Cortisol and weight around the middle

Before 2008 Me and AmyAfter June 2012IMG_3869[1]

I have battled my weight pretty much my whole life. It started as a child where I was severely deprived of food in my early years, to the point of being skeletally thin.

Then I got ill in my late teens and I lost a load of the weight I’d put on during the middle teens where food was plentiful once more.

Through Uni I remained slim as I played squash 2 or 3 times a day. I didn’t think about food because I was exercising.

Once that stopped, I gained weight. Over the years I battled my weight, mainly because I’d never learnt to listen to my body and full signals. I ate lots. I gained weight. I lost it when I exercised religiously.

The first picture is 2008. When I had my daughter I was at my heaviest. I stopped caring what I ate.

The next is in 2012, a year after I discovered Cognitive Hypnotherapy. Through the changes in my head I had learnt to listen to my full signals for the first time in my life. I ate until I was satisfied. I didn’t snack between meals. I reduced my portion sizes at mealtimes to a third of what they were. And I trained for the marathon. I got to the point where I could wear some size 12 jeans. I was still 16 on top. The weight around my middle never seemed to shift.

Then, after the marathon, I started court proceedings against my abuser. My exercise reduced, my food intake remained at the same natural level of not snacking, not eating large portions, stopping when I was full. But I gained weight. Consistently the weight went on and on – until the trial in May 2015. I accepted that. It was a natural protection response. Closer to the trial date, I even started eating more.

Then the trial was over. I ate practically nothing for a couple of weeks. Then I defaulted to a natural relationship with food. I assumed my weight would now disappear again. But it didn’t. In fact, it kept going up around my middle.

The third picture is my Pecha Kucha talk in February this year. I was horrified when I saw the picture. I did not recognise that person at all. How could I be that size eating what I did?

The thing is – the weight is all around my middle. Look at the picture below, taken as I lifted 120KG a couple of months ago.


My arms and legs are those of a relatively trim size 12/14 (UK). My middle definitely isn’t.

So I wondered if I was kidding myself. I fasted for the whole of March. I ate nothing other than dinner. This stopped my body going into starvation mode but also meant that I wasn’t “cheating” on the fast. For 31 days I fasted. It made me week and a bit ill. I seemed to get dizzy and flu like symptoms.

It made zero difference. No change in size at all for 31 days of fasting. That is not even technically possible!

I know my weight is affected by mental issues. Since I started my Cognitive Hypnotherapy journey in 2011, each session with Trevor Silvester has had a knock on effect to my relationship with food and my body. After one session I would feel comfortable looking in the mirror, I would feel ok in shorts, I would enjoy running. After another I couldn’t make myself go out for a run but I felt ok close to other people

I also know that if I exercise a lot I lose weight.

Thanks to my latest experiment, I know it’s not related to diet.

So I went looking for a medical explanation. And I found the most likely explanation to be too high levels of cortisol. Cortisol, like adrenalin, is strongly linked to stress (note how much weight I piled on during the 2 years on the run up to the trial a year ago).

Both are released in connection to the fight, flight response.

Adrenalin increases the heart rate to get you ready to run away or fight, suppresses the immune system (you can’t ask a tiger to give you a day off because you have a cold) and limits the sensation of pain. This is designed to immediately allow you to escape from a threat. Of course, these days this response is extended to every minute of every day – we call it stress. When you remove the trigger for stress, the adrenalin subsides. This is why a number of my clients, who have been dealing with a large amount of stress since childhood, often get ill the first couple of weeks after seeing me. The adrenalin subsides and the viruses waiting in the wings get a chance.

Cortisol suppresses non essential functions during a the fight/flight response. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This is a slightly longer term response, when your environment means that you need to stay in a state of high alert. There is no immediate benefit from altering the digestive and reproductive system, but if your whole environment has you under threat, then a longer term strategy is key. However, as it’s more long term, unlike adrenalin, cortisol does not reduce as a result of the work I do. It is my theory that it is like the caveman rules – it is set abnormally high as a result of lessons during the first 15-16 years of our lives, and then nothing in our adult life resets it. We have to go back to the decision that the subconscious made to increase the levels, to get it reset to a normal default.

After my childhood experiences I also think it’s linked, where the cortisol was produced at an unnaturally high level at the same time as food deprivation. Then when I had free access to food, the cortisol levels remained high. Hence weight gain.


The question is, what do I do about it now? I can’t sustain the level of exercise needed to counter the problem. I don’t feel stressed but clearly there is something very off balance because I do not eat enough to sustain the size I am. I love everything about me and my life. But when I look at photos, or put clothes on, I don’t recognise this body at all. In my head I am closer to the middle picture above than the other two.

So I need to work out how to reset my cortisol levels.

I am seeing Trevor again in June but not sure of the impact that will have. It is my plan to research cortisol in more depth and see if I can work out how to track back to the point at which the level was set, and reset it.

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