Stress and Weight Gain: How Cortisol Contributes to Unhealthy Body Weight

by Marixie Ann Obsioma, MT, undergrad MD on September 22, 2021
Last updated on October 16, 2021

Stress has long been a huge factor in gaining and maintaining excessive and unhealthy body weight. Researchers have gathered that elevated cortisol levels for long periods of time may lead to weight gain.

Stress and Weight Gain: How Cortisol Contributes to Unhealthy Body Weight

Cortisol, more commonly known as the stress hormone, is an important metabolic hormone belonging to the class glucocorticoids. Naturally occurring in your body, cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands located just above your kidneys.

How Cortisol Affects Your Body

On a regular basis, the production and release of this hormone is regulated by the pituitary gland in your brain’s hypothalamus. More than half of its regular amount is released around the time you wake up, with its levels decreasing as the day goes on.

But when you feel stressed, or when you sense danger, cortisol and adrenaline are released, increasing your heart rate and energy levels. They immediately slow your metabolism and temporarily pause your other bodily functions. This process triggers your fight or flight response and gives you the energy required for when you have to get away from threatening situations.

Aside from being an essential survival hormone, cortisol is also important for increasing blood sugar and reducing inflammation.

After your adrenaline wears off and you have used up all of the glucose in your bloodstream—glucose is the body’s primary source of energy—your blood sugar will drop. The cortisol, being a stimulant for your fat and carbohydrate metabolism, will then work its way to replenish your energy supply.

This triggers and increases your appetite, most especially your cravings for sweet and fatty foods. Glucose is sugar, so your body will instinctively yearn for sweets when it gets tired. Because of this, you’re likely to seek foods with high sugar content rather than a healthy and well-balanced meal.

While this is all normal, continued increase in cortisol levels can be very detrimental. Prolonged elevations of the hormone may lead to overeating. As your body is subjected to continued release of cortisol, your sugar cravings will also persist. You will think that you are supplying your body with the energy it needs, but in reality, you are just stuck in a never-ending cycle of gaining and storing too much weight.

In addition to overeating, cortisol may also affect testosterone production. Low testosterone levels may lead to decreased muscle mass and may also be associated with less burned calories.

Even when you are eating a relatively healthier meal, cortisol will still mess up and slow down your metabolism. Because your metabolism is in charge of breaking down and converting food into energy, it will be very difficult for you to lose weight.

In a study conducted in 2015, researchers from Ohio State University studied the effects of stress on body weight. They fed a bunch of women food with a high calorie content after asking them about the stressful situations they had gone through from the previous day. They then measured the women’s metabolic rates after they had finished eating the meal. The test examined how fast they burned calories and fat and also checked for their cortisol, cholesterol, blood sugar, and insulin levels.

Upon finishing their research, they had discovered that the non-stressed women burned more calories than the other ones. On average, women who had at least one stressor from the prior 24-hour period burned 104 less calories. In a year, that can result in an 11-pound weight gain. Aside from excessive cortisol, the stressed women also had high levels of insulin, another key hormone responsible for fat storage.

As cortisol continues to affect your metabolism, it will pose a number of potential health problems. If not controlled, the hormone may disrupt the whole body. Some of its side effects include weight gain, fatigue, depression, high blood pressure, mood swings, type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and inefficient immune system.

Furthermore, the weight accumulated from increased cortisol levels is mostly found around the abdomen. Fat stored in this particular area is called “toxic fat,” as it is oftentimes the cause of numerous cardiovascular diseases.

Another study involving both men and women unveiled the connection between high cortisol levels and larger belly fat. This reinforces the suggestion that increased cortisol causes overeating.

Other Unhealthy Habits You Have to Focus On

As previously mentioned, excessive amounts of cortisol brought upon by stress plays a big part in gaining weight, but there are other stress-related unhealthy behaviors that you should check.

You may notice that you tend to eat junk foods like chips and artificial juice drinks when you are stressed. Eating readily available and fast foods is common because they are accessible and just easy to obtain. Because of stress, you will be more likely to choose to eat quick and unhealthy meals rather than taking the time and effort to cook a well-balanced one.

In recent times, we have also accepted the concept of comfort foods. These are what you normally eat when you feel strained or tense. These foods are almost always rich in sugar and fat, which, as we have discussed, are easy to stick to the body as fat. Stress can result in emotional eating, and you may find yourself snacking on your favorite foods like ice cream in immoderate amounts.

On the other hand, stress can also make you skip meals. Eating may not even be on your plate when you are juggling a dozen things at once. You may find breakfast or lunch or dinner unappetizing if you have more pressing things on your priority list.

A thing that may be lower than meals on your list when you are stressed is exercise—it may even be the last of your priorities. Most just skip any form of physical activity because of tight work schedules and limited personal time.

And lastly, stressful situations may cause irregular sleeping patterns. Sleep deprivation has been linked to a slower metabolism, according to research, and many people report having sleepless nights when they are stressed. Furthermore, no rest also means no motivation and no focus, and may lead to other disorders.

Low Cortisol Levels for Weight Loss

On the other end of the spectrum, lower levels of the stress hormone can also help you lose weight. More research is required for this subject, but it has been observed that while high cortisol levels may promote overeating, chronic low cortisol levels may result in weight loss in some cases.

In extreme instances, such as with “Addison’s disease,” the body does not produce enough cortisol for everyday use. Low cortisol symptoms include fatigue, reduced appetite, low blood sugar, salt cravings, nausea or dizziness, abdominal pain, vomiting, and bodily pains.

Stress and overproduction of cortisol seem more common, but the effects of other cortisol conditions should also be considered.

Ways to Lessen Your Stress and Cortisol Levels

While cortisol is essential for survival, this hormone can do more harm than good if left in high levels for a long time. Overactivity and stress are the most common causes of the overproduction of cortisol, and if left untreated, they may lead to obesity and other complications.

