Cortisol is one of the many hormones produced in your body which serve as chemical messengers.
While commonly referred to as the stress hormone due to its role in your body’s stress response, it has a number of other important functions.
Some people wonder if cortisol levels have an influence on body weight.
This article details the potential effect of cortisol on weight gain, including some ways to reduce its levels in your body.
Cortisol is an important steroid hormone that belongs to a class of hormones called glucocorticoids.
It’s produced in the adrenal glands found just above your kidneys.
In addition to aiding in your body’s stress response, its other roles include (1,
- increasing blood sugar
- reducing inflammation
- suppressing the immune system
- aiding in nutrient metabolism
Cortisol is generally released in close relation with your body’s circadian rhythm with 50–60% of it being released with 30–40 minutes of waking, and levels then falling throughout the day (
Its production and release is regulated by your pituitary gland and the hypothalamus located in your brain.
During times of increased stress, cortisol and adrenaline are released from your adrenal glands. This triggers an increase in heart rate and energy levels, preparing your body for a potentially harmful situation.
While this response is normal, continued elevations in cortisol can lead to negative side effects.
Cortisol is a necessary hormone with important functions in your body, which include increasing blood sugar, reducing inflammation, suppressing the immune system, and aiding in nutrient metabolism.
Among the numerous factors influencing your body weight, hormone regulation is an important one.
While hormones such as cortisol are usually kept within a tight range by your body’s endocrine system, there are certain situations in which they can become low or elevated.
High levels may promote overeating
Small rises in cortisol levels in response to stress are normal and not likely to cause negative side effects.
Yet, in certain instances, cortisol levels may remain chronically elevated.
This is usually due to stress or a condition like Cushing’s syndrome, which causes blood levels of cortisol to remain high (
When cortisol levels remain elevated, the following side effects may occur (
- weight gain
- high blood pressure
- changes in mood
- flushed face
- thinning skin
- difficulty concentrating
- insulin resistance
When under chronic stress, it may be difficult to maintain healthful eating habits.
One study in 59 healthy women found an association between elevated cortisol levels and an increase in appetite, which could potentially promote weight gain (
In addition, another study found an association between a higher cortisol response and a higher amount of belly fat in a group of 172 men and women, suggesting that higher cortisol may lead to overeating (
That said, levels of stress and cortisol aren’t always directly related, thus more data is needed to establish a direct relationship (
Low levels may cause weight loss
Just as high cortisol levels may cause weight gain, low levels may cause weight loss in some instances.
The most extreme example is in Addison’s disease, a condition in which your body doesn’t produce enough cortisol (
The most notable symptoms of low cortisol include (
- decreased appetite and weight loss
- low blood sugar
- salt cravings
- nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain
- muscle or bone pain
While high cortisol levels may seem more common, it’s important to be aware of the effects of low cortisol as well.
Chronically elevated cortisol levels may promote overeating and weight gain, whereas low cortisol levels may lead to weight loss in some instances. Still, more research is needed.
While there may be many stressors in your life potentially contributing to elevated cortisol, there are several effective methods for managing your levels and preventing or combating weight gain.
One of the main ways to combat weight gain is to engage in regular physical activity.
Regular exercise has been associated with a reduction in stress levels and allows you to be more resilient when stressors present themselves (14,
One study in 3,425 participants who reported emotional eating found an association between their level of physical activity and BMI (body mass index) (
What’s more, exercising stimulates the release of endorphins, which are feel-good chemicals that promote happiness and can help manage stress (
Regular physical activity can also promote weight loss or weight management due to the calories burned while exercising (
Practice mindful eating
Another powerful tool for managing weight gain due to stress is practicing mindful, or intuitive, eating.
Mindfulness comes from a Buddhist concept meaning to be fully present and aware of what you’re doing at a given moment (
Mindful eating applies this concept to food, encouraging you to be fully aware of your eating experience, including specific cues, such as hunger, fullness, taste, and texture (
One large cross-sectional study found an association between the practice of intuitive eating and a lower body weight (
A simple way to start practicing mindful eating is to do away with distractions at meals, allowing you to be fully aware of hunger and fullness cues.
If you’re curious about mindful eating but don’t know where to start, check out our free 21-day mindful eating challenge.
Speak to a therapist or dietitian
Another potential way to deal with weight gain that could be related to high cortisol levels is to speak with a qualified practitioner, such as a psychologist or registered dietitian.
A therapist can assist you in coming up with some strategies to reduce overall stress, which in turn may help you manage emotional eating (
On the other hand, a dietitian can provide nutrition education to equip you with the tools you need to make more healthful decisions surrounding food.
The dual-prong approach to improving your food habits and emotional well-being is an excellent step in preventing or combating weight gain.
Get more sleep
Sleep is a commonly overlooked variable that has a significant effect on cortisol levels and potential weight gain.
Disruptions to your sleep pattern — whether chronic or acute — can promote an unhealthy increase in cortisol levels (
Over time, this can have a negative effect on your metabolism and cause an increase in certain hormones related to hunger and appetite, potentially leading to weight gain (
Therefore, ensuring that you’re getting adequate sleep each night can go a long way toward maintaining healthy cortisol levels.
The general recommendation for sleep is 7–9 hours per night, though this varies by age and other factors (
Yet another potential tool for managing cortisol levels is meditation.
The purpose of meditation is to train your mind to focus and redirect your thoughts.
While several types of meditation exist, the most commonly practiced ones are mindful, spiritual, focused, movement, mantra, and transcendental.
Regardless of which you choose, practicing meditation has been associated with a reduction in cortisol levels in various populations (
In addition, meditation may even help improve the quality of your sleep (
There are numerous ways to help reduce cortisol levels and combat potential weight gain. The most effective methods include exercising, practicing mindful eating, ensuring sufficient sleep, and practicing meditation.
Cortisol is an important adrenal hormone that serves many essential functions in your body, including controlling your blood sugar, reducing inflammation, and regulating your metabolism.
Slight elevations in cortisol in response to stress are normal, though when levels remain chronically elevated, side effects may occur — one being weight gain.
That said, there are several effective methods to preventing or combating weight gain, such as exercising, meditating, or seeking guidance from a dietitian.