BlogHealthCortisol and Weight Gain: Why Does Cortisol Cause Weight Gain?

Cortisol and Weight Gain: Why Does Cortisol Cause Weight Gain?

Mariia Roza
Written by Mariia Roza on May 27, 2021

Table of contents

You feel miserable, anxious, and down when you’re stressed, but what happens to your body? When you’re under pressure, your adrenal glands(1) release adrenaline and cortisol, which in turn releases glucose, the primary source of energy, into the bloodstream.

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This response is quite logical. By doing so, your body gives you the energy to escape from a dangerous or risky situation. This is a centuries-proven fight or flight response. When the threat goes away, the body inhibits the adrenaline release, and the blood sugar drops. Cortisol then takes the lead to replenish the energy supply, which leads to an appetite increase. 

High cortisol levels and weight gain

However, this is not the only mechanism of how cortisol affects your weight. Along with developing stress-induced(2) eating habits, cortisol can affect your metabolism, sleep patterns, and even your muscle growth. Here is how.

Insulin release and sugar cravings

Cortisol increases sugar cravings(3). Sugar is the fastest energy source, so your body thinks it needs it and makes you gorge on desserts. Sugar is excellent for a quick energy boost, and right after stress, your body is calling out for it. Sugary food is the first thing you tend to grab when you're stressed. The trouble is modern stresses make you anxious and depressed. They don’t mean you have to run away from a hazardous animal or fight your enemy. Your body doesn’t need all of these extra calories, and it will store the surplus in the adipocyte tissue.

Cortisol stimulates sugar cravings
Cortisol stimulates sugar cravings

Changes in the body shape

One 2013 survey(4) on 59 healthy women published in Psychosomatic Medicine has found that women with a higher waist-to-hip ratio (with more fat in the midsection) are more reactive to stress and release more cortisol after stressful situations. Researchers conclude that females with central fat distribution are more vulnerable to stress and have a higher cortisol level.

Could that mean that higher cortisol levels in certain women with poor tolerance to stress can lead to more risks of storing abdominal fat? The researchers say that the connection is two-sided, and while your waistline affects your ability to cope with stress, higher stresses can widen your waistline.

Metabolism slowing down 

Another problem associated with cortisol is that it slows down your metabolism, meaning your body spends less energy to function. As a result, even if you cut your calories and avoid high-fat and high-sugar foods, you still can’t lose weight.

The survey(5), published in Biological Psychiatry, has proved that stress can affect your metabolism. The researchers have interviewed 58 women about stress factors they have faced the day before the survey. Then, they have given them a high-fat, high-calorie meal. Afterward, they had measured their resting energy expenditure (the rate at which they burned calories and fat) while also checking their blood sugar, cholesterol, insulin, and cortisol levels.

What they have discovered is astonishing! It turned out that women who reported one or more stress factors in the previous 24 hours have burned 104 fewer calories on average. This means they could have gained 11 pounds (5 kg) in just a single year just because of stress! Stressed women also had a higher insulin level, a hormone contributing to fat storage.

Increased appetite

Some small studies(6) show that there might be a connection between higher cortisol and ghrelin levels. Though the researchers state that further surveys should be conducted to prove this connection, other trials demonstrate that there is no doubt that stress increases appetite. 

In 2001, the survey(2) published in the Psychoneuroendocrinology showcased that women who have higher cortisol levels due to psychological stress tend to eat more sugary food and are more prone to overeating during stressful days. 

Sleep problems

The cortisol level in the body is the highest when you wake up and the lowest around midnight. This is how it should be in a healthy person. However, when you face a lot of psychological stress or too vulnerable to even small stress factors, the cortisol release can get out of control, affecting your circadian rhythms and sleep patterns

There is a definite link(7) between sleep disorders, chronic stress, and metabolic dysfunction, and they are all intertwined. This means that high cortisol levels can lead to insomnia and other sleep disruptions, and sleep deprivation can elevate(8) the cortisol levels in your body. And together, they can be a significant factor for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other metabolic diseases.

Cortisol can lead to sleep disorders
Cortisol can lead to sleep disorders

Troubles with muscle growth and recovery

Increased cortisol levels are linked(9) to the decrease of testosterone levels. And lower testosterone production, in its turn, inhibits(10) muscle protein synthesis. Muscles need more energy than fat, and when their volume is decreased, you spend less energy to maintain them. If higher cortisol levels affect the percent of lean mass in your body, they can also slow down your metabolism.

Why is cortisol necessary?

With all this being said, we should mention that cortisol is one of the essential hormones in the human body. It is necessary to regulate blood pressure, normalize energy flow in the body, stimulate fats and carbs metabolism, and regulate blood sugar levels. Along with that, cortisol has an anti-inflammatory effect and is necessary for memory formation.

