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How Stress and Cortisol can Impact Your Weight
How Stress and Cortisol can Impact Your Weight
Base Medical Team avatar
Written by Base Medical Team
Updated over a week ago

Are you frequently experiencing some level of stress in your life? Are you worried that stress is the reason why you can’t lose weight? If you’re stressed out, you’re not alone. 83% of people who work in the US experience work-related stress, and more than half of the population experiences stress on a daily basis! While stress can be an important motivating factor in your life, chronic stress can have detrimental effects on your health.

Your body has numerous finely-tuned elements that work together to support proper function. One of these elements is your hormonal system which your body uses to communicate various signals between cells and organs; small changes in hormone levels can lead to big changes in your physical and mental health.

A particularly important hormone is cortisol. Cortisol is involved in several functions in your body including your stress response, and imbalances can lead to weight gain.


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How Stress and Cortisol can Impact Your Weight

What is Cortisol and Why Should You Care?

Cortisol is a hormone created by your body and levels are managed by the communication between your brain and three main glands: The hypothalamus, the pituitary, and the adrenal glands.

Cortisol is often cast in a negative light as it is mainly associated with stress. But the truth is, cortisol is an essential component of your good health! In addition to playing a lead role in your body’s stress response, cortisol is also involved in the regulation of your metabolism, your inflammatory response, the balance of your blood glucose levels, and the production of memories. Cortisol is also involved in regulation of your blood pressure and, if you are a pregnant woman, development of the fetus!

The cortisol levels in your body vary throughout the day. Typically, levels are highest in the morningand taper off as the day goes on. Cortisol imbalances can occur when you have abnormal sleeping patterns (maybe you work the night shift), certain diseases (such as Addison’s or Cushing’s), or certain conditions (such as chronic stress).

Your Body’s Physiological Response to Stress

As a well-known stress hormone, cortisol generates that fight-or-flight response when you are faced with a perceived threat; your body is placed on high-alert and you are (theoretically) readier to handle the given situation. It is intended for use as a survival mechanism and has historically worked very well in that regard.

In overtly stressful situations, the jump in cortisol results in an increase in glucose in your blood stream, giving you significantly easier access to energy. At the same time, cortisol narrows your arteries and adrenaline quickens your heart rate, further helping prepare you for facing the stressor. Once the situation has resolved, your hormones return to baseline levels, your heart rate normalizes, and you move on with your life.

We have probably all experienced the described phenomenon at some point in our lives. Maybe you saw a driver who was going to hit your car, but you were able to steer out of the way at the last moment. Or maybe your child went missing in the grocery store, but you were able to quickly locate her after running down a couple of aisles. But what happens when you are having a stress-response to situations that aren’t necessarily life-threatening?

Effects of Elevated Cortisol on Your Health

In a world where productivity and efficiency are held as golden standards, it is easy to feel some level of stress for prolonged periods of time. Maybe you have a job that seems to follow you wherever you go, or maybe you have a stressful situation at home that has been difficult to resolve. More and more people are suffering from chronic stress, with detrimental results.

Cortisol and Blood Sugar: In acutely stressful situations, the extra boost of glucose that cortisol induces can be an important source of energy for your fight or flight response. But if cortisol is chronically elevated (as it is with chronic stress), you can be at increased risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes due to elevated blood glucose levels for extended periods of time.

Cortisol and Immune Function: Part of cortisol’s impact on your body is the reduction of inflammation. This function, in the long-term, can also reduce the effectiveness of your immune system, ultimately giving you higher chances of falling ill, developing cancer, and having gastrointestinal issues.

Cortisol and Heart Health: As was discussed previously, the constricting effect of cortisol on your blood vessels can be helpful in life-threatening situations. But for prolonged periods of time, this effect can lead to vascular damage and poor heart health. In fact, chronically elevated cortisol levels are correlated with an increased risk of heart disease.

Cortisol and Weight Gain: Cortisol falls into a category of hormones that are known to drive your intake of fatty and sugary foods up; this is part of the reason why elevated cortisol levels are linked with weight gain. Weight gain as a result of high cortisol levels tends to accumulate in the abdominal and facial regions, and research shows that people with abdominal obesity tend to have higher cortisol levels. And more research shows that higher cortisol levels are linked with greater weight gain in the long run. Hormones and weight loss are closely interrelated, and imbalances in cortisol can have a compounding effect on your weight!

Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels

So, you may be wondering if any of this information even applies to you. Several factors can cause imbalances in your cortisol levels, and the symptoms you experience will vary depending on what the source of the imbalance is. The best way to manage your cortisol levels over time is to monitor with companies, such as Base, which allows you to easily test from the comfort of your own home.

Symptoms of high cortisol levels include abdominal and/or facial weight gain, skin problems such as acne or easy bruising, increased blood pressure, extreme tiredness, weakness, headaches, irritability, and issues with concentrating.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms and are non-critical or suspect that you may have a cortisol imbalance, consider starting to [track your stress] ( A cortisol test is the easiest and most accurate way to determine if your health concerns are the result of high cortisol levels.

At-home lab-testing allows you to track your cortisol levels over time, and Base will give you personalized suggestions for methods to naturally balance your cortisol levels.

How to Reduce Cortisol Naturally

If your lab tests show you have high cortisol levels, talk to your doctor to see what the root cause may be. If you determine stress is the driving factor to your high cortisol levels, make a plan to determine which lifestyle interventions will actually work for you to get the balance your body needs. Below is a list of natural interventions that may be recommended to you; using an at-home lab-testing service, you’ll be able to monitor what actions you take actually make positive changes to your cortisol levels:

  • Maintain a balanced diet that has plenty of fruits and veggies. Having adequate amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats in your daily eating pattern can help keep your mood balanced and your mind functioning properly.

  • Consider taking a multivitamin to abate any deficiencies you may have. Research has shown that some herbs and supplements (including ashwagandha, lemon balm, and chamomile) can help manage your stress levels. Consider using supplements to reduce cortisol, just be sure to confer with your doctor before trying one of these possible remedies!

  • Get outside and exercise! Research shows that exercise reduces cortisol while increasing feel-good chemicals in your body. And simply sitting in the woods and breathing the fresh air has been associated with decreased cortisol levels and decreased stress.

  • Get your beauty sleep. Sleep deprivation is associated with elevated cortisol levels and can lead to lapses in memory, faster aging, and weight gain. And try your best to have a consistent sleep schedule as abnormal patterns can wreak havoc on your cortisol balance throughout the day.

If you’ve been wondering why you can’t lose weight no matter what you do, you may be suffering from cortisol imbalances. Stress, cortisol, and your weight are closely intertwined, and chronic stress can negatively impact your weight loss goals and leave you feeling exasperated. Luckily, hormonal imbalance tests make it easy to learn if your cortisol levels are abnormal and can let you know what direction you need to take with your health.

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