Cortisol is one of the most important hormones in our metabolism, and it directly affects our body’s immune response to stress. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise if it has a tied relationship to weight gain or loss.
A very complicated relationship, if I might add. For some people, high levels of cortisol could lead to overeating and weight gain. Marketers of supplements that claimed to block cortisol and produce rapid weight loss ran afoul of the United States Food and Drug Administration.
When it comes to targeting cortisol, it might have some serious effects on our bodies. Understanding the role of cortisol in the body might help you weigh the validity of health claims that tout its effects on cortisol.
What does cortisol do?
Cortisol is a rather important hormone that helps your body juggle its vital functions, your energy levels included. Your body makes and uses cortisol every single day, throughout the day and night.
Your hypothalamus, via the pituitary gland, directs the adrenal glands to secrete both cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones can easily be released in reaction to different types of stress, whether physical or emotional, and are also part of the fight-or-flight response that’s important for survival.
Cortisol helps your body become more effective at producing glucose from proteins, and it also helps increase the body’s energy when you’re overly stressed. Adrenaline makes you energetic and alert, which means that your metabolism is activated.
It also helps fat cells release energy. When your cortisol production is constantly elevated for longer periods of time, as it might happen in a constant state of stress, this could ultimately cause serious health effects. Weight gain is one of the effects of chronically high cortisol levels.
Effects of excess cortisol
Excess cortisol stimulates glucose production. The excess glucose is then usually converted into fat, which also gets stored in your body. For instance, people with very serious metabolic conditions that involve excessive cortisol production, like Cushing syndrome, have a very unhealthy increase in abdominal fat.
If your cortisol levels are chronically high, this also increases your fat storage and raises the risk of obesity. When you have too much adrenaline, fat cells become less responsive to adrenal stimulation to release the fat.
What’s even more concerning is abdominal weight gain, which is one of the most dangerous types of obesity. In fact, it contributes to an increased risk of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and heart disease.
Insulin resistance and cortisol
Insulin resistance is another problem that might develop due to chronically high cortisol levels. Sustained increases in cortisol, like taking steroid medications, could result in insulin resistance. Other causes of insulin resistance could also include genetics, obesity, and a lack of physical activity.
In insulin resistance, the brain and other cells present decreased responses to insulin. In this case, too much glucose keeps circulating in the bloodstream. This could also lead to type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance is, at times, known as pre-diabetes.
The metabolic syndrome is generally diagnosed once insulin resistance leads to abdominal obesity, low HDL cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and high fasting glucose levels.
As cortisol contributes to abdominal obesity, we could say that the solution is to prevent belly fat or encourage weight loss. Well, it’s not that simple. Reducing cortisol with medication needs to be done slowly and with great care. This process is commonly known as tapering.
For instance, if you are prescribed a corticosteroid drug like prednisone (which is known to raise cortisol), you might also be instructed to slowly reduce the amount over a number of days rather than just stopping the drug altogether.
This is mainly due to the feedback loop of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the way it reacts to high cortisol levels by shutting down your body’s own production of cortisol, which would take time to ramp up again for your metabolism.
Also, an abrupt decrease could result in symptoms like fatigue, fever, muscle, and joint pain, as well as psychiatric symptoms. Cushing syndrome is caused by a hormone-producing tumor. A cortisol-reducing drug might be administered before the tumor is removed. But these drugs still need to be closely monitored because sudden fluctuations in cortisol could produce significant side effects.
Supplements that claim to reduce the effects of cortisol and promote weight loss were extremely advertised in the early 2000s. For instance, CortiSlim ended up being subject to a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) action over these kinds of claims.
As a result, the manufacturer shifted its advertising and eventually went completely out of business. The EDA also notified the manufacturer that their claims regarding cortisol were completely unsubstantiated.
According to the FDA, it never really worked. If it did, it would need to be regulated as a drug. There are also other supplements like phosphatidylserine that are claimed by some to reduce the brain’s reaction to stress, which also means reducing cortisol and assisting in weight loss.
Weight loss products that cite a cortisol-blocking effect will always come and go. They are mostly classified as dietary supplements, which means they don’t have to undergo testing or research to back up any of their claims.
How to combat weight gain caused by high cortisol levels
Even if there might be many stressors in your life contributing to elevated cortisol, there are still many effective methods for managing your levels and preventing weight gain. We’re probably way too familiar with stress eating.
In many cases, we’re slammed at work or in our private lives, and we feel the need to fill that void with a tasty bag of chips or a bar of chocolate. You know, just to get us through our ever-growing list of worries.
Part of this stress-eating urge might come from our cortisol levels. When we’re exposed to stressful situations, high cortisol makes us eat more calories. Here’s how to avoid that:
Reduce stress levels.
The occasional stressful event and the natural surge of cortisol that comes with it aren’t going to harm you as much as chronic stress. And do you know what comes with chronic stress? Chronically high cortisol. You need to reduce your cortisol levels with some efficient stress reduction strategies, such as:
- Meditation and breathing exercises: meditation has been proven to reduce stress and levels of cortisol, as have various techniques like deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.
- Spending more time in nature—there’s one study that showed that spending a minimum of 10 minutes in nature three times a week will result in a 21.3% drop in cortisol levels. Some of the best results come from 20 to 30 minutes spent in nature.
- Setting up a relaxing evening ritual: Make sure you make room for relaxing activities at the end of the day, like reading, journaling, and yoga. Plus, a bedtime routine will help you reduce stress and also slow your brain and body down for sleep. And when it comes to rituals, there’s nothing that beats these candles that will immediately set up the right mood!
Exercise, but don’t overdo it, and don’t exercise too late.
Constant exercise is a wonderful way to reduce stress and improve your overall well-being. It can also effectively lower your cortisol response to stress, as can low-intensity workouts that could decrease your cortisol levels. But beware of high-intensity workouts!
They might do you more harm than good, especially if you are putting your body under a certain type of stress. While this might be fine every now and then, if you’re over-exercising, you could suffer from high cortisol in the future.
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