If you are doing all of the "right" things, but still find yourself struggling to lose weight, satisfy your cravings, or feel rested after 8 hours in bed - the culprit may be tied to your hormones, specifically the stress hormone, cortisol. It may seem counterintuitive, but conquering the world before 6 am isn't doing your body any favors. In fact, it might be sabotaging your efforts. If you're feeling completely burned out and wondering why you continue to gain weight with calorie restriction and exercise - then it's time to get strategic about your morning routine.
I like to think of cortisol as the hormone that is synced with the sun. It rises in the morning to get us out of bed and ready for the day. Throughout the day, you want your cortisol levels to gradually decline. Cortisol and melatonin are opposites, so we want that cortisol turned on in the morning so melatonin can turn off, and we want cortisol turned down at night so melatonin can steal the show.
A common mistake I see many women who struggle with weight loss resistance and other hormone imbalances make begins with their morning routine. It sounds so simple, I know, but the way that you carry out the first hour of your day could make or break your ability to stay on track with your nutrition plan, exercise goals, and ability to manage stress for the remaining 23 hours of the day, and here's why.
Upon rising, cortisol naturally begins to elevate, spiking within 30 minutes of waking and making a gradual decline for another 90 minutes. Certain habits such as fasting, exercise, caffeine, and blue light exposure can drive cortisol up even further, leading to a day filled with dips in energy, sugar cravings, and less stress resilience. Here's a what a healthy cortisol awakening response looks like below:
Now let's take a deeper dive into what cortisol is, and how to restructure your morning routine to help you achieve the results you are looking for with your health.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone naturally released from the adrenal glands with many important functions for your health. It's known as your stress hormone, responsible for the "fight or flight" response, and often gets a bad reputation for that; but in reality, it's more of a Goldilocks hormone. You need some cortisol, just not too much and not too little.
What happens if your cortisol is too high?
1) Cortisol can increase muscle breakdown which leads to a slower metabolism.
2) Cortisol promotes stored fat around the midsection. Evidence suggests there's a link between weight around the midsection and chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.
3) Cortisol increases bone breakdown which brings a risk of osteoporosis.
4) Cortisol triggers your appetite to increase and lowers leptin, the hormone that helps you feel full after eating.
5) High cortisol can reduce progesterone, aka your “zen hormone.” This can lead to hormone imbalances, estrogen dominance, and PMS.
6) Cortisol impacts your insulin (fat storage hormone) levels and increases cravings for sweet foods.
7) Cortisol opposes melatonin, so high cortisol at night may interfere with quality sleep. Poor sleep is associated with an increased risk in many healthy conditions, as well as obesity.
Let’s investigate in more detail how common "healthy morning routines" are actually working against us.
1) Intermittent fasting
Many people have adopted intermittent fasting in an effort to support weight loss. This often works for many people initially...until it doesn't. I find this topic especially relevant for pre-menopausal women, as intermittent fasting can elevate cortisol levels even further, which lowers thyroid and sex hormones, making it infinitely more challenging to lose weight, and here's why.
In order for us to wake up in the morning, the adrenals begin to produce cortisol to get us up and going for the day. A natural cortisol rise in the morning is normal and healthy; however, skipping breakfast daily - having coffee on an empty stomach - working out in a fasted state - only adds fuel to the fire. Meaning, these habits increase cortisol even more. Over time, chronically elevated cortisol can influence other hormones to become imbalanced, such as insulin resistance and low progesterone.
Instead of fasting until until lunch time, choose a high protein, blood sugar stabilizing breakfast to have within 30-60 minutes of waking. I typically recommend 30 grams of protein with 1-2 tbsps of healthy fat to support blood sugar, tame cortisol, and keep cravings away for hours. An example of this would be scrambled eggs with some Canadian bacon and 1/2 of a small avocado.
2) Coffee on an empty stomach
If you choose to have coffee, have one cup and aim to have it 90 minutes after you have been awake and preferably eaten breakfast. Caffeine, i.e. in the form of coffee, can work in a similar way to a sugary snack in that caffeine intake increases the stress hormone cortisol. When cortisol floods the body, the pancreas is triggered to produce insulin to quickly bring blood sugar down, which triggers sugar cravings. In studies, caffeine has been shown to increase insulin levels and reduce insulin sensitivity, making that morning coffee, even without the accompanying donut, ill advised if you are you're dealing with insulin and other hormone imbalances.
