Get Off The Cortisol Rollercoaster!

In small doses, stress can be a good thing. Some of us work well under pressure, so most of the time, a little stress just puts a fire in our bellies, motivating us to succeed. But a little bit goes a long way.

With stress – and, more importantly, our bodies’ response to stress – there’s a tipping point. And when we go past that point, we start to put our health at risk – in part because we begin to gain weight. There’s a strong connection between our nation’s obesity epidemic and our skyrocketing stress levels. And the link is cortisol What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone that’s triggered when we experience stress. So anytime we’re in a situation that activates our stress response, cortisol floods our bloodstream. And it’s bad news for several reasons. It’s a domino effect: High stress equals high cortisol levels, and high cortisol levels can lead to a whole host of issues, including depression, anxiety, and weight gain.

When cortisol kicks in, it shuts down our fat-burning systems, and actually tells the body to start storing fat, specifically in the midsection. That’s why there’s such a strong connection between high levels of stress and high levels of belly fat – it all comes down to cortisol.


Here’s what my friend Dr. Sara Gottfried says about how to check your cortisol…

“A cortisol test is done to measure the level of the hormone cortisol in the blood, which may indicate problems with the adrenal glands or pituitary gland. Ideally, perform the test around 8:00 a.m., and aim for the optimal range for adults of 10-15 mcg/dL. Perform this test with your health professional, or less ideally, order from a direct-to-consumer lab. (1) The advantage of blood testing is that it’s the universal language of conventional health professionals; the disadvantage is that it’s a 10-15 second snap shot of your stress level while the needle is in your vein, and if you have a needle phobia, the measurement may be falsely elevated. (Note that a more advanced version of the blood test is the “cort stim test” – which measures adrenal reserve. (2) Typically, this is a more advanced test performed in people with low cortisol levels to exclude Addison’s disease.)”

Cortisol lives is also right in the middle of the intersection between stress and sleep. The less sleep we get, the higher our cortisol levels – so that lack of sleep doesn’t just cause crankiness and brain fog – it can also lead to belly fat.

But even if you can’t climb into bed and get 8 hours of sleep right this minute, there’s an exercise you can do, right here, right now, to help you battle stress and curb your cortisol levels. It’s a surefire technique that could help slow your heart rate, lower blood pressure, flush out extra feelings of anger or frustration, and even re-train your brain, so that you shift away from the limbic part of the brain, where emotional, irrational thinking takes place, toward the frontal cortex: the logical part of the brain that helps you make slower, calmer, conscious decisions. And it’s called a BLT.

BLT stands for Breathing Listening Technique, and it’s just as simple as it sounds. You can try it, right now, wherever you are:

  • Get comfortable in your chair. Make sure your shoulders are relaxed, down and back, and that your chest is nice and open.
  • Take a nice, steady inhale on a count of 6.
  • When you reach the top, try and hold it there for a count of 6. And while you’re holding your breath, listen. Try and identify any sounds around you, however distant or faint they may be: An air conditioner rumbling…A dog barking down the street…A car driving down the street…Or maybe just the soft song of a bird nearby. Whatever it is, be specific and mentally pinpoint the source of each sound.
    And then, slowly, exhale on another count of 6.
  • Repeat this cycle 4-5 times.

The great thing about this exercise is that it forces you to be in the moment. When your sole focus is inhaling, listening, and exhaling, it stops the incessant chatter that we all have in our minds. I’ve often referred to it as the “Itty Bitty Sh*tty Committee” – that chorus of voices we all have in our heads. The voices that tell us we’re not good enough, not smart enough, not thin enough, or just simply not enough in general. Sometimes we get those voices from the criticism of our parents or a loved one – and sometimes we simply get them from our own neuroses or lack of self-esteem. Wherever they came from, most of us have them – and when that committee is in full session, a BLT is a surefire way to quiet them back down.