The Link Between Cortisol and Weight Gain
Are you eating healthy, exercising regularly, yet still struggling at the scale? I’ve been there. I battled unwanted weight gain even though I was doing everything right. I was so frustrated and didn’t consider that my stress levels contributed to my weight gain. The connection between cortisol and weight gain is overlooked as contributing to those stubborn pounds that won’t come off.
The link between cortisol and weight gain can always be traced back to stress, and chronic stress leads to cortisol production in large amounts, which leads to obesity and weight gain.1
I will tell you about the link between cortisol and weight gain, other effects of too much cortisol production, and how to relieve your stress naturally so you can achieve your optimal weight. Before we get to that, I will review cortisol and its role in your body’s response to stress.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Steroid hormones are just what their name says they are – steroids. There are four classes of steroids: androgens, estrogens, progestogens, and glucocorticoids. These chemical compounds play an essential role in growth, development, sexual differentiation, and reproduction and have varying effects on brain activity.2
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid made in the adrenal glands and released into the blood in response to stress. This response is why cortisol is known as “the stress hormone.” However, almost every cell in the body has receptors for cortisol, so depending on what cortisol is being called for means it can do everything from regulating blood glucose levels, blood pressure, and metabolism, facilitating an inflammatory response, influencing memory formation, and promoting the balance of electrolytes.3
Yet, cortisol’s primary job is to respond to stress and kick in minutes rather than seconds after you encounter a stressor. Here’s how it works.
Part of the brain called your amygdala first recognizes the threat and sends a message to your hypothalamus to release the corticotropin-releasing hormone, which tells the pituitary gland to release an adrenocorticotropic hormone into your bloodstream. When the adrenal glands detect high levels of adrenocorticotropic hormones in your blood, it stimulates the release of cortisol into the bloodstream. As cortisol levels rise, they block the release of corticotropin and adrenocorticotropic hormones, which leads to a drop in cortisol levels.
The occasional stress is fine and perfectly normal. However, when your adrenal glands are on high alert due to chronic stress, this can lead to too much cortisol in the bloodstream, which has several effects on your body, including weight gain.
Too Much Cortisol and Weight Gain
Long hours at work, sleep deprivation, relationship problems, financial issues, and a poor diet are constant stressors in your life. The truth is our modern lifestyles are fraught with stress, and your body was not designed to live in fight or flight mode all the time. Chronic stress can lead to various health problems that I’ll discuss shortly.
Cortisol stimulates your fat and carbohydrate metabolism to give your body a rush of energy as it prepares to fight off a threat. Your appetite naturally increases to signal that your body needs more fuel to keep up with the energy demand.
Cortisol production triggers cravings for foods that offer a quick energy source, such as a simple carbohydrate. Simple carbohydrates, or sugar, enter the bloodstream fast and spike blood glucose levels for a short burst of energy. In our hunter-gatherer days, a piece of fruit would be a welcome source of quick-release energy.
Refined sugar, however, is a modern invention that our bodies did not evolve to have the capacity to deal with properly. While this simple supply of energy is beneficial in the occasional dangerous situation, this process is not as helpful when it becomes a part of your daily routine due to chronic stress.
Dieting, Cortisol and Weight Gain
As we know, cortisol levels rise in tension-filled times. If you are under chronic stress, your body is always in fight or flight mode and looking for quick bursts of energy to fight off danger. However, this can turn your sugary snack into a habit.
Cortisol also causes your body to raise insulin levels, which drops blood glucose levels and causes you to crave sugary, fatty foods. These comfort foods also cause your body to release dopamine and serotonin, which have a calming effect.4 Sugar and fat are culprits in weight gain and link cortisol to weight gain.
Cortisol and chronic stress affect your body other than weight gain. Too much cortisol can suppress the immune system, increase blood pressure, decrease libido, and contribute to acne, obesity, and chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease, diabetes, depression, and asthma. Let’s briefly discuss the other effects of cortisol on your body.
