Your hormones have a significant influence on body weight. Growth hormone, sex hormones, and insulin all affect appetite, body composition, and metabolism.
When it comes to weight gain, however, the steroid hormone cortisol is often the primary culprit. Because almost every organ in the body responds to cortisol, its influence is widespread. Cortisol and weight gain are linked by the effects of the hormone on metabolism, appetite, fat storage, and stress.
While some cortisol is necessary for good health, problems arise when cortisol becomes imbalanced.
Better understanding how cortisol and weight gain are related can help prevent this hormone from interfering with a healthy weight. If you are working to lose weight or maintain your current weight, balancing cortisol is a critical piece of the puzzle.
Cortisol And Weight Gain: How It Works
The level of cortisol in the body is controlled by what is known as the HPA axis—the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands and secreted in response to signals from the hypothalamus and pituitary gland.
Nearly every cell has receptors for cortisol. It influences almost every function in the body, including:
- Insulin and blood sugar regulation
- Fat cell development
- Salt and water balance
- Blood pressure
- Metabolic rate and appetite
When cortisol levels are normal, your systems hum along, maintaining a healthy metabolism and blood sugar without interfering with your weight. But you run into problems when those levels get too high or too low.
Low levels of cortisol can leave your body unable to maintain normal function and often results in weight loss, low blood pressure, muscle weakness, and low blood sugar. It is a dangerous condition that should be treated by a medical professional.
In contrast, high cortisol may fly under the radar as its symptoms are less dangerous and often attributed to other causes. Its impact on weight gain, however, can be significant.
Stress And High Cortisol
Cortisol is widely known as the “stress hormone.” When you experience stress, the body releases a surge of cortisol to prepare your system for action. In the presence of elevated cortisol levels, your blood pressure and heart rate increase, metabolism shifts to prioritize essential body systems, and blood sugar rises.
While this response is essential when you need to act rapidly, cortisol levels should return to normal once the stressful situation resolves. However, under chronic stress conditions, cortisol levels remain elevated, and the body is subjected to the hormonal equivalent of non-stop running for your life.
Ongoing exposure to high levels of cortisol can lead to rapid weight gain due to:
- High blood sugar levels and insulin resistance
- Increased fat storage
- Appetite stimulation
- Cravings for high-calorie foods
Trying to lose weight when your cortisol is high is like trying to bail water out of a leaking boat. You may be doing everything else right, but cortisol is signaling your body to pack on the pounds and the water level keeps rising.
To successfully lose weight, you need to remove the cortisol barrier.
Reduce Stress To Reduce Cortisol
High cortisol and weight gain may go hand-in-hand, but cortisol that’s elevated due to stress is not beyond your control.
While stress is an unavoidable part of life, how you manage stress can influence whether your cortisol levels remain chronically elevated or decrease to normal levels.
Reducing cortisol is as simple as helping your body recover from stress. And the benefits extend far beyond weight management. When you lower stress and cortisol, you improve every area of your life.
Here are some of the best ways to reduce cortisol levels and manage stress.
Under stressful conditions, exercise becomes essential as a way to “complete” your stress cycle and stimulate a natural decline in cortisol.
Low-intensity exercise decreases the amount of cortisol in the blood. If you feel stressed but don’t have time to sweat it out, do something low-intensity like a gentle walk, some light stretching, or easy housework.
In contrast, when you engage in moderate or high-intensity exercise, cortisol will initially increase but then gradually decline post-exercise. In addition, higher intensity exercise may decrease the amount of cortisol released in response to stress, meaning, over time, it has a strong regulatory effect on cortisol levels.
Anyone who deals with regular stress needs to be doing a sweaty workout at least a few times a week. Doing so will train your body to become much more efficient at preventing high levels of cortisol.
Improve Your Sleep
Lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep can cause cortisol to be elevated. Your circadian rhythm is mediated by the same HPA axis that controls cortisol. When the HPA axis is overstimulated by stress, it can interfere with sleep and vice versa. Lack of sleep can disrupt normal HPA axis function and contribute to high cortisol.
If you want to prevent high cortisol and weight gain, you have to get enough sleep.
Try these strategies to improve your shut-eye:
- Establish a soothing bedtime routine.
- Keep a consistent bedtime and wake time. Every day of the week.
- Allocate 7-9 hours for sleep each night.
- Limit blue light exposure at least two hours before bed.
Practice Deep Breathing
To reduce cortisol and weight gain, it’s helpful to engage in habits that improve your body’s response to stress. Deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting calm and decreasing stress hormones, including cortisol.
Deep breathing can be done on its own or as part of a meditative movement practice such as yoga or tai chi. These types of practices have been shown to reduce stress and cortisol and increase feelings of well-being. Apps like Breathwrk can be incredibly helpful in establishing a breathing exercise routine.
Know Your Cortisol Level
It is fairly simple to test cortisol levels to find out if it is contributing to your weight gain or making it difficult for you to lose weight. A home test usually measures the amount of cortisol present in saliva, which is a reliable indicator of your cortisol status.
Simple at-home tests such as this one will provide you with the data you need to address any cortisol imbalance. Talk to a healthcare professional if you have any concerns about your cortisol levels.
Prevent Cortisol From Affecting Your Weight
Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is a lifelong process. The ebb and flow of hormones is a crucial factor you have to manage on your journey.
The link between cortisol and weight gain is well-established and provides a clear path to help your body work with you, not against you. Plus, getting cortisol under control will make you feel so much better! As you manage stress, sleep better, and lower cortisol, your body will function at its best, which should ultimately result in better overall health.
Your hormones don’t have to hold you back from reaching a healthy weight. When you get cortisol under control, you prevent this common weight gain culprit from standing in your way.