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Post-natal weight loss and cortisol – getting a balance

I am often asked by post-natal clients about the best ways to "shift the baby weight", "get back to my old exercise routine", or "start going hard again" to hit that weight loss goal. I’ve written previously that I am not the type of fitness trainer that wants to encourage unrealistic expectations of how quickly a woman can return to her pre-baby shape.

I believe in making my post-natal clients functional first – i.e. looking at their posture and breathing, and addressing pelvic floor and core strength. Only then do we start looking at the type of training they used to do pre-baby and seeing if and when it is appropriate to return to a similar regime. We discuss diet from a nutritional point of view – eating right to ‘heal’ your body and balance your hormones. Often when you get this right, weight loss will follow.

I also make my clients aware of the effect stress (too much cortisol in particular) can have on your ability to lose weight. Cortisol is a hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands which sit on top of each kidney. When released into the bloodstream, cortisol can act on many different parts of the body and can, amongst other things, help your body respond to stress or danger and increase your body’s metabolism of glucose.

Below are some key (and I think very interesting) facts about cortisol in the post-natal period, although if you have high levels of cortisol at any stage in your life the implications for fat loss (particularly around your tummy) are the same:

  • During pregnancy and the early post-natal period, cortisol is naturally elevated. This won’t come as a surprise to many new mums! It is thought that elevated cortisol and other stress hormones have the effect of keeping the mother alert and aware of any possible dangers to the infant, and may have a role in the attachment process.

  • The physical stress of labour, alongside the stresses of adjusting to early motherhood and poor sleeping patterns, mean that cortisol levels may remain high well into the post-natal period making it difficult for new mothers to lose weight.

  • During pregnancy, the hormonal signals have been set to ensure fat is stored in preparation for feeding the baby and producing quality breast milk.

  • Being an older mother is also a factor in holding on to fat. By the mid- to late-30s the body is preparing for menopause. As women head towards menopause the body will automatically be reluctant to let go of fat around the middle as this is where oestrogen is manufactured. This happens because the body knows that oestrogen will help protect our bones from osteoporosis so the body tries to hold onto the fat to hold onto the oestrogen to prevent osteoporosis which it obviously deems to be a greater threat than having a fat belly.

  • Abdominal fat cells have four times as many receptors for cortisol than anywhere else in your body, so if you’re continually too stressed your abdominal fat cells will be calling out for cortisol and encouraging the body to store fat around the abdominals.

  • Adrenaline and cortisol are the two main stress hormones produced by the adrenal glands. Very useful when we need to get out of danger, but not so great when our modern life and stress levels keep us chronically in a state of over-production.

  • Both hormones circulating in the system increase appetite and then drive the stressed individual to consume – guess what? – more carbohydrate and fat.

  • Fat is stored around the middle simply because there it’s closer to the liver where it can be quickly accessed to be converted back into energy if needed.

  • Natural cortisol levels that we need to wake us up and go about our business in the daytime can remain elevated by stress. They can also be elevated by a house too brightly lit in the evening, and by overstimulation through watching TV and working late.

  • Excessive production of cortisol leads to adrenal fatigue which presents itself as chronic fatigue syndrome, infections, musculoskeletal aches and pains, and headaches.

  • Obeying our natural rhythms of sleep and rest – our circadian rhythm - allows the adrenal glands to rest.

  • Caffeine, sugar, tobacco and low blood sugar create emergency situations within our systems and signal stress.

So what can we do about it? I emphasise to all my clients, especially the post-natal clients, the importance of rest and relaxation. Your muscles need rest days when you’re training hard and your mind needs rest moments every day too! Think about how often you take time out to do this in the crazy, busy world we live in?

I like to ensure restorative activity is discussed and included in my clients’ programmes. Take 10 minutes to meditate with the breath, have that hot bath, listen to some relaxing music. Your body must know the value of stillness as well as movement to ensure we help it de-stress and balance its cortisol levels – even (and you could say especially in light of the above info) if weight loss is your goal!

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