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Is Cortisol Causing Your Weight Gain?

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

We’ve all been there. A stressful day can make you want to reach for that one extra cookie or glass of wine. And that’s totally normal! There are actually biological reasons behind your sugar cravings when you’re feeling more stressed than normal. But such cravings can also lead to weight gain or weight retention.

The stress hormone, cortisol, is behind these sugary cravings A stressful situation will cause your adrenaline glands to release cortisol and dispense glucose into your bloodstream.

Cortisol & sugar cravings:

Your sugar cravings under stress relate back to your body’s fight or flight response, in which cortisol is released by the adrenal glands. Cortisol allows the body to easily produce glucose from proteins and disperse it in the bloodstream. From an evolutionary standpoint, having an easily accessible supply of glucose allows the body to quickly convert the sugar into energy to run or fight from an opponent. Unfortunately, in today’s world, most of us do not expend large amounts of calories in the face of stress- we instead run to the fridge to grab a sugary treat.

As we consume sugar during a time of stress, most of the sugar remains unused and is stored in the body. However, when you’re stressed, rather than being stored in the hips, this sugar is stored centrally- around the organs of the abdomen as visceral fat. Abdominal fat is also known as “toxic fat.” This is because fat stored in the abdominal region is strongly correlated with the development of heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular diseases.

Cortisol can also cause you to gain weight in its effects on the metabolism. Even if you don’t succumb to sugary cravings, cortisol will slow the metabolism and cause fewer calories to be burned. A 2015 study found that people with higher daily stress levels burned fewer calories than those with normal cortisol levels. On average, those with one or more stressors during the previous day burned over 100 calories less than non-stressed people. As described above, most of these extra calories are stored as abdominal fat.

This development of abdominal fat is especially true for women. Past studies have found a strong correlation between overweight women and an exaggerated cortisol response in the face of stress. Another study found that women with greater levels of abdominal fat experienced more negative moods and higher levels of stress, signs of high cortisol levels.

While everyone has a unique response to stress, research has demonstrated that having a large buildup of abdominal fat is linked to a higher secretion of cortisol in a stressful situation. When higher amounts of cortisol are released, your cravings for sugar will be heightened, causing you to eat more sugar. Once this sugar is converted to energy and unused, it will again be stored in the abdomen where it will only increase cortisol levels in the future. In this way, cortisol and toxic fat work together in a deadly cycle that results in higher cortisol levels and more abdominal fat.

Cortisol 101:

After reading about the link between cortisol and toxic fat, it would be easy to write off cortisol as a horrible hormone. But cortisol actually serves many beneficial purposes in the body. Further, cortisol is released as part of the daily hormone cycle. Cortisol levels are highest in the morning and lowest at night when you’re about to go to sleep. Cortisol plays a role in:

  • Blood pressure regulation

  • Glucose metabolism

  • Immune function

  • Inflammatory response

  • Insulin resistance

It is consistently high levels of cortisol that are linked to negative side effects like weight gain. Chronically elevated cortisol levels are also linked to:

  • Blood sugar imbalances

  • Suppressed thyroid function

  • Decreased bone density

  • Impaired cognitive performance

  • Lower immunity

  • Digestive problems

  • Nervousness

  • Allergies

  • Thin and Dry Skin

  • Low Blood Pressure

  • Decreased Ability to handle stress

  • Slowed wound healing

Moreover, a sustained heightened cortisol level causes the body to produce less testosterone. This will lead to a decrease in muscle mass and other health problems in the long run. With less muscle mass, your body will burn fewer calories- causing weight gain.

Naturally balancing cortisol levels:

Luckily, there are natural and relatively easy ways to decrease your cortisol levels. If you think you may be experiencing high cortisol levels, try the following de-stressing methods:

  • Eat a whole-food, plant-based diet (like the Mediterranean diet)- A diet high in added sugars or processed foods will not only increase your risk of high blood pressure and diabetes, but will also raise your cortisol level. A diet high in fiber, which supports gut health, is also key in regulating hormone levels throughout the body.

  • Get enough sleep- Because your natural cortisol cycles rely on following your circadian rhythm, it is essential to get a full night of sleep. Without proper sleep, your cortisol levels will remain high throughout the day in an effort to stimulate alertness. Turning off bright lights and screens before bedtime will also lower cortisol levels and ensure better sleep.

  • Practice deep breathing- Taking the time to do breathing exercises for at least 5 minutes 3-5 times a day has been linked to lowered cortisol levels. Research demonstrated that breathing exercises will also help ease anxiety and depression and improve memory. An app like Calm or Timer is a great entry to breathing practices.

  • Limit caffeine consumption- Reducing your caffeine intake can also help lower your stress levels, especially if you’re a slow metabolizer of caffeine. High caffeine intake can lead to heightened levels of cortisol and feelings of anxiety.

  • Exercise- Be wary that some exercise can actually raise your cortisol levels. For the average person, mild or moderate exercise at 40-60% effort will not raise levels of cortisol during the day and will actually lower cortisol levels at night. Intense exercise or overtraining can raise cortisol levels for unfit individuals.

  • Take a walk- Spending time outside, especially while doing physical activity, will do wonders for lowering your stress levels! Removing your shoes and socks while outside and practicing grounding techniques, has been linked to decreased stress, better sleep quality, and decreased anxiety and depression.

The key to decreasing cortisol levels is to balance your hormones overall. To learn more about how to naturally regulate your hormone levels, click here.

Supplementation for cortisol imbalance:

There are a number of herbs called adaptogens that help to support your adrenal function. These herbals have been used for thousands of years in supporting stress. Ashwagandha and Rhodiola are two that are backed by multiple studies.

  • Ashwagandha has been demonstrated to have profound effects on stress levels, anxiety, blood sugar, mood, and memory. One study found that 125mg to 5 grams of ashwagandha per day for 1-3 months lowered cortisol levels by 11-32%. Another study demonstrated that ashwagandha can improve an individual's resistance to stress and improve quality of life.

  • Rhodiola has benefits in managing overall stress levels and aiding athletic performance. One study found that taking Rhodiola for four weeks had significant effects on stress levels. Another study found that rhodiola helped with mental weariness and boosted work performance by 20%.

But in taking herbal supplements like Rhodiola and Ashwagandha, be hesitant in where your supplements are sourced. Herbs used for supplements grown in polluted areas or sprayed with pesticides or herbicides can have lingering traces of toxins.

You should only think about taking supplements for high cortisol levels after a trusted health practitioner has prescribed them to you. Only a trusted health practitioner can guarantee the highest quality, medical-grade supplements that are held to the same standards as pharmaceutical drugs. After testing, a practitioner will be able to pinpoint exactly which hormone or nutrient imbalances are causing heightened cortisol.

At the Johnson Center, we offer such testing for cortisol imbalances and only recommend the highest quality supplements for our patients. Many of the supplements are used by Dr. Johnson herself.

If you're interested in testing for high cortisol or ordering supplements through the Johnson Center, contact us!

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach / Norfolk locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!


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