A look at cortisol and its effect on weight management

by Michael Davis in Education

What is cortisol?

If you have ever been in a stressful situation, you will likely have experienced the effects of cortisol. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands situated on top of each kidney. It is often called the “stress hormone” as it is responsible for the fight or flight response to stress and danger. The release of cortisol into the body provokes an increase in blood pressure, an increase in your heart rate, and the release of glucose from the liver into the blood. In short, Cortisol prepares your body for action when faced with perceived danger.

Acute (short) term increases in cortisol in the blood are normal, they are essential for your survival. However,  problems arise when your body is exposed to frequent, high levels of stress. A constant elevated state of stress characterised by high cortisol levels can have negative effects on your health and even your weight loss goals.

Today’s stressors are far different from what they were before. Hunter gatherers who were forced to hunt for their survival, were often faced with dangerous situations, forcing them to flee or fight; The stress was often short-lived. Nowadays, we are faced with busy schedules and deadlines which often result in long term chronic stress, and not enough time to relax.

Elevated levels of cortisol are often thought to be the cause for weight gain. Is there a relationship between the two? Do elevated cortisol levels hinder weight loss goals? The answer is yes, but the link is not direct. If you were to starve yourself for an extended period of time, stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline will surge but eventually you will lose weight. This is because a calorie deficit is the determining factor for weight loss. The problem is this: we live in an age where food is available in abundance. Chronic sustained levels of cortisol encourage the brain to seek out high calorie dense foods. When you combine the accessibility of food today with chronic levels of stress: this is a recipe for weight gain. 

Cortisol, appetite and metabolism

In the face of a stressful situation, cortisol is released into blood. This will cause your body to crave sugary and/or fatty, high calorie foods. This happens because your body needs as much energy as it can to prepare for whatever perceived threat is causing you to experience stress. The effects of stress on the body are different for everyone. Some will resort to overeating whilst others will lose their appetite. If you experience the former, you may find that living with stress whilst trying to lose weight can be problematic. Most often, acute stress will decrease appetite whereas chronic sustained levels of stress will have the opposite effect.

Cortisol has been shown to affect appetite by regulating Neuropeptide-Y, a neurotransmitter in the brain that regulates appetite. Additionally, cortisol has inhibitory effects on Leptin, the “satiety hormone”, responsible for suppressing appetite, as well as increasing the sensitivity of ghrelin receptors, the “hunger hormone” responsible for increasing appetite.

Not only does cortisol affect appetite, it also slows your metabolism. Research suggests that experiencing a stressful event such as an argument at work or peer related pressures one day prior to eating a high fat/ high calorie meal can slow the body’s metabolism, resulting in fewer expended calories. This is problematic if you are trying to lose weight.

Cortisol and fat distribution

One of the more dangerous side effects of elevated cortisol is that of visceral/ abdominal fat. Cortisol has been shown to affect fat distribution by encouraging your body to store it centrally around the abdomen. Why is this an issue? Abdominal fat has been linked to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes and cerebrovascular disease. However, other factors such as age, gender and genetics also contribute to fat distribution.

Supplements that claim to treat high cortisol

Hormonal issues are typically resolved with correct lifestyle choices surrounding sleep, diet, exercise, and stress management. Treatments involving supplements often focus on the symptoms and not the cause. It’s important that you find the root cause of your stress and begin there. A great example of a stress relief activity that has been shown to benefit most is meditation. Ideally you should find your own stress relief activity, this can be an activity unique to you.

Stress management 

There are many factors that affect stress. Getting a good night’s rest, exercising regularly, eating nutritious foods, and drinking plenty of water are amongst many things that can help you.

The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is a useful way to reduce short term stress. This method has been shown to induce relaxation and clear the mind. Follow this pattern:

  1. Exhale completely
  2. Inhale through the nose for a count of 4
  3. Hold your breath for 7
  4. Exhale forcefully through the nose for a count of 8

Repeat 4-5 times

Check out this guide on the effectiveness of meditation, dealing with stress and emotional eating

But sure to read this website page from the NHS about stress: 

In conclusion

Chronically elevated stress characterised by sustained high levels of cortisol does not directly cause you to gain weight. Unmanaged stress combined with food cravings and increased hunger will influence your food intake as well as your ability to maintain a calorie deficit, ultimately leading to a greater risk of gaining weight.



  1. https://blog.nasm.org/the-causes-of-stress
  2. https://www.adrenalinsufficiency.org/adrenal-insufficiency-adrenal-fatigue-and-cushings-do-you-know-the-difference/
  3. Stress Cortisol Connection (unm.edu)
  4. https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/28/9/2322
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4038351/
  6. https://www.verywellhealth.com/the-cortisol-weight-loss-controversy-3233036
  7. Cavagnini, F., M. Croci, P. Putignano, et al. Glucocorticoids and neuroendocrine function. International Journal of Obesity 24: S77-S79, 2000.