Today we’re examining the evidence on low cortisol levels and weight gain, impact on appetite, and what you can do to manage stress levels.
We’ve all heard the age old weight loss advice to eat less and exercise more. While what we eat and how much we move certainly has an impact on our weight, what happens if you are stressed to the gills? Could being stressed out totally throw you off your weight loss goals? We take a deep dive into the evidence on the relationship between stress and appetite to answer the question: what is the connection between low cortisol levels and weight gain?
What is cortisol?
In short, cortisol is the body’s stress hormone, which is released alongside epinephrine (aka adrenaline) when the brain perceives a stressor. The stress response is ultimately a protective mechanism that allows the body to defend itself or react to a high stress environment and/or potential threat (let’s say if a bear is chasing you in the wilderness, or your boss puts you on the spot during an important meeting). What ensues is the fight-or-flight response, which triggers an increased heart rate and heightened energy levels.
In order for our body to have enough fuel to react, high cortisol levels will use available glucose and glycogen stores for energy. The body will also temporarily halt the production of insulin in order to prevent any available glucose from being stored instead of used. In other words, when we are stressed, our body uses up all the energy it can get.
Additionally, the body will also reduce any non-essential bodily functions (i.e digestion, immune response, reproduction) in order to allocate energy to processes that can help deal with the stressor (i.e. increasing blood glucose availability and blood flow to major muscles). Once the perceived threat or stressor has been dealt with, cortisol levels will return back to normal and you can finally breathe a deep sigh of relief.
In addition to its role in the body’s stress response, cortisol also helps to reduce inflammation, support nutrient metabolism, and control blood pressure. While cortisol released in response to stress is normal, prolonged elevated levels of cortisol are not ideal and can lead to negative health consequences.
What are the health risks of increased cortisol?
Stress is obviously inevitable in our day-to-day lives and can be triggered by a range of factors. This can include emotional experiences like a breakup, strenuous physical activities, infections, injuries, or even something seemingly mundane like running late or being stuck in traffic. On the other hand, stress can even be beneficial when it elicits a positive response to a stressor. This is known as eustress, and we may experience it while riding a roller coaster, on a first date, or when starting a new job. Regardless of if you experience eustress or distress, it is quite literally impossible to go through life scot free from stress.
But when we are in a state of distress, we may experience either an acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) stress response. An acute state of stress is immediate, intense, and will usually subside once the stressor is no longer present. Think: going to a job interview, being stuck in traffic, or having an argument with your spouse – these are all examples of acute stress. While it is normal to experience varying degrees of acute stress, some individuals may experience short-term side effects including:
- Muscle tension and pain
- Impaired memory and ability to concentrate
- Increased blood sugar levels
Unfortunately, acute stress can become a long-term issue when an individual experiences frequent stress or stress levels remain high long after the stressor is no longer present – this results in chronic stress. Some examples of chronic stress include experiencing ongoing challenges with a partner or family member, a highly demanding or unfulfilling job, or financial instability. Chronic stress and prolonged high cortisol levels can increase the risk of long-term negative health consequences such as:
- Immune system suppression
- Mood disorders (i.e. anxiety and depression)
- Digestive issues (i.e. IBS, ulcers)
- Chronic disease (i.e. cardiovascular disease)
- Cushing’s syndrome
- Insulin resistance
- Chronic inflammation
- Fertility issues
- Weight gain
Does cortisol cause weight gain?
Now that we know the 411 on cortisol and the associated health risks, what is the relationship between low cortisol levels and weight gain and what can you do about it? Let’s jump into the evidence.
While a moderate amount of stress is unlikely to cause increased weight gain, research suggests that prolonged elevated cortisol levels may have both physiological and psychological impacts on eating behaviours. For example, one small study on 59 healthy women found that participants ate more calories when exposed to stress and also had a higher preference towards sweet foods. Similarly, some evidence suggests that circulating glucose during stress increases the desire for high calorie foods. This may explain why we experience an increased appetite during times of stress and a preference towards sugary and high-fat foods.
