The Truth About Cortisol and Weight Gain

How is it possible that cortisol and weight gain are so closely related? Let’s see…

stress and belly fatSo you’re in a situation, and it sucks. You watch your diet, you up your exercise, and not only is your weight not dropping – it’s going up. What makes it even more frustrating is you’re using the same diet and exercise plan that worked just fine for you last year. What is going on? And what can you do about it?

Though weight loss is a complex process with no easy answers, cortisol is a culprit more often than you might expect. Read on to find out what it is, why it hurts, and what you can do about it.

So, What’s Cortisol Anyway?

Cortisol is a hormone made by your adrenal glands both in response to stress and as a matter of course during the day. It regulates metabolism, helps manage stress and helps your body to use glucose for energy.

Like so many other chemicals in your blood stream, cortisol in the right proportions isn’t a problem – it’s actually essential to your health. But too much cortisol can cause health and weight issues.

Cortisol Stimulates Belly Fat Growth

Research reported by Len Kravitz of the University of New Mexico found that enzymes responsible for formation of “visceral fat” (the fat in and around your stomach and intestines) appear in greater concentrations in people with higher levels of cortisol.

This occurs whether the individual naturally produces more cortisol from genetic factors, whether the person is under stress, or whether the person has been taking cortisol shots for medical reasons.

Bottom line: more cortisol equals more fat, even if your diet and exercise regimens don’t change. Awareness of cortisol and how it impacts your fat production and retention is an important step toward managing your weight.

Cortisol Impacts Appetite

Medical science discovered this accidentally. Cortisol injections are a treatment used in a number of physical therapy situations, and physical therapists started noticing how many of their patients reported increased appetites in the hours after receiving their shots.

Further research found that not only does more cortisol mean more appetite…it means more cravings for foods high in sugar and fat.

This makes some sense.

Cortisol gets secreted in response to stress. Back when we were evolving, stress usually meant an immediate call for as much energy as possible. Sugar and fat provide that energy faster than other food sources. In the modern day, though, it’s just a recipe for that spare tire you’re trying to get rid of.

Cortisol Is Highest In the Morning

Although “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” isn’t as true a “truism” as some would have you think, some facts about cortisol do support the claim. Your natural cortisol levels are highest just after you wake up, and lowest just as you fall asleep. If you skip breakfast, the appetite-enhancing effects of cortisol will leave you craving all the wrong stuff.

If you don’t want to load up on sugary Starbucks coffees and those sweet, sweet donuts in the break room, eat early and often with lean proteins, fruits and vegetables. That will keep the cortisol cravings quiet (they’re there in the morning to remind you to fuel up for the day), and your weight loss plan on track.

Cortisol And Weight Gain: Conclusion

You can’t do a whole lot about the mechanisms by which cortisol impacts your body weight. Those are pretty much hard-wired, but you can do a lot to manipulate how much cortisol your body produces.

Because of its connection with many of the functions of weight loss, a cortisol problem can be at fault if your supplements, diet and exercise routines aren’t doing the job. That’s the bad news. The good news is, there’s plenty you can do to get your cortisol situation back under control.

  • Not only is exercise the single most effective and under-prescribed anti-anxiety, antidepressant and stress relief protocol known to medical science, it directly impacts your weight by burning calories. Make 20 minutes of moderate exercise happen every day.
  • Don’t skip meals. Skipping meals messes with your cortisol levels, leaving you craving food later. Responding to cravings almost never results in healthier, smarter eating than a planned meal. Plan what you eat, then eat what you plan.
  • Regulate your snacks. One of the chief mechanisms where cortisol causes weight gain is by giving you snack cravings. If you can’t beat those cravings (few people can), set yourself up for smart snacking. Don’t buy potato chips or other high-calorie munchies. Go the extra mile and prepare and pre-portion snacks of veggies, fruits and lean proteins.
  • Get enough sleep. Your cortisol production is tied directly to your sleep cycle. If you don’t get enough sleep, it throws production out of whack. It also makes you more susceptible to stress throughout the day – which stimulates further cortisol production. Seriously. Get some sleep. You’re worth it.
  • Whether this is doing yoga, walking in the park, guided visualization, or sitting in a corner chanting “Om,” ten minutes of meditation directly counters stress and drops your cortisol production. Studies have also found that your productivity for the rest of the day buys you more than ten minutes of accomplishment. Invest those ten minutes.
  • Re-create daily. It’s traditionally spelled “recreate,” but I like the spin of re-creation. Time spent with your hobbies helps reduce stress and put you in a more resourceful mental state. Whatever your personal recreation jam is – video games, movie night, walking the dog, knitting, playing with your kids – invest that time in your mental and physical health.
  • Get organized. Poor organization means stressing out over deadlines and missing tools, and costs time which leads to even more stress. Though you don’t want to start stressing out over how poorly organized you are, definitely take a weekend and get just a little more on top of things.
  • Chew gum after meals. Besides cleaning your teeth and erasing some of that kimchee breath from lunch, it turns out chewing gum reduces cortisol levels. Science hasn’t figured out if this is a stress-relief thing, tricking your body into thinking it’s eaten, or something else. They just know it works.