Is It Wheat Belly? Or Cortisol Belly?

by Ann Marie Michaels on October 4, 2011

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I finally figured out why I haven’t been able to lose the baby fat on my mid-section.

You know that extra spare tire you put on after you gave birth. If you’re under 30, maybe you don’t know. If you’re over 30, you know what I’m talking about.

I have had extra junk in the trunk ever since Kate was born 4 years ago. Only it ain’t in the trunk. It’s stuck on my belly, waist, and to a lesser degree, my hips and thighs. It’s not a lot of weight — only 10 or 15 pounds. But it’s enough to make me hate shopping for clothes.

No matter what I’ve done, I can’t seem to get rid of it. I gave up grains and starches for a couple months on the GAPS diet. Nada. I tried low carb. More than once. No change. I had success losing some weight with The 4-Hour Body (Yay! 15 pounds!). Alas, the belly fat didn’t budge.

A few nights ago, as I was surfing the web on my iPhone at 3 in the morning, I finally found the answer.

Wheat Belly?

And guess what? It doesn’t have squat to do with wheat. Speaking of Wheat Belly (a new book I have yet to read but it’s on my list) I loved this post by Matt Stone’s 180 Degree Health blog the other day: Wheat Belly.

I loved Matt’s post not because it was a work of literary genius (although I enjoy Matt’s writing very much and I especially liked the term he coined, “wheat hunt” instead of witch hunt). Nor was his post particularly scientifically sound — a bunch of young guys with great metabolism eating pizzas doesn’t really prove anything. I ate tons of pizza when I was in my 20s and I had a flat stomach, too.

I love that Matt is one of the few (the only?) voices out there sticking up for wheat, the latest whipping boy in the real food world. I’m so tired of people blaming grains for every health problem under the sun. I’m sick to death of hearing people tell me if I just ate fewer carbs and cut out grains, I’d be “lean”. Guess what, guys? Tried it; didn’t work. (And come talk to me after you’ve had a baby and you’re over 40.)

But I digress… You guys want to hear about my belly fat revelation.

High Cortisol at Night

Cut back to me surfing the web at 3 am.

Why the heck was I up at 3 am? You see, this is the other thing that’s been happening to me since Kate was born. Unrelenting insomnia. I have been waking up every night between 2 and 4 am since 2007.

When I started Real Food Media back in 2008, I was so busy working, I would often just get up at 3 or 4 and work until Kate woke up in the morning. I figured I was getting a few extra hours. I know, crazy! Of course, back then I was still drinking coffee so it was easy to get by on 5 or 6 hours of sleep. (Click here to read how I gave up coffee.)

I always fall back asleep. Usually it only takes 10 or 15 minutes, but sometimes I’m up for hours. (Actually, when I was still drinking coffee, it took a lot longer to fall back to sleep.)

Thank You, Julia Ross

It was Julia Ross, author of The Mood Cure, who told me on the phone a month ago that waking up in the middle of the night is a sign of high cortisol. When she said that, two things came to my head. (1) High cortisol causes belly fat. (2) High cortisol has to do with adrenal exahaustion (something I’ve struggled with on and off for years — you know how much I used to love my coffee!).

During our phone consultation, I raved to Julia about how my nighttime cravings for sweets, carbs and wine were disappearing with the help of 3 square meals, plenty of fat and protein, and a cocktail of amino acids (Click here to read How I Kicked My Wine and Chocolate Cravings. I told her the only thing that was still bothering me was waking up at night. No matter how much Tryptophan and I took before bed, I’d still wake up at 2 or 3 am, ready to take on the world. I’d lie there in bed, thinking about someone I need to email and deliberating about some problem I was having at work.

Low Blood Sugar and Cortisol

Julia told me that this is very common and it’s often caused by hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. When you eat dinner around 6 or 7, by 2 or 3 am, it’s been 8 or 9 hours since you’ve eaten. Your blood sugar drops and your adrenals come to the rescue by pumping up the cortisol. And your eyes pop open and you are UP. If any of you are going through this, you know how annoying it is.

I know I have hypoglycemia because ever since I’ve been following the Julia Ross The Mood CureMood Cure protocol, I have noticed that if I skip a meal or don’t eat enough protein and fat at a meal, I end up feeling shaky, weak and dizzy. One time it was so bad, I literally couldn’t see straight.

For me, the early evening was particularly bad. Looking back, it was because I had skipped either breakfast or lunch. By 5 or 6 pm, I was starving. And that was when I’d reach for a glass of wine. Take the edge off. It also helped me to relax. Which I desperately needed because my cortisol was rising at night (after intermittently starving myself since the night before) and I was doing whatever I could to calm down.

