Cortisol and weight gain: What’s the link?

cortisol and weight gain

Cortisol is one of the many hormones produced by the body. It functions as a chemical messenger. It is commonly known as the stress hormone owing to its role in the body’s stress response. Cortisol is created by the adrenal glands that are located in our kidneys, and as the name suggests, this hormone is released when our body is under stress. Upon its release, our body kickstarts its flight-or-fight mode, temporarily putting regular bodily functions on hold, and it also slows down your metabolism. So, does this lead to weight gain? Let us find out if there is a connection between cortisol and weight gain.

How does cortisol affect your body?

Cortisol is a natural stress hormone that plays its role in regulating our metabolism. In addition to helping your body’s stress response, cortisol plays other roles that include:

• It increases blood sugar
• Reduces inflammation
• Suppresses the immune system
• Aids in nutrient metabolism

The production and release of cortisol is regulated by your pituitary gland and the hypothalamus located in your brain. Under stress, our body starts releasing cortisol and adrenaline from our adrenal glands. This can lead to symptoms like increased heart rate and energy levels, preparing your body to fight a potentially harmful situation.

While some release of cortisol is normal, persistent spikes in cortisol levels in the body can have negative side effects.

Unhealthy weight gain might be due to high cortisol levels in the body. Image courtesy: Freepik

Does cortisol affect weight?

Hormones play a crucial role in influencing our body weight. In everyday life, hormones such as cortisol are kept under control by your body’s endocrine system, certain situations can make them become low or elevated.

Little rises in cortisol levels owing to stress are normal and do not lead to any side effects. However, under certain circumstances, cortisol levels can spike a lot. This is usually due to extreme stress or conditions like Cushing’s syndrome, which causes cortisol levels in the blood to remain high.

High cortisol levels can lead to the following side effects:

• Weight gain
• High blood pressure
• Fatigue
• Mood swings
• Irritability
• Flushed face
• Skin thinning
• Difficulty in concentration
• Insulin resistance

Under chronic stress, it becomes hard to keep up with healthy eating habits. A study done on 59 healthy women found a link between high cortisol levels and an increase in appetite, which could lead to unhealthy weight gain.

Low cortisol levels may lead to weight loss

Just like high cortisol levels can lead to gain in weight, low levels may to weight loss in some instances. The best example is Addison’s disease, a condition in which your body is unable to produce enough cortisol.

Common symptoms of low cortisol include:

• Loss of appetite and weight loss
• Tiredness
• Low blood sugar
• Salt cravings
• Dizziness
• Nausea, vomiting, or pain in the abdomen
• Muscle or bone pain

Also read: How to lose weight fast: 18 expert-approved, sure-shot hacks!

How to deal with weight gain due to high cortisol levels?

Managing your stress is extremely important to be able to keep optimal body weight. Here are some effective methods to help prevent weight gain due to high cortisol.

cortisol and weight gain
Keeping yourself physically active is one of the best ways to keep your weight gain under check. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

1. Keep yourself active

One of the most effective ways to stay healthy and have optimal weight is by indulging in regular physical activity. Regular exercise helps curb stress levels and allows you to be more agile when stressors present themselves. Exercise also enhances the release of endorphins, feel-good chemicals, that help manage stress. Regular physical activity may promote weight loss due to calories burned while exercising. A study done on 3,425 participants who reported emotional eating, noticed a link between their physical activity and BMI (Body Mass Index).

2. Practice mindfulness while eating

Another effective way of managing unhealthy weight gain is by practising mindful or intuitive eating. Mindfulness means being fully present in the moment and staying aware of what you are doing at that given moment. This concept applies to food as well wherein you can practice being fully aware of the eating experience, including specific cues like taste, texture, hunger, or fullness. A simple way to practice is by doing away with your distractions at meals.

3. Consult a therapist or dietician

Cortisol-related weight gain can also be healthily treated by qualified practitioners like psychologists or registered dieticians. A therapist can help you get to the root cause of your stress triggers and can come up with effective tools and techniques to help you manage overall stress which will further aid in managing emotional eating. A dietician can equip you with the right nutrition education to help you make smart healthful decisions around food.

4. Grab more sleep

Sleep is an often overlooked variable that can significantly affect cortisol levels and weight gain. Disrupted sleep patterns, chronic or acute, can lead to a rise in cortisol levels. With time, this can negatively impact your metabolism and can trigger the rise of certain hormones in the body that are linked to hunger or appetite, thereby causing weight gain.

5. Practice meditation

Another powerful tool to manage stress is meditation. The purpose of meditation is to train your mind to stay focused in the moment and learn to redirect your thoughts. Some of the commonly practised meditation practices are mindful meditation, mantra meditation, movement meditation, and focused meditation, to name a few. Meditation has been linked to a reduction in cortisol levels. Alongside, it may even aid in enhancing the quality of your sleep.

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