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High Cortisol and Weight Loss

By Kay Uzoma ; Updated July 18, 2017

Consuming too many calories and not exercising regularly are the two main reasons you gain weight. But don't overlook some other factors that can make weight loss more difficult. One example is high cortisol largely due to chronic stress. Stress is the leading cause of diet failure, according to Shawn Talbott who has a doctorate in nutritional biochemistry and is the author of “The Cortisol Connection.”

What Is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a type of hormone from the steroid group known as glucocorticoids. It is the primary stress hormone in your body and is produced by the adrenal glands, which are located on top of the kidneys. On a positive note, it plays a key role in metabolism, helping to determine the best source of energy — carbohydrate, fat or protein — for your body to use. It also plays a key role in your body’s fight-or-flight response, which is critical to survival.

Cortisol and Weight Gain

Chronic or long-term stress increases levels of cortisol, which plays a role in several hormonal and metabolic reactions that lead to weight gain. It increases your appetite and your cravings for unhealthy foods. Cortisol also reduces testosterone in men and women, which leads to muscle loss. Muscle burns more calories than body fat. When you lose muscle, your body burns calories less efficiently. Also, cortisol increases fatigue, which makes it more likely that you won’t exercise to burn off excess calories.

Cortisol in Fat Cells

Even if you do not have high levels in your blood, the cortisol inside fat cells can still make weight loss challenging. An enzyme called HSD found in these cells boosts cortisol presence inside them, which triggers the fat cells to store more fat and grow, even when blood cortisol levels are normal. Visceral cells deep inside your abdomen contain more HSD than fat cells that lie just below your skin, or subcutaneous cells, a factor that increases the risk of abdominal obesity or weight gain.

Reducing Cortisol to Lose Weight

Stress reduction techniques can help to stabilize cortisol levels and boost weight loss. Some of these techniques include deep breathing; meditation; yoga; tai chi; and regular moderate exercise such as walking, cycling, dancing and pilates. A moderate exercise schedule is also preferable to long training sessions and overtraining, which elevates cortisol levels. Getting enough sleep also makes a difference. According to Talbott, just two nights of good, sound sleep can be more effective at reducing cortisol than a lifetime of stress-management classes. Speak to your doctor about taking supplements, such as DHEA, which can lower plasma cortisol levels in men and women, according to a University of Pittsburgh study published in the “Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology” in February 2003.

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