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Cortisol: Its Impact on Weight and How to Reduce It

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced in the adrenal gland, and many people have thought of cortisol as the “stress hormone”, as it tends to be released during times of great stress.  When it comes to weight, cortisol is usually thought of negatively, as stress, and the resulting cortisol response, can actually hinder your weight loss efforts, and sometimes even cause your body to gain weight.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released when the person in question is under stress or going through some very difficult times.  It is released into the body, and this causes rapid heart rate, sweating, increased blood sugar and blood pressure, muscle tension, as well as increased respiration and hyperventilation.  While this hormone can be useful in a tricky situation, such as when the body feels threatened, it can also be made and released during panic attacks and anxiety issues, which can cause the effects of the hormone to occur even when the body is not under any stress.


How Does Cortisol Affect Weight?

Stress is well known to be linked to weight gain and the inability to lose weight.  Therefore, it is easy to understand that the stress hormone might actually be causing you to not be able to lose weight or keep it off.

When cortisol is released, it stimulates part of the emotional center of the brain, which causes pleasurable activities, such as eating food, to become even more pleasurable.  It is this idea of eating becoming more pleasurable, that can make it that much easier to overeat.  When one discovers that overeating can make them feel better at the time, they are more likely to fall into a habit of continuously overeating each and every time they feel stressed, which can in turn lead to weight gain and difficulty losing weight.

Cortisol can also affect weight in another way: cortisol can actually increase the amount of fat deposits that are found throughout the body, typically in the abdominal area and stomach.  Ugh- double bummer!


How to Reduce Cortisol Production in the Body

For those who are beginning to notice a problem with weight and believe it might be cortisol to blame, the first step is talking to your doctor to rule out any underlying issues, such as thyroid problems.  Adrenal disorders are actually quite common, and there are medication that can be taken to reduce the effects.

If stress is the culprit, the best thing to do is to learn to control it, either with medications or therapy, or a mixture of both.  Talking about your stress is a great way to get it off of your chest, which can help lead to a reduction in panic attacks and anxiety problems.  Medications can help control these issues, as well, so it’s a bonus to talk to your doctor or set up an appointment with a therapist.  Finding stress relieving activities, such as coloring, knitting, cooking, or even dancing, can be ideal for those who deal with panic and anxiety on a regular basis.

Skipping the second trip to the gym and taking it easy can also be good for reducing cortisol levels.  It has been shown that over-exercising can actually lead to an increase in the hormone, which can in turn lead to slower weight loss.

Eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of sleep are two more things that you can do to properly take care of yourself, which is essential to keeping stress levels at bay.  Healthy eating (making sure not to skip meals or reduce calories by more than your body can handle), including vegetables, fruits, and the right type of carbohydrates in your diet, is what you need to keep your body going strong.


While it might seem like beating stress and dealing with higher than average cortisol levels can be difficult, it is possible!  Once you understand what cortisol is and how it acts, you can start taking better care of your body in order to pinpoint why the levels are elevated in your body.

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Dr. Candice Seti


California-licensed Clinical Psychologist, Certified Nutrition Coach, and Certified Personal Trainer

Dr. Candice Seti

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