Cortisol Can Sabotage Even the Best Weight-Loss Efforts

Stress can be the result of physical strain, illness, mental challenges or emotional strife. Weight gain due to stress is the result of several biological mechanisms at play; hormones run amuck and tamper with metabolism, fat distribution and food cravings. The hormone that deserves the most finger-pointing is cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands – two small triangular glands that sit on top of the kidneys. In times of stress, the brain sends messages to the adrenals to produce hormones to help the body cope.

This adaptation is part of our “fight-or-flight” response, a function of the sympathetic nervous system. Cortisol increases blood glucose and blood pressure to send more sugar and oxygen to the muscles and brain so we are geared up to attack or think fast and run away from a stressor. Cortisol is essential for life and is in fact a good thing to deal with short-term stressors. But as in all aspects of life, too much of a good thing can become bad, and chronic stress can wreak havoc on our health.

The body perceives stress as a sign that it needs to store up calories to prepare for a hardship; so cortisol increases our cravings for sugary and carbohydrate-rich foods, shifts our metabolism out of fat burning and into fat conservation mode, and increases visceral (belly) fat deposition to protect our organs. Visceral fat receives more blood flow and four times more glucocorticoid (stress hormone) receptors than peripheral fat that accumulates elsewhere in the body. So chronically high cortisol levels lead to a vicious cycle of an exponentially growing spare tire. Studies have shown that greater psychological vulnerability to stress and greater cortisol levels are associated with more abdominal fat.

Central weight gain is an independent risk factor for metabolic syndrome; a diagnosis that includes hypertension, insulin resistance or diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol (specifically, high triglycerides and LDL). Therefore, not only does stress contribute to the battle of bulge, it also is directly tied to some of the costliest chronic diseases that are plaguing our country at epidemic rates.

It is necessary to treat the cause in order to manage stress, decrease waistlines, increase longevity and quality of life, and benefit the economy. We all need to step up and take responsibility for our stress.  Learn that saying, “No” is not a bad thing to prevent over-committing our time. Prioritizing self-care such as exercise, sleep, relaxation time and hobbies is crucial, and frees up more energy that can be shared with others.

Laboratory testing of cortisol levels is often useful to evaluate the link between obesity, chronic diseases and an individual’s stress level. In the blood, the majority of cortisol is bound to carrier proteins globulin or albumin, while less than 5 percent of cortisol is “free”, or physiologically active. Saliva does not contain these carrier proteins, so salivary cortisol reflects the plasma-free cortisol levels. Therefore, testing salivary cortisol is a clinically useful, reliable, easy and non-invasive.

Naturopathic physicians are highly trained in the interpretation of hormone lab results and devising individualized treatment plans for weight gain due to stress or other causes. Hormone balancing is a very delicate and complex task, and cannot be done well without the help of a competent physician. Underlying reasons for weight gain and obesity are so numerous and diverse among individuals that there is no single successful magic weight loss pill.

Good healthcare starts with a good medical history. Doctors should take the time to really listen to their patients and figure out why they can’t lose weight, can’t sleep well, have high blood pressure and high blood sugar.

Leia Anderson is a doctor of naturopathic medicine at Natural Paths to Wellness, 3601 Gettysburg Rd., in Camp Hill. For more information, call 717-494-4500 or visit

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