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Is Stress Making You Fat? The Science of Cortisol and Weight Gain

The concept of having comfort foods that make you feel better during a stressful time is well known, but perhaps too many people think of it as a vague or even ethereal concept – like an old wives’ tale passed down over generations. However, doctors and researchers are now linking cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone, to increased weight gain in stressed out people. Let’s take a look at some of the facts and studies on this issue.


The Basics of Cortisol

The adrenal glands are responsible for secreting cortisol into the bloodstream, and also for controlling the levels of cortisol at different times in the day. For example, in normal circumstances, most people will have a higher level of cortisol in the morning and then hit the lowest level at around midnight.

Once in the bloodstream, cortisol is responsible for maintaining blood pressure, regulating your metabolism and blood sugar levels, and also assists in reducing inflammation, among other roles. Suffice it to say that it’s important to the human body, and you wouldn’t want to get rid of it just to keep a few pounds off for the summer, but when it reaches a high enough level it can cause problems.


Cortisol, Stress, and Weight Gain: The Link


Various studies have been carried out over the last few decades, and almost invariably they come to the similar conclusion that an elevated level of cortisol, caused by stress or otherwise, is in fact linked to obesity. And, in particular, an increased amount of fat in the abdominal region as opposed to the hips.

In one study (Stress-induced cortisol response and fat distribution in women – 1994) which was done by Yale University, researchers attempted to find out whether the cortisol level in the saliva is related to the fat distribution among the women. The researchers used the waist to hip ratio (WHR) of the women to determine body fat distribution. They found that women with a lower WHR secreted much less cortisol during stressful tasks they were given compared to those with a higher WHR, and women with a higher WHR were also found to have worse coping skills than their counterparts.



In another study (Stress-induced cortisol, mood, and fat distribution in men – 1999) researchers from Yale University focused on comparing men, all with a high WHR, to the women from the previous study. They found that, again, the participants produced more cortisol when put in stressful situations. Blood pressure was also increased during these times.

A more recent study (Hair cortisol and adiposity in a population‐based sample of 2,527 men and women aged 54 to 87 years – 2017) from the UK went even further on this issue. They attempted to find out whether cortisol levels in the hair were related to adiposity (obesity) as opposed to checking saliva as the previous studies had done because hair is a better indicator of long-term cortisol levels. As with the previous studies, these researchers concluded that there is a link between cortisol levels in the hair and persistent obesity.



There have been many other studies on this issue, and there will be more in the future, but for now it seems fairly obvious that stress raises cortisol levels, and people with higher cortisol levels are much more likely to be obese. However, it’s even worse than being a bit overweight – the fat is more often deposited in areas of the body which are more harmful to your health, such as the abdomen in particular.


Cortisol Blockers


As mentioned earlier, you can’t simply go without a vital hormone completely, so the thought of cortisol blockers may sound odd at first. However, the point of taking this supplement is simply to reduce the amount of cortisol to a more healthy and manageable level. You can take supplements like a natural cortisol blocker without a prescription, but as with all supplements, you should talk to your doctor first.



The ingredients in natural cortisol blockers often include ashwagandha, magnolia, and other plant extracts that promote a healthier level of cortisol in the body. The benefits include relief from stress and anxiety, which in turn should help you to manage your weight.



Now, having said all of that, it is important to note that apart from stress there are other reasons for why you may have an elevated or otherwise abnormal amount of cortisol. So, if you have a high amount of cortisol in your body you can’t simply brush it off as being due to stress without further testing and checkups.