Emotional Health

Stress, Cortisol, and Weight Gain: Does a Link Exist?

April 11, 2018   /




Anne Danahy, MS, RDN, LDN


Cortisol is a steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal glands. Varying amounts of cortisol are released throughout the day, with the highest amounts released in the early morning. Cortisol helps to maintain blood pressure and it provides energy by stimulating fat and carbohydrate metabolism. In addition, cortisol helps to regulate blood sugar levels by stimulating insulin release. During times of stress, more cortisol is released. Diseases such as Cushing’s syndrome can also result in elevated levels of cortisol.


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Association with body weight

Cortisol first mobilizes carbohydrate and fat for quick energy when a person is under stress (the “fight or flight” response). Once the stress has passed, cortisol causes an increase in appetite to replace the carbohydrate and fat that was burned while fighting or “flighting.” However, most people are not fighting or fleeing from danger in today’s society. Because most individuals live sedentary or minimally active lives, they consume more calories than they burn when cortisol levels increase.

Cortisol stimulates glucose production, which if not used for fuel, is converted and stored as fat. Researchers believe that cortisol causes fat deposition in the abdominal area, increasing the risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes development, because the fat cells in the abdominal area are most sensitive to cortisol.


NEXT: The link between cortisol and diet