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Cortisol and weight gain: the stress connection

Everyone knows that stress can have a negative impact on the body. But did you know it's also linked to weight gain? We explore how the stress-hormone cortisol affects our body and weight.

Anna Hayes
Anna Hayes
Health coach
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Cortisol and weight gain: the stress connection

It’s no surprise that increased stress levels have a negative impact on our bodies.

Stress has been linked with a number of symptoms including headaches, muscle tension, chest pain, fatigue, digestive issues, and a weakened immune system. Chronic stress has been associated with increasing your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke.

In this article, we discuss the science behind how the stress-hormone cortisol impacts your body, causes weight gain and affects your overall well-being.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone naturally produced by the adrenal glands in your kidneys, and regulated by your pituitary gland.

When you're stressed, cortisol is released into your bloodstream, sending your body into fight or flight mode, putting your regular bodily functions on pause to be able to naturally respond to the stressful situation. Your body aims to control the amount of cortisol released to achieve the right hormonal balance. Additionally, when you wake up or exercise, your pituitary gland reacts. It sends a signal to your adrenal glands to produce the right amount of cortisol.

Other functions of cortisol include:

  • Helping to control your blood pressure.
  • Increasing your metabolism of glucose.
  • Supporting the normal functioning of the immune system.
  • Reducing inflammation.
  • Helping your body to respond to a stressful or dangerous situation.

Having the right balance of cortisol is essential for your health, producing too much or too little cortisol can have a negative impact on your health.

How does cortisol cause weight gain and affect the body?

As we now know, when we’re stressed cortisol is released, which can lead to weight gain and be more difficult to lose weight, but what are the reasons for this?

When cortisol is released it sends your body into flight or flight mode, which puts your regular bodily functions on pause, and in turn slows down your metabolism. Cortisol stimulates your carbohydrate and fat metabolism, creating a surge of energy within the body. This process is essential for how your body responds to certain situations, but does increase your appetite. If stress levels are high and consistent it’s likely to result in weight gain, as a result of increasing your energy intake from food.

Cortisol and emotional eating

Additionally, when your cortisol levels increase it elevates your blood pressure and insulin production. As insulin levels increase, blood sugar levels decrease and you’re more likely to crave less nutrient dense foods, that are higher in energy, sugar and saturated fats. 

Have you ever found yourself stressed at work, getting home and ordering a takeaway? 

If you find yourself eating as a response to stressful situations, this is known as ‘emotional eating.’ This can result in weight gain as a result of choosing less nutrient dense foods that are high in energy and more likely to cause overeating. 

The link between cortisol and poor sleep

There is a strong link between high cortisol levels and lack of good quality sleep. There have been a number of studies that have shown the link between lack of good quality sleep and weight gain. This is due to lack of sleep increases your levels of ghrelin which stimulates hunger, and lowers your levels of leptin which contributes to your feelings of fullness. It’s also common to make less nutrient dense food choices, which are higher in energy when you're tired and haven't had enough good quality sleep.

Research shows a connection between cortisol and being overweight, but typically shows weight gain as an increase of visceral fat around the abdominal area. This type of fat has been associated with an increasing risk of cardiovascular diseases.

How to stop cortisol weight gain

Eat regular well-balanced meals

To help achieve the right balance of cortisol in the body you need to eat regular well-balanced meals throughout the day. Eating regular meals made up of predominantly fresh whole foods, will help to balance your energy and hunger levels and has been shown to help lower your cortisol levels.

Aim to focus on incorporating a variety of complex carbohydrates, enough lean protein, unsaturated fats, and a wide range of fruits and vegetables.

This will ensure you’re providing your body with the nutrients that it needs, and leave you feeling more satisfied. If you leave long periods of time without eating, or restrict your energy from food, this will negatively impact both your energy and hormone levels, which can lead to an increase in cortisol levels.

If you find yourself eating in response to your emotions, or you’re experiencing cravings for certain foods, then try to understand the reason for this craving.

Are you craving a certain food because you skipped a meal and need something to eat, or is it down to stress, tiredness or boredom?

If it’s for a reason other than true hunger, such as stress, then you need to practice addressing this first. Remove yourself from the stressful situation, and do something non-food related that can help to reduce your stress levels, for example, yoga or talking to a friend.

It’s also important to note that understanding why your body is craving certain foods as a result of stress may make it easier to make positive choices or at least be kinder to yourself if you don’t.

Exercise on a regular basis

Incorporating enough daily movement and exercise within your routine, has a range of benefits for your health and well-being. Regular exercise has also been shown to lower your cortisol levels. Individuals who engage in regular exercise have a lower cortisol response to stress than those who don’t regularly exercise.

Find ways to reduce and manage stress

If your cortisol levels are particularly high as a result of stress, the key way to help prevent cortisol-induced weight gain is by finding ways to help reduce and manage your stress levels. 

Here are some tips to help manage and reduce stress:

  • Get some form of daily movement or exercise each day.
  • Practice deep breathing and meditation techniques. 
  • Reach out to family and friends for support.

Low cortisol levels and weight gain

There has also been some evidence to suggest that having low levels of cortisol can result in weight gain. One of the most common reasons for low cortisol levels and weight gain is due to increased tiredness and fatigue, which can impact energy levels and sleep. Furthemore, an individual is more likely to choose foods of less nutritional value and motivation to exercise will be lower.

