduction Strategies

Other things that have been shown effective when trying to reduce cortisol levels are

  • Reducing stress – Since chronic stress keeps cortisol levels high, it stands to reason that reducing the cause of the cortisol secretions will keep levels lower.
  • Eat a well balanced diet – High protein diets promote high cortisol levels. You need adequate protein to support muscle development, no more.
  • Avoid alcohol – Gee, no coffee, now no beer! What next? How is that going to help reduce stress?
  • Eat many small meals throughout the day, instead of 3 large ones. This helps with weight loss, improves nutrient absorption, lowers cholesterol, and improves glucose tolerance. In addition, a study done on men eating 2,500 calories per day demonstrated that when the calories were distributed across many, small meals cortisol levels dropped an average of 17%, in addition to the benefits described above.
  • Supplement Intelligently – Some supplements have been shown in various placebo controlled studies to reduce cortisol levels, including ginkgo-biloba, Phosphatidylserine (this also helps brain function), and DHEA.
  • Quit smoking. Well, you know you should quit smoking anyway, but here’s another reason.

How Leptin Affects Your Belly Fat

Now, how about the other hormone I mentioned at the beginning, leptin? Leptin is only recently being looked at as a hormone that has a strong influence on how much fat you’re packin’ around. It was actually first observed in the early 1950’s during experiments on mice (wasn’t everything?) These particular mice were really, really fat. It was noticed that high levels of leptin caused them to eat like never before.

Leptin has some very important jobs in your body. It is used as a biomarker to help regulate energy and fat content by keeping your brain apprised of their levels at all times. Leptin levels are one of the main triggers that tell your body to eat. If the levels drop too low, your appetite is ramped up because your body thinks you’re nutritionally deficient. Two of the main contributors to leptin levels in your body are the amount of fat you’re carrying and your caloric intake. Leptin levels are inversely proportional to your appetite, so that when it gets low, you get hungry.

The problem for people trying to lose fat is that the very act you undertake in order to lose fat will cause leptin levels to decrease. Whammo, you want to eat, despite your best intentions. It gets worse. Not only do insufficient leptin levels make you hungry, it also tells the body that it should slow down your metabolism. Obviously, that’s no good, since one of the things you’re trying to do is increase your basal metabolic rate. To add insult to injury, low leptin levels precipitate an increase in cortisol levles, which we just discovered is the opposite of what we really want.

So, how can you lose weight and drop fat, without letting low leptin levels stand in your way? Thankfully, it is easier than you’d think. First of all, you can’t just eat it. It is a protein, and would be dissolved by your digestive enzymes. You can get your body to produce more of on its own, though. It takes a few days for the levels to drop after you start reducing calories.

Leptin levels come back up far faster than they decrease, which means you can basically trick your body to give you a shot of leptin and stop storing so much fat. What makes leptin levels increase? Carbs, and lots of them. You don’t want to eat them every day however. Once a week is just fine. That is why some of the more popular diet plans have that Sunday cheat day. It serves dual purposes. It gives you a day to relax and let your guard down, so psychologically you’re not feeling so oppressed by your diet. No we know it also serves to restore leptin levels in your body.

Lower cortisol levels and higher leptin levels can help you to lose that fat you’ve been so wanting to get rid of. Keep those two hormones in line and your fat burning and muscle building efforts will go much faster.

Have a great weekend and……..Lose Your Belly Fat!