Can high cortisol levels cause weight gain?
In this article, we’ll discuss stress and cortisol levels, how it may cause weight gain. We also offer advice on cortisol testing, and how to lower your cortisol levels naturally.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a stress hormone released from the adrenal glands (two small glands located directly above the kidneys). You need a healthy balance of cortisol to feel your best – not too much and not too little.
Cortisol is important for helping your body manage stressful situations and your “flight or fight” response. Among other things, it also lowers inflammation and balances your blood pressure. Cortisol was extremely helpful in our ancestors’ lives. If you were getting chased by a predator, you sure as heck needed cortisol to help you survive!
Nowadays, our stressful events don’t involve getting chased by a saber tooth tiger, but rather involve things like finances, kids, busy schedules, and demanding deadlines at work. Unfortunately, many of us tend to have chronically elevated cortisol levels due to low-grade unmanaged stress in our lives.
When stress and cortisol are too high, you may experience any of the following symptoms:
Cortisol and Weight Gain
It shouldn’t be a surprise that chronic stress and weight gain have a close-knit relationship for many reasons. However, we now understand that chronically elevated cortisol levels may be a factor in weight gain or resistance to weight loss.
How does cortisol affect your weight? First of all, chronically elevated cortisol levels can increase your appetite and lead to increased intake of food – especially foods that are high in sugar (1). This stress hormone may also blunt your body’s ability to send the “I’m full” signals to your brain, leading to a vicious cycle of increased appetite and a reduced ability to feel satisfied after meals. High cortisol may also shift your metabolism to store more fat, particularly in the abdominal area and around your organs (referred to as visceral fat).
Other than unintentional weight gain, high cortisol levels may also lead to disruption in your menstrual cycle, infertility, heart disease, and digestive problems (2, 3, 4).
How to Test Your Cortisol Levels
The body has a natural diurnal rhythm of cortisol release (5). For example, cortisol levels should be highest in the early waking hours of the morning with a peak around 9 am. As the day continues, the body’s cortisol levels should decline gradually and reach the lowest point around midnight.
Testing blood cortisol levels is the most widely used method in conventional medicine, however, there are many downfalls to this practice. First of all, blood draws may be stressful for some people, which may falsely elevate cortisol levels. Testing blood cortisol also only gives us one biomarker. As we mentioned above, our body has a natural cortisol rhythm throughout the day, so measuring one aspect of this rhythm does not give us the full picture. Finally, blood cortisol does not represent the free biologically active form. We need to measure the free cortisol levels that are actively working in the body!
Testing your salivary cortisol levels is a much more accurate method (6, 7, 8). The salivary cortisol test generally requires multiple saliva samples throughout the day to provide an accurate picture of your cortisol rhythm. There are many private laboratories that offer saliva testing like Genova Diagnostics or ZRT Laboratory. The DUTCH Plus test is a combined urinary and saliva test that also looks at cortisol response.
While you can purchase many of these tests on your own, we recommend working with a functional medicine doctor or dietitian specializing in functional nutrition to help you accurately interpret your results.
How to Balance Cortisol Levels
Many people may struggle with high cortisol, stress, and weight gain. Fortunately, there are many diet and lifestyle changes we can implement to balance our cortisol levels naturally.
Get 7-8 Hours of Uninterrupted Sleep
Disruption in your cortisol can lead to choppy sleep and shortened sleep time (5). Unfortunately, these sleep disturbances then negatively affect cortisol balance! Poor sleep is also connected to weight gain. It’s a dang vicious cycle.
For this reason, it’s crucial to prioritize 7-8 hours of sleep every night.
For optimal sleep, eliminate late-night exposure to blue lights from electronic devices. Blue light emission prevents adequate melatonin release, which is an important hormone that induces sleep (9).
We recommend avoiding all types of technology for at least one hour before bedtime. Here are some other tips to improve sleep quality:
- Expose yourself to at least 15 minutes of natural sunlight before noon.
- Use the “night mode” on your devices to reduce blue-light exposure in the evening.
- Avoid caffeine after 1 pm.
- Dim the lights in your house after dinner or use table-side lamps instead of overhead lights.
- Avoid watching stressful or emotionally-disturbing TV shows before bed (save Game of Thrones for another time 😉).
Reduce Your Stress
Cortisol is released when we sense environmental, physical, or psychological stress. If you want to address high cortisol levels from the root cause, then you must address your stress!
First of all, think about what is stressing you out in your life. Deep down, you probably know what must be done to reduce some of this stress. Perhaps it involves delegating tasks to your partner, having a difficult conversation with your boss, or setting appropriate boundaries.
Therapy can also be a highly effective way to address any stress that you may be experiencing. Additionally, find a daily activity you can do to effectively manage your stress levels. Examples of stress-reducing activities may include walking, meditating, deep breathing, yoga, journaling, or taking a bubble bath. Whatever it may be, try to prioritize at least 10 minutes to yourself each day to practice stress management.
Add in Adaptogens
There are some herbs that help your body cope with stress and balance cortisol levels. These herbs are known as adaptogens and have been used for thousands of years.
One of the most well-known and highly effective adaptogens is called ashwagandha. This herb can lower elevated cortisol levels and subsequently improve sleep, reduce anxiety, and even enhance sex drive (10, 11, 12).
Ashwagandha is available in powdered form, dried into a pill, fresh root, or extract. Read more about ashwagandha and proper dosing in this blog post!
Spend Time in Nature
Spending just 20 minutes in nature can significantly lower cortisol levels, according to a new study (13).
If you want to combat high cortisol and weight gain, consider taking a 20-minute walk at lunchtime. Anywhere with greenery, like a park or open space, is ideal. This way, you reap the benefits of lowering cortisol, getting natural movement, and soaking in some natural sunlight before the afternoon – a key component to a healthy circadian rhythm.
Learn to Say “No”
As women, we tend to take on the stress of others. We have a hard time telling people “no” and may over-commit ourselves as a result.
It’s okay to prioritize things in your life to make time for yourself. Ask for help, delegate tasks, and learn that being busy isn’t always a good thing. As you begin to say “no” to things that may worsen your cortisol levels, you can begin to say “yes” to things that give you energy, love, and life.
Prioritize Positive Thinking
Positive emotions can reduce inflammation, change how your genes are expressed, and even reduce cortisol levels. Here are a few ideas to create a more positive mindset:
- Try a gratitude journal. Studies show that practicing gratitude can lower inflammation, improve sleep, and boost energy levels (13).
- Incorporate a mind-body exercise, like yoga or tai chi.
- Practice daily affirmations. These are statements repeated to yourself that encourage and motivate you.
Follow a Healthy Diet
Your diet has an important impact on your cortisol levels.
Maintaining optimal blood sugar, for example, is one large dietary factor that may help you balance your cortisol. Reduce sources of added sugar in your diet as this may disrupt your blood sugar and increase cortisol levels (14). Read our best tips on combating sugar cravings here.
Additionally, make sure to eat a colorful diet with lots of non-starchy vegetables rich in stress-busting nutrients like vitamin c, magnesium, and vitamin B6.
Finally, chronic yo-yo dieting may cause more stress and worsen cortisol levels and weight gain. That’s because most diets just don’t work! Ditch the dieting train, and consider an individualized eating program that you designed for your body, like the 131 Method.
Ending Thoughts: Cortisol and Weight Gain
There are numerous factors that may be leading to weight gain or weight loss resistance. However, in order to achieve whole-body health, balance cortisol levels, and feel great in your body, reducing stress is essential.
What is your go-to stress-relieving activity? Comment below to share!