Cortisol Levels and Weight Gain

Stress and other health conditions can lead to high cortisol levels. Learn how to lower cortisol levels naturally and prevent weight gain.

A lot of attention is being focused on cortisol levels and weight gain. According to MayoClinic, cortisol is a hormone in the body that increases sugars in the bloodstream, increases the availability of substances that repair tissues and enhances the brain’s use of glucose. When people feel anxiety, the hypothalamus sends signals to the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. However, when people feel a lot of day-to-day stress, the fight-or-flight reaction of the body to stress stays active, and cortisol continues to release sugars into the bloodstream. Besides heart disease, digestive problems, sleep problems, skin issues and memory problems, one of the side effects of high cortisol levels is weight gain.

Cortisol Levels and Weight Gain

When people feel stress and anxiety on an everyday basis, the body continuously releases adrenaline and cortisol into the blood stream. Adrenaline dissipates when anxiety starts to wane; however, cortisol lingers in the body and increases the desire for people to eat more carbohydrates to compensate for physical exertion. The body is programed anachronistically to fight off stress and danger like our ancestors did with physical activity. But because most people today do not physically burn off extra energy after being affected by stress, increased carbohydrate cravings and carbohydrate consumption from lingering cortisol levels usually cause weight gain.
Weight gain from increased cortisol levels tends to collect around the stomach area. Fat cells in the stomach are more sensitive to cortisol, and they are very effective at storing energy. Unfortunately, weight gain in the stomach area is one of the most dangerous places for the body to store fat. Stomach fat is not only unattractive, it can also lead to many serious health conditions like diabetes, metabolic syndrome and heart disease.


Cortisol Levels and Cushing’s Syndrome

If a person’s body produces too much cortisol, she may be suffering from Cushing’s syndrome. According to WebMD, Cushing’s syndrome can be caused by steroid medicine, tumors on the pituitary gland, adrenal glands, lung or pancreas. The tumors associated with Cushing’s syndrome are rarely cancerous; however, the increased cortisol levels tend to affect weight.
Symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome include feeling irritable, anxious or depressed, having weak muscles, bruising, acne and dark purple-red stretch marks on the skin, especially on the stomach. Other symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome are backaches, irregular menstrual periods, unnatural hair growth, an increase in upper body fat, high blood pressure and high blood sugar levels. Only a small percentage of the population suffers from Cushing’s syndrome. Other conditions like alcoholism, obesity, depression and panic attacks can mimic symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome.

Lower Cortisol Levels Naturally

There are ways to lower cortisol levels naturally and control weight gain. Regular exercise helps to burn the extra blood sugar made available through elevated cortisol levels. Sufficient amounts of sleep help lower cortisol levels because the body’s nervous system stays in a state of alertness that requires cortisol. Getting enough sleep also increases serotonin and dopamine, which help control cravings.

Cortisol Levels and Weight Gain

Diet is an important factor in lowering cortisol levels naturally. A diet rich in lean protein, fish, monounsaturated fats and complex carbohydrates like the Mediterranean diet helps lower cortisol and reduces stomach fat. Herbs like holy basil and ginseng and vitamin C also help reduce cortisol and blood sugar levels.

Stress and certain heath conditions can raise cortisol levels and cause weight gain, especially around the stomach area. Keep cortisol levels down by exercising, getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet and taking supplements and vitamins that support healthy cortisol levels.

MayoClinic, “Stress: Win Control Over the Stress in Your Life” (accessed April 27, 2010).
WebMD, “Cushing’s Syndrome” (accessed April 27, 2010).
Livestrong, “Natural Cortisol Reduction” (accessed April 28, 2010).