In 1932, neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing linked a specific type of pituitary tumor to excessive weight gain.[*] This tumor, researchers later discovered, caused runaway cortisol production.
Cushing Syndrome is relatively rare, but it’s the classic example of how too much cortisol increases fat accumulation. Scientists have also demonstrated this weight gain effect by giving animals cortisol-boosting drugs.[*]
Today we’ll explore how this stress hormone affects weight regulation, then learn tips to lower cortisol. Let’s get started.
Does Cortisol Cause Weight Gain?
Secreted by your adrenal glands, cortisol is a hormone that helps you produce energy (glucose) to fuel your cells. You couldn’t live without it.
But you don’t want too much of it. The signs of high cortisol include high blood sugar, bone density issues, high blood pressure, muscle weakness, and (relevant here) weight gain.[*] Let’s double-click on the weight gain effect.
First, high cortisol levels increase appetite. According to one estimate, about 90% of people eat more while stressed.[*]
And these folks aren’t eating more celery. They’re eating more carby, refined foods thanks to cortisol-driven dysregulations in the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA), which regulates hunger and weight regulation.
Another issue is that cortisol promotes abdominal fat storage. Let’s explore why.
Cortisol increases blood sugar levels, causing the pancreas to secrete more insulin. Insulin is a fat-storage hormone (among other jobs), and excess insulin leads to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. It’s no surprise that high cortisol, diabetes, and obesity are tightly correlated.[*]
But It’s Not A Perfect Link
Not everyone with a weight problem has a cortisol problem. In one study, only half the obese population sampled had high cortisol levels.[*]
Genetic differences may explain some of this observation. Some people are more sensitive to cortisol’s effects on weight regulation than others. For instance, in female humans (and sheep), “high-cortisol responders” eat more when stressed than low responders.[*]
What Elevates Cortisol?
Cortisol rises and falls throughout the day, but why do some people have chronically high cortisol? There are several possible explanations. The obvious one is chronic stress.
Modern life is stressful. If you’re continually plugged into work, news, and social media, it can be hard to relax.
We evolved in small tribes that lounged outside, picking berries and having sex. Now we huddle indoors to manage our sprawling, tech-enabled social and professional networks—our stress levels rising with each update.
Along with chronic stress, the system governing cortisol (the HPA axis) is also derailed by[*]:
- Sleep deprivation
- A high intake of sugary, refined foods
- Alcohol abuse
- Genetic factors
- Chronic pain
- Being sedentary
With these factors in mind, let’s talk about how to lower cortisol for weight loss.
How To Reduce Cortisol for Weight Loss
The physiology that regulates cortisol is complex, but the strategies to reduce it aren’t. Managing cortisol means managing stress, sleep, diet, exercise, and social ties.
#1: Reduce stress
Anxiety, doubt, fear, anger, and worry. Most of us experience these emotions more than we’d like, and our cortisol rises accordingly.
You can’t shut these feelings off. But you can reduce their grip on your life.
One strategy is to train your mind with meditation. In a 2022 randomized controlled trial, five 30-minute mindfulness training sessions led to lower cortisol levels in nursing students.[*]
You can also limit external stressors. You might:
- Check your phone or email less to reduce digital anxiety
- Avoid work overload with wise scheduling or tactful communications with your boss
- Favor shows and movies that make you giggle
- Briskly change the topic when your cousin tries to rope you into a political debate
Don’t seek to eliminate stress from your life, though. Acute stress can be adaptive, and pushing through fear can help you grow.
Want to improve your public speaking, meet more interesting people, or negotiate a better salary? You’ll need to push through some stress.
The trick is to find a balance. You want to be calm most of the time, with occasional forays into adaptive discomfort.
#2: Get enough sleep
You don’t need an article to tell you that sleep deprivation torpedoes stress resilience.[*] A good night’s rest can mean the difference between a tranquil, podcast-filled drive and a drive filled with deep loathing for your fellow commuters. Sleep can be hard to come by, but do your best to get 7–9 hours per night.
#3: Avoid refined carbs
A poor diet and high cortisol levels intermingle to create a vicious cycle as follows[*]:
- Refined carbs spike blood glucose levels
- High blood glucose disrupts the HPA axis, stimulating cortisol release
- Cortisol increases cravings for carby foods—not ideal for weight loss!
- The cycle continues
To stop the cycle, get refined carbs out of your life. The cravings will subside eventually.
Exercise raises cortisol acutely but reduces resting levels and dampens the stress response. In one study, higher-intensity exercise (70% of max heart rate) correlated with more stress resilience than lower-intensity efforts.[*]
The experimental design was amusing. Forty-five minutes after an exercise session, participants were forced to make a presentation to a humorless review panel. (Think: worst job interview ever.) They also got slapped with a surprise math test. Ultimately, the 70% heart rate exercise group had lower salivary cortisol than the 30% or 50% groups.
#5: Foster close relationships
How close do you feel to your loved ones? Your cortisol levels hinge on your answer.
In one study, the average emotional closeness of one’s relationships predicted lower cortisol levels in older adults.[*] The number of relationships, however, was irrelevant.
Lower Cortisol, Easier Weight Loss
Cortisol and weight loss are closely linked. If you want to lose weight, work on managing this stress hormone.
Weight loss is just a bonus for reducing stress, sleeping well, limiting sugar, exercising, and deepening your closest relationships. The real reward arrives as a happier, healthier, life.