Other Effects of Cortisol
I’ve said it once; however, it’s worth repeating: Stress is a given in our lives. I know I can’t avoid it, and I’d be willing to bet you can’t either. Chronic stress always puts our body in fight or flight mode, and it’s just not built for that. Your adrenal glands play a big part in the metabolic process, just as your thyroid does.
Chronic stress suppresses your immune system, partly so that your body can focus entirely on overcoming the stressor and partly because stress causes inflammation. Your immune system slows down to prevent a state of chronic inflammation. Furthermore, suppose you experience multiple episodes of chronic stress, causing your immune system to rev up and slow down repeatedly. In that case, you are at greater risk of your immune system overreacting and triggering an autoimmune response.
As part of suppressing your immune system, cortisol weakens your immune system’s primary barriers—the blood-brain barrier, lungs, and gut barrier. A weakened gut barrier leads to a leaky gut, which sets you on the path toward autoimmune disease by releasing gluten and dairy, among other things, into your bloodstream, causing your immune system to be unable to tell the difference between a foreign invader and your cells. This is why relieving your stress is one of the four pillars of The Myers Way®. Now, I’m going to tell you how you can reduce your stress naturally so you can achieve optimal weight.
How to Relieve Stress Naturally
Ongoing stress from work, illness or death of a loved one, lack of sleep, a poor diet, and other daily stressors can lead to dysbiosis (altered gut microbiome) in your gut and eventually weight gain. When you experience any stress, whether physical (slamming on your brakes), emotional (going through a heartbreak), or mental (overloaded at work), your body processes it the same – through the adrenal glands.
You can break the link between cortisol and weight gain by addressing stress. Here are some of my favorite ways to relieve stress naturally:
- Meditation and breathing exercises
- Swimming with my daughter, Elle
- Relaxing and detoxing in my infrared sauna
- Take a warm bath with homemade lavender bath salts
- Take ZenAdapt™, an adaptogen blend that supports optimal cortisol levels to promote a balanced stress response.
Relieving your stress will lower your cortisol levels, which can support a healthy metabolism, contributing to weight loss. Let’s talk about how you can achieve optimal weight with my proven approach I’ve used with thousands of patients.
How to Achieve Optimal Weight
As a busy physician, mom, wife, and CEO, I know firsthand how busy and stressful life can be. The link between cortisol and weight gain can be traced back to chronic stress. That’s why part of my Optimal Weight Breakthrough™ Program tackles stress.
This program gives you the tools to tackle stubborn weight gain and features three pharmaceutical-grade supplements to facilitate fat metabolism, support optimal serotonin levels, and stop sugar cravings.
The superstars of the Optimal Weight Breakthrough™ Program are CLA Metabolism Support and Lean Metabolism Support. CLA Metabolism Support and Lean Metabolism Support work synergistically on your gut-brain axis to accelerate fat metabolism. The combo also helps stop cravings caused by too much cortisol.
Lean Metabolism Support is a functional medicine-inspired approach to healthy weight management. Lean works by influencing the control center of your body –the brain. The nutrients in Lean work together to increase your serotonin levels, the neurotransmitter responsible for controlling appetite.
Also included is The Myers Way® Double Chocolate Paleo Protein. This physician-formulated protein powder is made from 100% grass-fed hydrolyzed beef and is gluten-, dairy-, and sugar-free. You can easily prepare satisfying smoothies included in the meal plan included in the Optimal Weight Breakthrough™ Program.
You cannot eliminate stress entirely, and it’s just a natural part of life. Yet, you can break the link between cortisol and weight gain by addressing your stress and supporting a healthy metabolism. The Optimal Weight Breakthrough Kit™ is physician-designed to address stress-induced weight gain so you can curb cravings, boost your metabolism, and get rid of those stubborn pounds.
- Stress and Obesity: Are There More Susceptible Individuals?. Eline S. van der Valk, et al. Current Obesity Reports . 2018.
- Understanding the role of steroids in typical and atypical brain development: Advantages of using a “brain in a dish” approach. D Adhya, et al. Journal of Neuroendocrinology. 2018.
- Cortisol: You and Your Hormones. Society for Endocrinology. 2022.
- Can Stress Cause Weight Gain?. Jarrod Breeze. WebMD. 2021.
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