How stress and cortisol affect your postnatal body

posted in: Fitmumas | 0

By Mel Lewis

It’s no secret that carrying and giving birth to a baby is a very strenuous task for our bodies.  Then suddenly once the baby is here post-birth we expect a lot from ourselves, both in terms of our mental and physical ability to cope with our new life stage, and our ability to bounce straight back into physically functioning how we use to. 

Even though we all know that in the early weeks after we’ve had our babies rest is the best medicine, we are bombarded with messages of how to regain our pre-baby bodies, and as individuals we set our own goals regarding when and how we want to start ‘getting back to feeling and looking like ourselves’. 

Whilst we must remember and respect that everyone’s postnatal recovery journey is different, there are some fundamental physiological truths outside of our control that must be taken into account when it comes to the impact of your hormones on your health and fitness goals.

One of which relates to stress and the production of your body’s main stress hormone, cortisol.  Cortisol is produced by your adrenal glands, (triangle-shaped organs at the top of your kidneys,) and works with certain parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation, and fear.

It’s best known for helping fuel your body’s “fight-or-flight” instinct in a crisis, but cortisol plays an important role in a number of things your body does. For example, it:

  • Manages how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
  • Keeps inflammation down
  • Regulates your blood pressure
  • Increases your blood sugar (glucose)
  • Controls your sleep/wake cycle
  • Boosts energy so you can handle stress and restores balance afterwards

During pregnancy and the early postnatal period, cortisol is naturally elevated.  The physical stress of labour and birthing, alongside the stresses of adjusting to early motherhood and poor sleeping patterns means that cortisol levels may remain high for some time. (Up to 8 weeks according to one study.)

The thought is that these elevated cortisol and other stress hormone levels 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.

Worried about “baby weight” not shifting?

Another thing cortisol does during pregnancy is ensure fat is stored in preparation for feeding the baby. Because cortisol is still elevated postnatally, it keeps us chronically in a state of over-production, and therefore makes it difficult for mothers to get rid of these extra fat stores and lose weight post-birth. 

Generally, fat is generally 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. What’s more, abdominal fat cells have four times as many receptors for cortisol than anywhere else in your body.  So if your body is continually in a state of ‘stress’ your abdominal fat cells will be calling out for cortisol and encouraging the body to store yet more fat around the abdominals.  

In a final blow, cortisol circulating in the system also increases appetite and then drives the individual to consume – guess what? More carbohydrate and fat. (Which is then compounded by sleep deprivation.)

The lesson from all this is DO NOT beat yourself up for your postnatal cravings – they are your hormones working how they are supposed to!

But it’s worth just being aware that caffeine, sugar, tobacco and low blood sugar create stress signals within our systems, so they are all best limited if possible.  

So what can you do?

Well, firstly acknowledge and accept that during the fourth trimester you still need to let Mother Nature do her thing and give your body time to heal. 

Try not to put yourself under any more stress by worrying about your post baby body – seriously you have enough to cope with.  By slowly reducing your stress levels you can reduce the impact of cortisol on your body. 

Try to give in to your natural circadian rhythms where possible and rest as much as your life will allow – this will enable the adrenals to rest and Human Growth Hormone to be produced which is vital for optimal fat metabolism.

A picture containing indoor, bed, laying, person  Description automatically generated
Art by Claudia Tremblay

For more information on what to expect from your postnatal body read our previous articles here

Leave a Reply