What’s more, low cortisol levels can have multiple drastic effects on your health. It can lead to low energy levels, depression, bad appetite, hyperpigmentation, dehydration, and low blood sugar. 

Low cortisol levels are usually the result(11) of medical conditions, and you won’t get it by following some simple advice on managing your stress level.

Can low cortisol levels lead to weight gain?

Low cortisol levels are associated with lower appetite, lower body mass, and lower energy levels. Living a balanced, serenity life with minimum stresses won’t make you gain weight.

What to do about stress and cortisol?

If we could eliminate money troubles, naughty bosses, kids’ coughing, Covid shutdowns, environmental problems, and wars in the world, we would definitely be happier and have lower cortisol levels! But unfortunately, we have to live in this world, and the only way we can reduce our stress levels is by reading a book, meditating, or having a bath with bubbles. Here are some other working techniques you can try.

Make exercise your priority

Physical activity has multiple benefits. Exercise can help you lose weight and decrease stress levels. It is one of the most effective techniques in dealing with stress-related weight gain. 

There’s no need to spend all your free time working out. A simple walk during a lunch break can be just as effective as a morning or after-work gym session. Find out which kind of activity you like and add it to your daily routine. Don’t concentrate on the results and do sport just for fun.

Exercises decrease stress levels, but under pressure, people tend to exercise less. You simply don’t want to do what will help you the most at the moment. When under stress, you have to push yourself a bit harder to go out and move your body.

Physical activity decreases cortisol levels
Physical activity decreases cortisol levels

Opt for healthier versions of your comfort food

We all enjoy our unhealthy treats. Cutting them out from your diet can do more harm than good by increasing your stress level. Swap your favorite snacks with healthier comfort foods instead. For example, replace sugar with honey or stevia when cooking your favorite dessert or opt for sugar-free dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate.

Drink water

Confusing thirst for hunger can lead to eating more calories than you need and weight gain over time. Fortunately, this can easily be avoided. If you last ate a couple of hours ago and you feel hungry, have some water first. If you still feel hungry after a glass, grab something to munch on. Remember that drinking more water has multiple health benefits.

Summing up

Stress has a drastic effect on your weight, and dealing with it is not that easy. Our lives are full of stressful factors, and we all react differently to them. Those people whose adrenal gland produces more cortisol are under threat of high stress hormones and stress-induced changes in eating behavior.

“Relax” is quite a stupid recommendation, but what you can do is teach yourself to react differently to stresses. If you can’t eliminate personal stresses, you can at least minimize external stresses by avoiding information that makes you anxious and depressed. Escapism? For sure. Does it work? Obviously, yes. 

Sources

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  • Epel E. S., Lapidus R., McEwen B., et al. (2001, January). Stress May Add Bite to Appetite in Women: A Laboratory Study of Stress-Induced Cortisol and Eating Behavior. Psychoneuroendocrinology. DOI: 10.1016/s0306-4530(00)00035-4
  • Yau Y. H., Potenza M. N. (2013, September). Stress and Eating Behaviors. Minerva Endocrinologica. PMID: 24126546
  • Epel E. S., McEwen B., Seeman T., et al. (2000, September). Stress and Body Shape: Stress-Induced Cortisol Secretion is Consistently Greater among Women with Central Fat. Psychosomatic Medicine. DOI: 10.1097/00006842-200009000-00005
  • Kiecolt-Glacer J. K., Habash D. L., Fagundes C. P., et al. (2015, April). Daily Stressors, Past Depression, and Metabolic Responses to High-Fat Meals: A Novel Path to Obesity. Biological Psychiatry. DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.05.018
  • Azzam I., Gilad S., Limor R., et al. (2017, November). Ghrelin Stimulation by Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal Axis Activation Depends on Increasing Cortisol Levels. Endocrine Connections. DOI: 10.1530/EC-17-0212
  • Hirotsu K., Tufik S., Levy Andersen M. (2015, November). Interactions between Sleep, Stress, and Metabolism: From Physiological to Pathological Conditions. Sleep Science. DOI: 10.1016/j.slsci.2015.09.002
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  • Cumming D. C., Quigley M. E., Yen S. S. (1983, September). Acute Suppression of Circulating Testosterone Levels by Cortisol in Men. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. DOI: 10.1210/jcem-57-3-671
  • Griggs R.C., Kingston W., Jozefowicz R. F., et al. (1989, January). Effect of Testosterone on Muscle Mass and Muscle Protein Synthesis. Journal of Applied Physiology. DOI: 10.1152/jappl.1989.66.1.498
  • Nicolaides N., C., Chrousos G. P., Charmandari E. (2017, October 14). Adrenal Insufficiency. Endotext. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279083/