I recommend replacing this morning ritual with a warm, caffeine free alternative such as lemon in hot water, a warming tea, or decaf coffee. Some of my favorite decaf non-coffee options include:
- Rasa coffee
- Matcha tea
- Four Sigmatic mushroom coffee
Exercise in any form is beneficial; however, a common mistake I see in women with hormone imbalances and weight loss resistance is the mentality that more and harder is better. That is not always the case. Before choosing a morning workout, consider the current state of your body and mind. I recommend going through a checklist to determine what type of activity may be most beneficial for the current state of your body:
1) Did you sleep poorly the prior night?
2) Do you struggle with your energy levels in the afternoon?
3) Are you struggling to lose weight?
4) Is the weight primarily stored in your midsection?
5) Do you experience fluctuations in your blood sugar throughout the day?
If you answered "yes" to most of these questions, your best option may be choosing a restorative form of exercise, such as: yoga, pilates, barre, or a gentle walk. These practices generally lower cortisol levels in the body, enhance mood, and modulate well. By keeping your cortisol levels from escalating further, you are setting your body up for success by keeping blood sugar and insulin in check.
If you answered "no" to the previous questions, then your options are open. High intensity exercises, such as HIIT, sprint work, weight lifting, and even running are more intense, and naturally drive cortisol up - which is not a bad thing if your hormones are balanced. If you are unsure what works for your body, then take a hard look at your goals and see if the activities you're currently engaging in are getting you there.
4) Begin a sunrise practice
Light is the principal control of our circadian rhythm, or day/night cycle, telling our bodies when to carry out several key processes, such as: digestion, immune function, temperature control, and at the top of that list is of course, sleep.
Morning exposure to sunlight upon waking, whether it be a walk with your dog or lounging on the patio, communicates with our body to turn off melatonin and turn on cortisol. With a sunrise practice, key hormones are released in proper amounts at the right times setting the stage for hormone harmony ALL day. Looking at your phone directly upon waking creates an unnaturally high level of cortisol, which creates havoc on your body and mind.
Research has revealed that those exposed to greater amounts of morning sunlight were quicker to fall asleep at night, and had fewer nighttime wake-ups than those who were exposed to less morning light. Also, the people getting the most morning sun were also less likely to report feelings of depression and stress.
Not too bad for something that’s entirely free and just outside your front door, right?
If you are curious about finding the sun when it is optimal for a sunrise practice, at 0-10 degrees, download the dminder app here.
Also, keep in mind that there are cloudy days, high trees and of course buildings outside. Getting outside will get you the light signal you need - so don't let perfection get in the way of your progress.
5) Be mindful of your light hygiene in the morning
Light has a powerful impact on our hormones, and as we lead lives increasingly plugged into devices and exposed to artificial light, this topic is becoming more and more relevant to anyone looking to improve their overall health. You don't have to refrain from using electronics; instead, let's talk about some hacks to minimize your blue light exposure and offset some of the impact you may get when exposed.
Blue light is not inherently bad, in fact, the sun naturally omits some red, blue AND green light. We need this part of the light spectrum to increase cortisol levels and feel alert and ready for the day. The issue arises when we're exposed to unopposed blue light throughout the day - through screens, phones, and artificial lighting in the environment.
In the morning, avoid looking at your phone or computer screen. Blue light, that comes from phones and other electronic devices, has been shown to increase cortisol -> blood sugar -> insulin. It's not just the carbs you eat that have an impact on this blood sugar.
Here's how you can adjust your light environment to better support cortisol and circadian health:
1) Before reaching for the screens, get outside for natural light - ideally at sunrise.
2) When using screens, wear blue blockers. This is a great brand here.
3) While working on screens or under artificial light (think office or home) take "light breaks" where you get outside for a few minutes every hour. Or crack a window to let some natural light in while you work.
How can you get to the root of your cortisol and hormone imbalances?
Your cortisol levels have a HUGE impact on your hormones, weight, and overall health. That's why I have created the Hormone Health Program to provide you with accountability, coaching, and the tools you need to help you overcome stubborn weight loss resistance, fatigue, and cravings. We can also help to determine if your cortisol levels are the main culprit of your weight loss struggles.
To schedule a no charge discovery call with one of our Nutritionists, book an appointment here.
In good health,
Kristie Butler, RDN