Is Stress Making You Fat? - Bean

Cortisol is a hormone that is naturally produced within our body. It’s our very own, built-in alarm system and helps to control our mood and our motivation. It’s been getting a bad rep in the media over the past few years which is pretty unfair in our opinion. It’s actually been crucial in our survival as a species over the past few million years.

The normal response of cortisol release is to:

  • Regulate our blood sugar levels
  • Increase our blood sugar (glucose) levels
  • Manage how we utilise carbohydrates, proteins and fats
  • Play an important role in our sleep/wake cycle
  • Help to keep inflammation down
  • Boost energy in the short-term and restore balance afterwards

How Does It Work?

Your adrenals are little triangular shaped organs that sit on top of your kidneys. These puppies are responsible for releasing cortisol in times of stress. Your hypothalamus and pituitary gland (located in your brain) are constantly working to try and keep the right level of cortisol in your blood stream, directing the adrenals on how much to release.

Most cells in your body contain cortisol receptors and will receive and use hormone in different ways. When we are on high-alert, cortisol can alter or even shut down functions that get in the way, after all this is about survival right?! What’s more important than that!! This may result in our digestive system, immune system and growth processes ceasing until the danger is over. Issues start to arise when we move from a natural short-term response to a more chronic, long-term elevation of cortisol levels. Effects of chronically elevated cortisol levels include:

  • Suppressed immunity
  • High blood sugar (hyperglycaemia)
  • Hypertension
  • Insulin resistance
  • Carbohydrate cravings (and fatty foods)
  • Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome
  • Increased fat deposits
  • Reduced libido
  • Reduced bone density

How Cortisol Causes Weight Gain

In a healthy individual, cortisol plays a integral part of a balanced lifestyle, boosting our ability to handle the daily challenges thrown our way. When in a chronic state however things take a disastrous turn for the worse when it comes to losing or maintaining weight.

As mentioned earlier, cortisol is a powerful survival hormone linked into our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The sole purpose of this part of our nervous system is to keep alive and responds directly to stress. The big difference is that in days gone by, this stress may have been an attack from a wild animal or a rival tribe. Either way it’s very likely that this stress would have been short-lived (we would have fought them off or run away!). However, our brain cannot distinguish between a wild animal attacking us or that deadline that is fast-approaching and we are nowhere near meeting. To our brain, this stress is constant, it’s playing on our mind and is jacking up our cortisol levels in the process.

A not-so-welcome side-effect of this elevated stress levels is the effect it has on our muscles. When called upon, cortisol releases glucose from our muscles into our blood stream, preparing us to fight or flight (run away). If this glucose isn’t used it can be deposited as fat (after all, fat is stored energy). Often this fat storage can be most visible around our mid-line and can be tough to shift unless we correct our cortisol levels. To compound this issue, another powerful side-effect can be a propensity to reach for sugary or fatty foods (comfort eating). This can make sustaining a weight-loss plan extremely difficult, if not impossible and contribute to the yo-yo dieting epidemic that plagues the modern era.

How Do We Balance Our Cortisol Levels?

As our cortisol levels are intrinsically linked with stress. Anything we can do to reduce our stress levels can help to restore a more balanced level of cortisol. Simple but effective methods include:

  • Treat yourself to a relaxing massage
  • Spend time doing things you enjoy and find relaxing
  • Try some simple breathing techniques, yoga or meditation
  • Eat well
  • Exercise
  • Sleep well

The Importance of Sleep

I think we all know that getting enough sleep is important. This might not be particularly easy though if we are chronically stressed and have elevated cortisol levels. In a healthy individual our cortisol levels are highest in the morning (they help to trigger our waking cycle) and lowest in the evening. They have a reciprocal relationship with another hormone called melatonin (this hormone helps to send us to sleep). As our cortisol levels drop, melatonin levels rise and off to the land of nod we go.

Chronically elevated cortisol levels can interfere with our melatonin production and result in that ‘tired but wired’ feeling. By implementing a better sleep ritual, we can start to address this imbalance (if done so in conjunction with the steps mentioned earlier). To obtain a better sleep ritual, try:

  • Power down – Try to make the last hour before bedtime a completely digital-free zone. The blue light from our smart phones and tablets will easily jack up our cortisol levels as our brain thinks it’s morning and is time to get up!
  • Plan ahead – Get yourself organised by planning your outfit for the next day, get your gym kit ready, prep your food (if required) and basically help yourself to reduce the morning rush.
  • Lights out – Exposure to electrical light can suppress melatonin, instead dim the lights if possible or use a lamp.
  • Write it down – Having a million and one things going through our mind can prevent us from winding down and getting to sleep. By writing down the things that we need to do it can help us to momentarily switch off and clear our heads.
  • Herbal Teas -Try some decaffeinated herbal teas such as chamomile, this can have a calming and sedative effect on the body.


We think it’s important that we understand the important role that cortisol plays in a ‘healthy’ individual and to strive to improve our overall health and well-being. This would be far more beneficial instead of looking for a quick fix or some other intervention that is simply papering over the cracks. As with most aspects of health and fitness, it’s often the small changes that can be the most powerful if they are positive behavioural changes for the long-term.