And this is why the cravings for sweets and carbs came later in the evening. Because the wine was a temporary fix but eventually — a few hours after dinner — I’d start to crash. And I needed another fix. Chocolate or potato chips or whatever I could find in the cupboard. And I always had a stash.

Problem is, wine, sweets and carbs don’t sustain. You will crash. And that crash happens around 2 or 3 am.

And yes, the fact that you skipped breakfast this morning and propped yourself up with coffee DOES affect you tonight. You will pay eventually.

What Really Sucks About High Nighttime Cortisol

Being woken up in the middle of the night is bad. But there is something even worse. Remember that thing about high cortisol and belly fat? Yeah, not only am I getting woken up every dang night by my adrenal glands in overdrive, but it’s making me fat!

I was annoyed before, but when I realized this the other night at 3 am, I was pissed! Here I was, all these years, eating too little because I was trying to lose weight, and skipping meals because I’d heard about the benefits of intermittent fasting — and not only was it was making me drink too much and eat too much chocolate, but it was making me FAT!

How to Lower Cortisol at Night

Thankfully, Julia told me what to do to remedy the situation. First of all, she said to have a late-night snack. Right before bed, eat something balanced with enough fat and protein. Like maybe a whole wheat cracker with some peanut butter or cheese or hummus.

So I tried it. Last night I had a few ounces of raw cheese, some raw milk (yes, I’m on the GAPS diet but I have no problem with dairy,) and a tablespoon of peanut butter.

And guess what? I slept through the night! I was so thrilled to wake up at 7:30 this morning. I slept like a rock!

She also told me about a supplement called Seriphos. It’s an amino acid supplement that people take for a short period of time to help lower cortisol. Needless to say, the other night at 3 am when I realized I was fat from these cortisol surges, I hit the one-click on Amazon.

Tonight’s my first night on the Seriphos. I’ll let you know in the comments tomorrow how it goes! Oh, yeah, and I’m going to make sure I have my bedtime snack. And I’m hitting the sack by 10 pm.

Wheat Belly? Nope, Cortisol Belly!

I know there are a lot of people out there who are gluten-intolerant. There’s no question about that. And it’s true, those folks should avoid wheat (they should also fix their abnormal gut flora, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post).

But blaming bloated bellies on wheat consumption is simplistic and ridiculous. (OK, OK I’ll read Wheat Belly and then I’ll write another blog post. I gotta give the man his due.)

The fact of the matter is that eating wheat is not going to make you fat if you have healthy adrenal glands and perfect metabolism. I ate wheat pretty much daily for 39 years (except for the 2 years I went without when I was healing my gut) and was thin as a rail. It was after the birth of my first child that my hormones got wacky and I gained weight. Wheat or no wheat, the spare tire doesn’t budge.

And avoiding wheat is not going to make you lose weight if your adrenals are fried. And yeah, pregnancy, childbirth and nursing are stressful — and hard on your adrenals.

So is coffee.

Maybe I should have called this post “Coffee Belly.” Or “Sugar Belly.” The truth is, if you think you’re going to lose weight by skipping the wheat but continuing to drink your daily cup of joe and eating your dark chocolate, think again. It will catch up with you. If you crave coffee in the morning, that’s a sure sign of adrenal fatigue.

The funny thing is, all of this information is in Julia’s book, The Mood Cure. I read that book for the first time in 2008. Isn’t it strange how it takes us so long to figure things out?

I’m excited to see how things go with this new discovery. I will keep you posted!

UPDATE

I was in a rush to get this posted last night before 10 pm (have to get to bed early for my adrenals). I neglected to mention that you should get your cortisol levels checked with a saliva test. Julia Ross goes over this in her book.

I did this last year and my results show normal cortisol in the morning, low mid-day, and normal at night. I didn’t do the 5-times-per-day test that Julia recommends (one more test at night) but I am pretty certain that it would show that it is high at night. This is a pretty typical pattern — normal in the morning, low mid-day, and normal at night — and then the cortisol keeps rising into the night, which is why I have trouble falling asleep. Cortisol should drop at night and should be at normal levels throughout the day. It should be highest in the morning.

Also PLEASE read The Mood Cure before taking any supplements! And better yet, work with a naturopath or a holistic doctor.

Share Your Comments Below

How about you? Have you had issues with your hormones? Please share your thoughts and experiences below.

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{ 340 comments… read them below or add one }

Glenda January 27, 2014 at 4:44 PM

Ann Marie,
It has been a blessing to find your page. It is a tremendous help. The info concerning the adrenals, body temp, food, cooking, etc have come at the perfect time in my life. I have issues with my adrenals, thyroid, back, weight loss, etc. I work out extremely hard, restrict calories, and it has been so frustrating to not lose weight and end up binging.