In order to avoid chronic diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes that may arise from elevated cortisol levels, you must talk with a qualified health official to determine the root cause of your health issues. But most importantly, a change in lifestyle and habits would be best to ensure that you manage your body’s cortisol levels.

A proven effective way to reduce cortisol production is prioritizing sleep. Higher levels of cortisol have been proven to be associated with chronic sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea. Studies have shown that night shift workers have more cortisol than day shift workers. Aside from obesity, night shift workers are prone to poorer health outcomes such as heart diseases and unstable mental health.

Irregular sleep patterns may also result in increased circulation of cortisol, which also affects the production of other hormones. Energy levels are also compromised.

In order to optimize your sleep, you must establish a consistent bedtime routine to condition your brain that it is time for rest. Also, one of the most effective ways to improve your sleeping experience is to have a regular schedule; going to bed and waking up at the same time of day every day helps in establishing a healthy routine. Napping can also reduce sleepiness and is helpful for people who have difficult schedules for work.

Another thing you might want to consider is ridding yourself of stressful thoughts. Being mindful and self-aware about your heart rate and other telling signs for stress can help you recognize the problem when it arises. Your whole body is mostly in tune with itself, and problems of the mind oftentimes affect your physical state. Determining your stress patterns allows you to formulate appropriate reactions accordingly.

Maintaining healthy relationships is also essential to avoid stress. You have to have a strong network of friends and acquaintances outside of work or school. Keeping cordial connections with people tends to reduce our cortisol levels. Human hair holds small amounts of cortisol and it carries the hormone along its length. Studies prove that people from affectionate upbringing have lesser cortisol levels than those who are from dysfunctional families. Loved ones literally help you physically when you are in stress.

Lastly, do not forget to breathe, laugh, and have fun. Rhythmic and deep breathing effectively helps in reducing stress, and you can do it anytime, anywhere, too. Controlled breathing is a simple way to ease your nervous system. Also, laughing releases endorphins, also known as the happy hormone. A study confirmed that you are less likely to have spikes in your cortisol levels when you are exposed to things you are interested in.

Combat Weight Gain Even in Stressful Times

Among the many causes of weight gain, you should pay extra attention to regulating your hormones. While trying to lower your stress levels may mostly feel impossible, you can still manage the extreme effects of cortisol on your body. Stressors and other stimulants that can potentially contribute to increased cortisol may not be avoided all the time but there are still multiple efficient ways to prevent weight gain.

The most effective way to avoid gaining weight is to stay physically active. Prioritizing exercise is excellent for regulating bodily functions and hormonal patterns. Regular physical exercise can improve metabolism, therefore maintaining a healthy level of calories in the body.

Hitting the gym on weekends or going for a walk during your lunch break are cheap and efficient ways to maintain healthy body mass. Besides that, physical activity naturally produces endorphins and other positive chemicals which promote happiness.

You have to choose healthier comfort food options. Snacking when you are stressed is only natural, but you have to be conscious about what you put in your body. Replace sugar and fat with high quality foods. When you consume healthy and plant-based foods, you are less likely to have mood swings and excess storage of empty calories.

Of course, eating right may not always be easy but stocking up your pantry with whole foods will make it more convenient the next time you have a craving for a snack.

Paying attention to what you’re eating and keeping a food journal are also helpful. By monitoring your diet, you will be able to tell just how many calories you have taken. Several studies have confirmed that those who kept a food diary and monitored their calorie intake were more likely to control their body weight than those who did not.

When you are aware of your own diet, you can be sure that what you’ve eaten will properly be turned into energy and not unnecessarily stored in your body as fat. An app would be very convenient to track and record your food intake, as it can just be downloaded onto your phone and take it everywhere.

Eating without any distractions is a must to observe your own diet. Mindful eating is quite the opposite of emotional eating. Being fully aware of your eating experience helps you in determining cues like hunger and fullness. Practicing this concept, without any disturbing factors around you, is proven to lessen stress levels, which, in turn, leads to less belly fat.

You should also drink lots of water. Sometimes, thirst and hunger may be hard to discern from one another. When you get confused about the two, test it out by hydrating yourself first. In that way, you avoid taking in more calories than your body really needs. If you still feel hungry after drinking water, only then can you eat.

Another great advice is to meditate. Incorporating stress-relief techniques into your daily life is both simple and effective. Calm hobbies like yoga and reading books are easy stress relievers. Spiritual meditation or even just listening to music are proven to reduce cortisol amounts and help in maintaining body weight.

And lastly, talking to a therapist or dietitian about your weight and body image helps in dealing with issues that you might have. Speaking with a qualified practitioner, like a psychologist, is the way to go. Only professionals can tell you exactly what you need to reduce overall stress or weight gain.

For example, a therapist may tell you the harms of emotional eating while a dietitian can give nutritional education. Both of them can aid you in making healthier choices surrounding food.

Also, beware of advertisements promoting dietary supplements that claim to lessen stress and cortisol levels and boost weight loss. Professionals have condemned the diet industry for capitalizing on studies about stress and weight gain. They have also told the public to avoid purchasing these products, as they are not entirely reliable and have not been studied for both cortisol reduction and weight loss.

At the end of the day, the only remedies for stress and high cortisol levels right now are the ones discussed above: prioritize your sleep, rid yourself of stressful thoughts, enjoy quality time with yourself and your loved ones, and watch shows that can make you laugh.

Stress can contribute to weight gain. That’s why make it a habit to eliminate things that make you stressed. Whether it’s a daily routine, or simply having less sleep—try it. Your body will appreciate you for it and you’ll lose the weight you’ve always wanted to lose.


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