Chronic stress can also result in adrenal fatigue, a condition where the adrenal glands are no longer functioning how they should and cortisol levels tend to be lower. One of the most common symptoms of adrenal fatigue is change in appetite. Individuals who suffer from adrenal fatigue are more likely to crave less nutrient dense foods that are higher in sugar and/or salt. If not monitored this could lead to weight gain.

Low cortisol levels can also negatively impact the body in other ways. For example, causing a weakness of muscles, lowering blood pressure and having a low libido.

Alcohol, cortisol and weight gain

Drinking alcohol increases your cortisol levels. This is due to drinking disrupting the signals to your adrenal glands of how much cortisol to release. As mentioned previously, elevated cortisol levels may increase weight around the abdominal area and drinking alcohol can contribute to the fat tissue being distributed to your abdominal area.

Drinking alcohol is also more likely to lead you to choose foods that have a low nutritional value and promote overeating, which could cause an increase in weight. It’s also likely to result in lack of good quality sleep, which increases cortisol levels and overtime can increase weight.

You want to try and limit your consumption of alcohol for your overall health. However, if you do enjoy a drink, try to consume less throughout your week and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. You could opt for some non-alcoholic alternatives instead.

Coffee and cortisol and weight gain

Coffee has a high caffeine content and caffeine has been shown to increase cortisol levels, particularly in individuals who do not regularly consume coffee.

A study showed that if you’re a regular caffeine drinker then cortisol responses to caffeine are reduced, but not eliminated, in healthy young individuals who consume coffee on a daily basis.

Aim to avoid drinking coffee first thing in the morning as cortisol levels are naturally high in the morning, and drinking coffee on an empty stomach can further increase cortisol levels. Instead, wait at least an hour after waking up before having your first cup of coffee. Everyone handles caffeine intake differently so try and find the right amount that works for you. Some individuals get anxious or jittery by having too much caffeine so should cut down on the amount or avoid it altogether.

Caffeine can also cause sleep disruptions, and as we now know that lack of good quality sleep can lead to weight gain. If you're having difficulty sleeping then aim to avoid consuming any caffeine  in the afternoon.

Conclusion

Having the right balance of cortisol is essential for your health, and finding ways to lower your stress is key to achieving this balance. Heightened stress levels make it more difficult to get enough good quality sleep, alongside the motivation to exercise and eat a well-balanced diet, all of which contribute to a healthy lifestyle, and help to prevent cortisol related weight gain.

Throughout life we’re going to encounter stressful situations, but we need to try and find ways to help reduce our stress. Here at Embla you can work together with your health mentors to find ways to manage your stress levels and implement healthy habits to achieve the right balance of cortisol. 


References

Chao, A. M., Jastreboff, A. M., White, M. A., Grilo, C. M., & Sinha, R. (2017). Stress, cortisol, and other appetite‐related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6‐month changes in food cravings and weight. Obesity, 25(4), 713-720.

Chao, A. M., Wadden, T. A., Tronieri, J. S., & Berkowitz, R. I. (2019). Alcohol intake and weight loss during intensive lifestyle intervention for adults with overweight or obesity and diabetes. Obesity, 27(1), 30-40.

Geiker, N. R. W., Astrup, A., Hjorth, M. F., Sjödin, A., Pijls, L., & Markus, C. R. (2018). Does stress influence sleep patterns, food intake, weight gain, abdominal obesity and weight loss interventions and vice versa?. Obesity reviews, 19(1), 81-97.

Jackson, S. E., Kirschbaum, C., & Steptoe, A. (2017). Hair cortisol and adiposity in a population‐based sample of 2,527 men and women aged 54 to 87 years. Obesity, 25(3), 539-544.

Lovallo, W. R., Whitsett, T. L., al’Absi, M., Sung, B. H., Vincent, A. S., & Wilson, M. F. (2005). Caffeine stimulation of cortisol secretion across the waking hours in relation to caffeine intake levels. Psychosomatic medicine, 67(5), 734-739.

Wood, C. J., Clow, A., Hucklebridge, F., Law, R., & Smyth, N. (2018). Physical fitness and prior physical activity are both associated with less cortisol secretion during psychosocial stress. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 31(2), 135-145.

Hewagalamulage, S. D., Lee, T. K., Clarke, I. J., & Henry, B. A. (2016). Stress, cortisol, and obesity: a role for cortisol responsiveness in identifying individuals prone to obesity. Domestic animal endocrinology, 56, S112-S120.

Nakamura, Y., Walker, B. R., & Ikuta, T. (2016). Systematic review and meta-analysis reveals acutely elevated plasma cortisol following fasting but not less severe calorie restriction. Stress, 19(2), 151-157.

Oakley, R. H., & Cidlowski, J. A. (2013). The biology of the glucocorticoid receptor: new signaling mechanisms in health and disease. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 132(5), 1033-1044.

Rachdaoui, N., & Sarkar, D. K. (2017). Pathophysiology of the effects of alcohol abuse on the endocrine system. Alcohol research: current reviews, 38(2), 255.

Soltani, H., Keim, N. L., & Laugero, K. D. (2019). Increasing dietary carbohydrate as part of a healthy whole food diet intervention dampens eight week changes in salivary cortisol and cortisol responsiveness. Nutrients, 11(11), 2563.

Thau, L., Gandhi, J., & Sharma, S. (2019). Physiology, cortisol.

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Anna Hayes
Anna Hayes
Health coach
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8
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