Cortisol and Weight Gain

What is all this talk about cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal glands. Different amounts of cortisol are released throughout the day, with the highest amounts released in the early morning. Cortisol helps to maintain blood pressure, and provides energy by stimulating fat and carbohydrate metabolism. In addition, cortisol helps to regulate blood sugar levels by stimulating insulin release. During times of stress, more cortisol is released.

Association with body weight
Cortisol first mobilizes carbohydrate and fat for quick energy when we are under stress (the “fight or flight” response). Once the stress has passed, cortisol causes an increase in appetite to replace the carbohydrate and fat that was burned while fighting or flighting. Because many of us live sedentary or minimally active lives, we are most likely eating more calories than we can burn when our cortisol levels increase.

Cortisol stimulates glucose production, which is then converted and stored as fat. The theory is that cortisol causes fat deposition in the abdominal area, increasing the risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes development, because the fat cells in the abdominal area are most sensitive to cortisol.

According to some researchers, people who are especially prone to release excess cortisol also are more likely to have emotional eating problems. Other researchers claim that an increase in cortisol lowers immunity. Some animal studies have shown that cortisol leads to cravings for fatty and/or sugary foods.

However, no evidence exists to show that the amount of cortisol released by a healthy individual under temporary stress is enough to lead to weight gain. However, chronic stress that lasts for several months or years may lead to weight gain. Many questions remain, including whether cortisol levels actually increase prior to weight gain, or whether weight gain leads to an increased production and release of the hormone. What we do know is that many hormones are involved in appetite and weight gain, and that cortisol is just one piece of a much larger puzzle.

Message:  Reduce your stress level so cortisol levels do not get too high and remain there. Exercise is a great stress reliever that can lower cortisol and decrease your waistline.  Be sure to exercise and push yourself to your personal limit.  If you feel discomfort and stressed during exercise,  you can expect cortisol levels to  increase.