How does Cortisol cause Weight Gain?

Adrenal glands in our body produces cortisol as part of daily hormonal cycle. Cortisol is an important hormone that helps body respond to both emotional and physical stress. Cortisol helps us handle stressful situations. Increase in stress causes increase in cortisol. Cortisol raises blood sugar levels, increases blood pressure and curbs immune system. This is part of body’s fight-or-flight response to survive in a desperate situation. When a very stressful or desperate situation happens, adrenal glands release both adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol enhances glucose production to quickly boost the body’s energy during stressful times.

Cortisol and Weight

Cortisol has effects on body fat. When stress happens, fat break down happens to rapidly supply energy to the body. As the body prepares to deal with stressful situation, thinking improves, the pupils dilate and the lungs take in more oxygen. Our digestive system stops working and appetite gets suppressed temporarily. Cortisol plays a role in mobilizing fat and carbohydrate for quick energy. When the immediate stress is gone, cortisol still stays active to bring the body back to normal. In order to bring the body back to normal, cortisol does number of things. One of the things that cortisol does is to enhance our appetite so that body can refill the fat and carbohydrate we could have burnt in fighting or fleeing.

In modern life, dealing with stressful situations is in many cases not physically demanding or challenging. The body in such cases does not need to utilize the extra energy or fat and carbohydrate mobilized by cortisol. However, the body assumes that the fat and carbohydrates mobilized by cortisol have been exhausted in dealing with stress. In bringing, the body back to normal state after the immediate stress is over, cortisol enhances out appetite. This enhancement of appetite is supposed to restock the fat and carbohydrates that the body assumes it has exhausted. The extra energy or glucose produced by cortisol gets stored as fat eventually as it remains unutilized. Unnecessary and increased consumption of carbohydrates and fatty food to refuel the body can also get stored as fat. Cleary cortisol is contributing to increases in fat.

According to experts, we are now living in sustained state of stress. When stress and cortisol levels are high, insulin level will also be high. Sustained stress causes sustained state of excess cortisol, which causes excess glucose production. The extra glucose usually gets converted into fat. According to experts, constant stress and overload of cortisol make people feel tired and listless. People can then overeat to energize themselves and feel comfortable. This overconsumption of food can end up in extra inches around the middle. Sustained state of excess cortisol can obviously to lead to weight gain.   

Cortisol and Belly Fat

It is generally accepted that waistline usually gains the stress and cortisol-induced weight. It is because fat cells around the waistline are more sensitive to cortisol. The fat cells in the abdomen area are better stress hormone receptors and are also sensitive to insulin. These fat cells are also more effective in storing energy than fat cells in other parts of the body. According experts and studies, cortisol can cause weight gain in the centre of the body. Weight gain around the waistline is dangerous as it can cause heart disease, metabolic syndrome and diabetes.  

Cortisol may not be the Only Cause

Some researchers doubt cortisol’s connection to obesity. According to those experts, cortisol level may not be the sole factor in fat distribution and obesity. According to them, question may arise whether rise in cortisol level causes weight gain or cortisol’s increase is impact of the weight itself. Relevant research suggests that cortisol alone may not be the main causes in weight gain. Due to numerous causes or factors that are linked with weight and appetite, there is no easy answer to treating obesity.

There are experts that study the complicated relationship between weight gain, cortisol and stress. Many of the experts agree that there is no simple or one to one relationship between weight gain and cortisol. It is because there so many different types of hormones and peptides involved, as pointed out by Marci Gluck from New York Obesity Research Centre.

Sometimes there are inconsistent research findings regarding relationship between weight gain and cortisol. It is hard to conclusively determine relationship between cortisol and weight gain. Link between the two remains subject to ongoing research.

Reducing Stress and Cortisol Level

Regardless of the nature and extent of relationship between stress, cortisol and weight gain, it is definitely a good idea to try to reduce stress and cortisol level. Exercise is one of the ways to beat stress and enhance insulin sensitivity. Exercise cannot only help burn calories and but also helps neutralize stress and its effects. This can also help prevent weight gain.

Stress reduction technique such as trying to connect to entity in other dimension or God can also be useful. Better time management can significantly reduce factors that cause stress. Adequate sleep can also reduce physiological responses of the body to daily stressors. How we perceive and deal with stressful situation also makes a big difference.


