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Cortisol, Stress and Body Fat: Myth versus Fact

Nov 17, 2009

Among the many weight loss products available today that claim to offer the be-all and end-all solution to reducing body fat are products that claim to prevent or reverse weight loss by suppressing cortisol. Like many weight loss claims, the explanations these products provide seem logical. However, is this an effective way to lose weight? How does cortisol supposedly cause weight gain in the first place?

What Is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone that the adrenal gland secretes in response to stress. It is classified as a glucocorticoid, which is a hormone that increases blood sugar levels. When faced with a highly stressful or even life-threatening situation, the body produces cortisol, which then readies the system to respond with a fight or flight response depending on the nature of the threat.

Types of stress can vary, however, and not all stressful situations require increased blood sugar levels. Physical, emotional, or mental stress, or even stress on the body caused by intensive exercise or an extremely low calorie diet can all trigger the release of cortisol. Because modern life tends to be so high-energy with constant stress triggers firing, from work deadlines to near-miss traffic incidents, it is not uncommon for cortisol levels to remain unnaturally high. The body never gets a chance to balance back out with a relaxation response after the stressful event has passed, because another stressful event comes immediately afterward.

How Is Cortisol Related to Weight Gain?

These long-term high levels of cortisol can lead to various negative side effects, including:

  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Decreased immune response
  • Blood sugar imbalance
  • Increased abdominal fat

The last side effect has led some to believe that cortisol causes weight gain, and that suppression of cortisol will lead to weight loss. Unfortunately for those looking for a quick fix, this is not true. In fact, cortisol and the stress response cause some to lose weight. Cortisol fires up the body to burn more fat, making that extra energy available to escape from the danger that caused the fight or flight reaction in the first place.

Some people, though, react to stress as to the production of cortisol by eating more, and by eating food higher in carbohydrates. This does lead to weight gain, but cortisol itself is not the cause. Also, studies that showed that elevated cortisol levels are related to higher levels of abdominal fat did not provide any evidence to support the idea that suppressing cortisol would help the body get rid of that fat.

The connection, then, between stress, cortisol and body fat is that stress releases cortisol, which can cause some individuals to overeat in response to that stress. The way to break the chain, then, is not to suppress cortisol production, but to reduce the constant stress that keeps cortisol levels high in the first place.

Short-circuiting the stress reaction can be as simple as taking time out every day to relax. Letting the body move into a fully relaxed state through meditation, yoga, journaling or other techniques will reduce stress, reduce cortisol production and, in the long term, eliminate stress-related eating and the vicious circle that leads to weight gain.

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