Many of us are familiar with cortisol’s tainted reputation. In the media of yesteryear, cortisol was frequently tarred as the “belly fat builder” or as a leading cause of being overweight. More recently, people have started to realize that cortisol is far more complicated than earlier reports suggested. In fact, there is some evidence suggesting that cortisol levels may be involved in weight regulation in a number of ways—which could make it either a useful tool or a potential stumbling block for people trying to lose weight. Either way, it’s clear that cortisol isn’t uniformly bad for your weight loss efforts.
In the body, cortisol is released by your adrenal glands when you’re waking up in the morning and also when you’re under stress. In broad terms, cortisol regulates a number of different functions in your body ranging from your immune system to your digestion. Most importantly for people concerned with weight loss, cortisol regulates your metabolism by making your body reluctant to consolidate circulating glucose into storage. This means that cortisol tells your body to keep glucose ready to use for powering your body rather than saving it for later. In the short term, this might mean that higher cortisol levels could protect your body from gaining weight—but it doesn’t mean that cortisol promotes weight loss.
Yet, that isn’t the whole story. The connection between cortisol and weight loss may depend on the current weight of the person in question as well as their lifestyle, daily calorie intake, and physical activity. Diving a bit deeper into the details and learning more about your body’s cortisol levels can help empower your weight loss efforts.
The Relationship Between Cortisol and Weight Loss
Due to the multiple bodily processes in which cortisol is involved, understanding cortisol’s potential impact on weight loss can be daunting. In summary, there is no clear-cut relationship between cortisol levels and having trouble losing weight or losing weight despite attempts to remain at the same weight. While many studies have found that high cortisol levels caused by chronic stress are associated with higher BMI and more abdominal fat, research findings have not been entirely consistent. For example, a 2013 study published in Obesity did not find any “strong relationship between systemic cortisol or stress and obesity.” More recent research suggests that the exact relationship between cortisol and weight depend on an individual’s glucocorticoid sensitivity—which, as the researchers point out, “is partially genetically determined”. Furthermore, emerging research suggests that cortisol may actually be helpful for losing weight in some cases.
Your body’s cortisol levels fluctuate depending on how you’re trying to control your weight, and there is evidence that high levels of cortisol might increase your chance of succeeding with certain dieting strategies. For example, a 2016 study found that calorie restriction is linked to higher levels of cortisol; the more you reduce your level of calorie intake, the higher your cortisol levels will go. Fasting, in particular, may dramatically increase your levels of cortisol. Conventional wisdom would suggest that this increased cortisol would impede weight loss, but that was not the case in this investigation. In fact, while researchers found elevated cortisol levels return to normal after several weeks of significant calorie restriction, they note that the initial elevated cortisol levels could actually “ameliorate weight loss”. As such, the effect of cortisol on weight loss may be determined at least in part by how you are attempting to shed your unwanted pounds.
It is important to note that cortisol is known to increase appetite and encourage consumption of foods that are high in fat and sugar. As such, maintaining significant calorie restriction may be made more difficult by elevated cortisol levels and you may need additional support to stick to this weight loss method.
The Potential Impact of Low Cortisol Levels on Obesity
Although elevated cortisol levels may not be an automatic hindrance to (or facilitator of) weight loss, cortisol levels that are consistently higher or lower than the normal range can spell trouble for your health. Some research indicates that people with mild obesity tend to have lower levels of cortisol than people with average weight, but people with higher body mass indices or severe obesity tend to have higher levels of cortisol than people with average weight. Due to this contradiction, it’s unclear whether high cortisol is caused by obesity or vice versa. To make matters more complicated, people with extremely low body mass indices as a result of eating disorders like anorexia have higher levels of cortisol than severely obese people, perhaps because of cortisol’s actions as a stress hormone. Overall, there is more scientific evidence for lower cortisol levels being related to healthy BMI than the opposite, but the issue is far from settled.
Moreover, the role of cortisol appears to be more complicated than its relationship with BMI suggests. Exactly how cortisol impacts weight may be influenced not only—or even primarily—by the amount of cortisol in your body, but by how responsive your body is to it. More specifically, if your body doesn’t respond to cortisol effectively enough, you might be at a higher risk of becoming obese. Researchers have found animals that had a higher propensity to gain weight also exhibited fewer changes in response to high cortisol. Although animal studies do not always translate to human experiences, they often provide important clues about our physiology. As such, these results could mean that even if your cortisol levels are normal, it may be difficult to determine whether cortisol is putting you at risk for gaining weight or whether it is helping your weight loss.
In short, the connection between cortisol and weight loss remains ambiguous. Elevated cortisol increases belly fat in some people, but not all people with elevated cortisol develop belly fat. Additionally, the stressors that cause your body to produce higher levels of cortisol might have more to do with your BMI than the cortisol itself. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that other lifestyle factors more relevant to weight loss for most people than cortisol levels.
Correcting Your Cortisol Level
If you suspect that your cortisol level may be making it more difficult to lose weight, a healthcare practitioner with expertise in hormonal health could provide the guidance you need. There is no foolproof way of regulating your cortisol levels on an ongoing basis on your own but with the support of an experienced practitioner, you can find a set of lifestyle strategies and therapeutic interventions that may rectify your cortisol issues and help you accomplish your weight goals.
When you work with a qualified practitioner, such as those in the BodyLogicMD network, they’ll test your cortisol levels to identify any abnormalities. If your cortisol levels are lower than they should be for someone of your age and lifestyle, your practitioner may prescribe bioidentical hormone replacement therapy to treat your hormonal imbalance. Using bioidentical hormones, your body will get the cortisol that it needs for optimal health. While cortisol replacement won’t be the only technique you need to lose weight, it may help you achieve more meaningful results. Meanwhile, if you have high cortisol levels, your practitioner can work with you to find effective medical and lifestyle interventions that reduce stress and lower cortisol. They can also help you identify and address any other factors that may be influencing your weight, such as perimenopause, menopause, andropause, or a thyroid disorder.
Weight loss can be challenging for a host of physiological, emotional, and practical reasons. But with the right supports, you can give yourself the best chance of improving your health and feeling your best.
BodyLogicMD can help you start your weight loss journey with expert care from a highly-trained practitioner who specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement therapy and integrative medicine. The practitioners within the BodyLogicMD network are among the top medical professionals in the country and specially certified to help you address cortisol issues so that you can experience the life you deserve. Get started on a customized treatment plan designed to fit your lifestyle and help you reach optimal wellness—contact a local practitioner to schedule your first appointment or take the BodyLogicMD Hormonal Balance Quiz today.
Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. All content on this website is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent diseases.
Charlotte is a patient care coordinator specializing in bioidentical hormone replacement therapy. She is committed to helping patients who struggle with the symptoms of hormonal change and imbalance explore their treatment options and develop effective strategies to optimize wellness.