Since last year, I began to do things again the normal rationalizations of weight loss to heal my body. This included more balanced eating and just that permission alone greatly reduced the binging. But around Jul2013, I panicked when I gained a little weight during the recovery process and quickly reverted back to hard core working out and restricting calories again. Needless to say, I worked very hard and once again lost only a few pounds (about 5 or so). Basically my body ALWAYS stops dropping pounds at the same general weight. It’s like it’s programmed to stop at a certain weight.

I am so very thankful to have found your page around the this year (2014). I discovered you around the time I was starting to wonder why nothing was working, yet still try to push ahead using the same ole methodology.

Since discovering the info regarding eating nutrient dense foods and body temperature, I have stepped up the healthy eating a notch. I realize and ACCEPT the importance of healing the damage I have done to my body first and then focusing on my weight loss desires. When I started measuring my temperature middle of this month it was fluctuating as low as 93.3. As of yesterday and today, my waking temp has been as high as 97.3 and I even fluctuated up to 98.1.

My pants feel a little tighter at this time, I’m surely apprehensive about gaining weight, and I don’t have a lot of people around me that I can share what I’m doing. But you know what? I’m not losing the weight anyway and my malfunctioning adrenals affected Much more then my weight, so I might as well eat nutrient dense healthy food for a good reason, get my temperatures steady, and improve the waking up from 12am-4am. Basically heal my body from the inside out and wait until it is ready to start shedding pounds. This is only for a season.

Again, thank you so very very much!

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brother's keeper June 10, 2014 at 10:06 PM
Erika June 10, 2014 at 11:25 PM

Brother’s Keeper, thank you, thank you, thank you!!! for sharing that article. I never trusted the “let’s just leave out a complete food group for ultimate health” argument. It just kills me that people follow that crappola. The author did an amazing job at pulling up all of the studies he quotes in the book, and shows how he misinterpereted the data. It was so obvious and outrageous, that it had to be purposeful for some agenda. Everything I was thinking, and now have proof to back up my hunches. Thanks again.

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brother's keeper June 11, 2014 at 12:35 PM

Erika, you are most welcome, Unfortunately, I was part of the lose-weight-low-carb crowd for quite a few years. Few people are more faithful at following a diet than I am(I learned to fast very early on, and don’t have a lot of food cravings, plus, my brain is what I prefer to feed, LOL, so I can go long stretches without food. Plus, I just don’t purchase food I know is not good for me(most of the time…the way I manage that is shop when pressed for time…so I am not so tempted…sorry, a bit off topic!). Anyway, I got to the point, where I plateaued at 180. I am large boned, so it’s mostly flab when I’m looking overweight. But 150 does feel better. YET, I’m 59, so they say a bit of extra weight is good for the needed estrogen, and since I don’t consume xenoestrogens(fake estrogens) because of a very pure diet…no chemicals at all, unless I eat out, I suppose that extra adipose is good for me. NOT! I would not have it if I was exercising, but then you’ve probably also read that when you don’t feel like exercising, you probably shouldn’t, and build your adrenal health instead. Which, is probably true for me, since I burned the candle at both ends for almost a decade. I had the health to do that, but it has slowly eaten away at it, and now, I’m having to hit the sack early, and poop out pretty early. I’ve dedicated myself to getting back my energy.

Whether it’s and agenda, purposeful or not, I sorta doubt. I just think if you don’t have solid ground for truth, then you tend to read and sift through stuff, and if you’re not careful, you are just human, and miss the obvious. I am thankful I have the foundation of truth in God’s Word, and when it comes to details it doesn’t discuss, I have to be careful. My hubby kept saying, “Linda, the Bible mentions wheat and grain in positive ways”. I knew he was right, but because low carb worked so well initially, I followed my own train of thought…chugga chugga chugga… I was wrong, dagnabit! It has taken me years, after being plateaued and then hearing a friend share the website I shared with you, to even consider change. I was DEDICATED to low carb, I tell you, and anyone around could tell you the same. So, I’m eating crow–humbled once again–and the wiser for it. PLUS, I’m making my own bread and loving it. I hope you spend some more time poking around on that site, Erika. It’s very informative. :)

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brother's keeper June 11, 2014 at 12:46 PM

One of my arguments was that today’s wheat is different. Well, it’s not GMO, and Sue Becker discusses that aptly. Our nation is the primary exporter of Wheat to the world, and those nations would not accept GMO wheat.