Lowering Cortisol Levels

When we are under stress, adrenal glands release cortisol. It is a stress hormone, which helps body deal with stressful situations. Brain causes release of the hormone in reaction to various stresses. Sustained and high level of cortisol however has harmful effects including high blood pressure, reduced energy, weight gain, disrupt sleep, impaired brain function, diabetes etc. As high amount of cortisol is harmful, it is important to lower cortisol level. There are ways that can help keep cortisol level low.

Having Enough Sleep

Length, timing and quality of sleep affects cortisol level. For example, sleeping during the day instead of night can increase cortisol level, as found out in number of studies. Lack of enough sleep can cause cortisol level to rise. Rotating shifts or interruption to sleep can also disturb normal hormonal pattern and enhance cortisol level. Those who are rotating shift or night worker do not have control over sleep schedule. In such cases, exercising, avoiding caffeine at night and limiting distractions before bed can help optimize sleep. Sleeping seven to nine hours daily, avoiding sleep interruption and having a consistent sleep schedule can help keep cortisol in a normal rhythm.


Exercise in moderation can help decrease cortisol. Intense exercise can however raise cortisol level, which eventually comes down later. Amount of cortisol response is reduced gradually with habitual training. Mild or moderate exercise can also help lower cortisol level.

Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation exercises can help lower cortisol levels. Deep breathing is a good technique to reduce stress and it can be used anywhere. Habitual deep breathing training can help reduce cortisol by 50%, as found out in a study involving 28 middle-aged women. Message therapy can also lower cortisol by 30%, as shown in several studies.

Having Fun

Being happy is another way to keep cortisol level down. A positive personality is linked with lower blood pressure, lower cortisol, a strong immune system and a healthy heart rate. Cortisol level can go down in response to laughter, as found out in a study involving 18 healthy adults.

Developing hobbies can enhance feeling of well-being, which helps reduce cortisol. Gardening can lower cortisol level more than conventional occupational therapy can do, as found out in a study involving 49 middle-aged veterans. Having good time, spending time outdoors and having a hobby can all help lower cortisol level.

Maintaining Healthy Relationships

Family and friends can be source happiness or stress in life. Support from family and friends can help lower cortisol, while under stress. In response to public speaking, men had their cortisol level lowered due to support from their female partner, as found out in a study involving 66 men and women. Affectionate interaction with a partner prior to stressful activity benefits blood pressure and heart rate more than support from a friend does, as found out in a study. Spending time with loved ones is a good idea. Learning to forgive and managing conflict is good for better physical and emotional health.

Taking Care of a Pet

Taking care of a pet can also help lower cortisol. Interaction with a therapy dog decreased distress and caused cortisol changes during a minor medical procedure in children, as found out in a study. Contact with a dog was in some cases better than support from a friend during stressful situation, as found out in a study. Interaction with pet benefits both human and pets.

Taking Care of Feelings

Feelings of guilt, inadequacy or shame can cause to think negatively and raise cortisol level. Taking care of such feelings can help lower cortisol level. In case of feelings of guilt, fixing the source can help change the feeling. In some cases, forgiving yourself or others can boost your sense of well-being. Sometimes counselling can help resolve conflict and facilitate forgiving, which has positive impact on cortisol level.


Those who are spiritual can develop their faith and have positive impact on cortisol. Prayer is also linked with reduced anxiety and depression. Being associated with faith-based group can have positive impact on emotional well-being and cortisol level. For those who are not spiritual, can engage in acts of kindness or social support group, which also has positive impact on emotional state and cortisol level.

Eating Healthy Foods

Nutrition can affect cortisol in both negative and positive ways. Consumption of high amount of sugar regularly may keep your cortisol level increased. Surprisingly, sugar can also help reduce release of cortisol in response to stressful events. High sugar intake is associated with higher cortisol, especially in cases of obese individuals.

Some specific foods can improve cortisol level. Dark chocolate can reduce cortisol response to stress challenge, as found out in two studies. Study suggests that eating fruits such as banana or pears helped athletes reduce cortisol level. Drinking black tea helps decrease cortisol in response to stressful tasks, as found out in a study involving 75 men. Probiotics and prebiotics can help reduce cortisol. Water or hydration can help reduce cortisol level.


Nutritional supplements can also help lower cortisol levels. Fish oil is one such supplement, which contains omega-3 fatty acids. Number of studies suggest that fish oil can help reduce cortisol level in response to stressful task. Ashwagandha is another supplement. This is an Asian herbal supplement. This supplement is also linked with lowering cortisol level, as found out in number of studies.

Last update: August 20, 2017 07:46:58 pm

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