Increased Belly Fat
Research suggests that cortisol may be positively correlated with increased belly fat. This is because visceral fat (aka abdominal fat) has more cortisol receptors compared to subcutaneous fat (the fat that lies just below the skin’s surface). With that said, cortisol is able to more readily move stored fat into the abdominal area. This might also explain why individuals with higher central body fat tend to be more vulnerable to stress as their increased visceral fat may be an indicator of increased cortisol. One study also found that stressed participants burned 104 calories less from the same high-fat meal compared to non-stressed participants, which suggests that the body may metabolize fat much slower when under stress.
Increased Blood Sugar
If you think back to your high school biology class, you may recall that the body’s cells require glucose for energy and that insulin is the “key” that lets glucose into the cells. However, during extended periods of stress, blood sugar levels remain high while insulin is continuously suppressed. This means that no glucose is getting into the body’s cells. In other words, the cells are essentially starved for energy. This results in hunger signals sent to the brain to help “feed” our cells.
Unfortunately, due to continuous insulin suppression, even if we eat large amounts of food while stressed, our cells may still be starved for energy and we will continue to feel hungry (even if we just ate). This can consequently lead to overeating and increased weight gain.
How to Manage Cortisol Levels
Whether you want to keep cortisol levels in check for weight management purposes, or you just want to live your most peaceful zen life, here are some evidence-based strategies that may help you manage your stress levels.
Not getting enough quality sleep can not only increase cortisol levels, but it can also impact our appetite, cravings, and food choices. It is therefore important to maintain a regular bedtime routine, and avoid caffeine intake and intense exercise before bed to prevent energy spikes that can get in the way of our sleep-wake cycle. For more tips on how to get the best quality slee,p check out our blog post on the importance of sleep and weight management.
Practice Meditation & Breathwork
Meditation and focusing on your breathing has been shown to not only help reduce cortisol levels, but may even help to improve sleep quality– which, as we discussed, also impacts cortisol levels. The best thing about meditation is that it is super accessible, with guided meditations available for free on multiple apps and Youtube videos. Even just a few minutes of stillness can prove to be beneficial!
You don’t need me to tell you that exercise is good for the body and mind as it not only supports weight management but it also releases the feel good chemicals, endorphins, which can help manage stress. However, I do want to note that exercising for a long duration at a high intensity can actually increase cortisol levels. With that said, aim for low-to-moderate intensity exercises and make sure to give yourself adequate rest in between workouts.
Limit Caffeine Intake
Research has shown that high doses of caffeine can increase levels of stress and anxiety. So if you find that caffeine makes you particularly jittery and anxious, then you may consider cutting back on caffeine and seeing how that impacts your stress levels. Other research suggests that it may be best to wait 1-2 hours after waking up before enjoying your first cup of coffee, as cortisol levels tend to be higher 30-45 minutes after waking up and slowly decline throughout the day.
Feed Your Gut
The gut has quickly been coined as our “second brain” with 90% of serotonin production occurring in the there. It is therefore no surprise that research suggests that a healthy gut can help to regulate our mood and stress levels, which speaks to the importance of prioritizing gut healthy foods like probiotics, prebiotics, and fibre.
Nourish Your Body
Eating a balanced diet that prioritizes anti-inflammatory foods can help to ward off and minimize the effects of high cortisol levels in the body. Research has also found that specific foods like dark chocolate, green tea, omega-3 fats (i.e. fatty fish, nuts, seeds) and an overall diet rich in plant-based foods may be helpful at managing cortisol levels and promoting stress relief.
Speak to a Therapist and/or Dietitian
If worse comes to worse and you have tried all of these strategies ad nauseam without improvement, then it may be best to speak to a qualified therapist and/or dietitian to help get to the root of the issue. Speaking to a therapist can assist in identifying triggers and effective coping strategies, while a registered dietitian can provide guidance with emotional eating and other stress-related food behaviours.
With all that said, is there a connection between low cortisol levels and weight gain? While the research suggests that managing cortisol levels may have some weight benefits, it is also important to consider that managing stress has a multitude of health benefits that go beyond just aesthetic weight goals. But if weight loss is your goal, then it may be worthwhile to evaluate whether you need to keep your stress levels in check.
Written by: Cassandra Srutwa and Giselle Segovia RD, MHSc
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Abbey Sharp is a Registered Dietitian (RD), regulated by the Ontario College of Dietitians. She is a mom, YouTuber, Blogger, award winning cookbook author, media coach specializing in food and nutrition influencers, and a frequent contributor to national publications like Healthline and on national broadcast TV shows.
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