Freshly ground, and made right into bread, is how to preserve the delicate nutrients in the endosperm of the wheat. These are the nutrients we so desperately need. It’s one of our primary sources of Vitamins B and E, among many others. It loses its effectiveness, and starts going rancid after a few days NO wheat you buy in the store, according to her findings, fits that category. Personally, I have NEVER bought wheat in any store, health food store included, that didn’t have a bitter after taste. She also discusses the phytic acid issue.

One of the things she discusses is how people she has shared the freshly made bread get well from all sorts of illnesses, including IBS! Now, that is a BIG one! Read her story about how her family got well.

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annie September 2, 2014 at 7:00 AM

I have this exact problem and also found the Julia Ross materials and on her website, an excerpt from the Townsend letter describing how to heal insomnia issues. I had the early morning waking for three years and in that time, I developed belly fat where I never had any before. After reading the Julia Ross materials, I did the testing and found the early morning cortisol levels at 3:00 were in a range that was suitable for 12 noon during the day. I played with the seriphos dosages and for me the solution was to take 1 at 9:30 and 1 at 10:15. Additionally my bedtime snack is one fried egg fried in coconut oil, since I don’t eat dairy. A naturopath I consulted with insisted that the bedtime snack needs to be animal protein and fat, cholesterol so the body can convert it to glycogen. I did this and slept through the night for the first time in years and there was no cortisol surge until morning. Please note however, you are not supposed to take more than 3 seriphos in one day and you are not supposed to take this supplement indefinitely. From what I have read, you use the supplement seriphos to retrain the body, to re-sensitize and recalibrate, and get the boddy out of the stress pattern it is in, and once you have got the body in a new pattern you withdraw the seriphos. personally, I am just working through this now, having recently found this solution. I am taking a month to use the supplement to catch up on some needed rest, and then I will try first lowering my dose to 1 seriphos and then hopefully withdrawing the supplement entirely. I will also say that Julia Ross’s treatments using amino acids are also not meant to be taken indefinitely. The amino acids are to be taken until the brain has corrected itself. Each person is different regarding how long and how much aminos they need for their brain to normalize, but people will run in to trouble if they just use all these supplements indefinitely. there are two hour long lectures with Julia on youtube and if you listen to both of them carefully and take notes you can learn a lot and she does state this clearly.

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Steph September 17, 2014 at 5:47 PM

Honestly, I think wheat belly versus cortisol belly is a little bit simplistic – I’m someone who has also suffered from adrenal fatigue for years, and although I changed my lifestyle and diet for a couple of years to address it, I’ve somewhat fallen off the wagon since then. However, the reason I found out about adrenal fatigue in the first place was that I was researching everything I could find about my then-recently diagnosed autoimmune thyroid disorder. My doctor recommended that I quit eating gluten after my diagnosis, and not only did my thyroid inflammation calm down, but on blood tests beginning a few months later, my anti-thyroid antibodies had dropped 75% – a friend with the same disorder now tests negative for the antibodies, though the disease is readily apparent via sonogram and she is taking medication in addition to her dietary changes.

As I’m sure you know, hormones tend to be very sensitive to other hormones being out of balance, adrenal fatigue is linked to thyroid disorders, and having one autoimmune disorder means one is more likely to have others, including celiac (which I’ve had symptoms of, including inflamed villi, but can’t be tested for now that I’m gluten-free). I’ve never been pregnant, but developed the belly fat you’re talking about soon after I turned 30 despite treatment for my thyroid condition, addressing the blood sugar issues, cutting out gluten, not drinking caffeine, etc. Obviously, in my case the issue was at least primarily hormonal, and I do need to complete a 24-hour cortisol saliva test to see what’s going on there, while in my sister’s it was primarily wheat (though her own life changes since then would also have helped with adrenal issues), but – too late to make this point succinct – my wheat issues are linked with my thyroid issues which are linked with my adrenal issues, so with thyroid disorders on the rise, especially among women, maybe it’s time medicine stopped thinking about women as being basically the same as men but harder to study and started focusing on the very thing that caused us to be largely ignored in research for so long to begin with – our hormones.

At the same time, having seen someone spend years undergoing invasive tests to explain her symptoms and experience relief while on an elimination diet – and their return after she had consumed a small amount of gluten without knowing she had done so – and as someone who doesn’t have an official “celiac” stamp on any file but has been told by my doctor and by the corresponding changes in my lab work, I’m sick of being told by random strangers that the GF “thing” is a fad and that there’s no reason for anyone to avoid it unless they test positive for celiac, particularly when subsequent discussion reveals that they haven’t done their research.

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