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28th Jan 2020

Stress and Weight Gain: Is cortisol the key?

Posted by Jillian Foster

You may have been struggling to lose weight for some time and feel like it’s a constant battle where nothing works. If you are dealing with constant stress at work or home or perhaps are missing out on some much needed sleep, then your cortisol may be sabotaging your weight loss efforts.

Firstly, let’s look at what cortisol actually is.

Cortisol is often referred to as the ‘stress hormone’ as it is released during times of stress. It is a hormone that is made in the adrenal gland and its secretion is controlled by the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal gland in combination, this is referred to as the HPA axis. When you wake up, exercise or are facing a stressful event in your life, cortisol is produced.                                                                                                    

Most of the cells in our bodies have cortisol receptors’, meaning this hormone plays a role in many areas of the body and has many functions. Cortisol helps:

Whilst your body is quite adept at producing just the right amount of cortisol, unfortunately our modern lifestyles mean we are exposed to long term stress more often than our bodies were biologically designed for.


How does this contribute to weight gain?

There are a couple of ways in which excess cortisol contributes to weight gain. One of the roles of cortisol is to release glucose (sugars) and lipids (fats) into the blood to be utilised by our muscles. This function was essential when we were cavemen as our stress was usually a predator that we needed to run from….fast. Now, our stressors are different and we no longer utilise the glucose and lipids that have been released into our blood. When there is a rise in blood glucose, it triggers the release of insulin, a hormone that helps promote the uptake of glucose into the muscle in order to regulate the glucose in the blood. However, insulin also plays a role in fat storage. When insulin levels are high the excess sugars in the blood are converted to fat and then stored around the organs (also known as visceral fat), this is how cortisol triggers excess abdominal weight.

Now we’ve established cortisol raises your blood sugar level which then in turn increases insulin levels. Well insulin works to drop your blood sugar and this then leads to wild cravings for unhealthy foods! More often than not you give into these cravings, which is not surprising as cortisol can also make you feel tired which then lowers your willpower to resist those naughty foods.

What can I do to lower cortisol?

Whilst it is hard to stop all the stressors coming at us, there are ways to mitigate it and help lower your cortisol naturally.

Herbal medicine:

Withania – a traditional Ayurvedic herb used to reduce stress and mild anxiety levels, Withania has been clinically shown to reduce cortisol levels. Known as an ‘adaptogen’ it helps the body adapt to stress.

Rhodiola – has been shown to help support memory and mental function, things we all struggle with when anxious or stressed and also helps temporarily relieve the symptoms of stress.

Siberian ginseng – has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years to increase vitality, reduce fatigue and help maintain and support energy levels and stamina.

Passionflower – traditionally used to relieve nervous restlessness, sleeplessness and mild anxiety.

Korean ginseng – traditionally used in Chinese medicine as a tonic and revitaliser to help maintain health and wellbeing.

St John’s Wort – a calming herb that may help relieve restlessness and irritability and may ease the stress of work and study.



Magnesium – an essential nutrient for nervous system support and needed for energy production. It may assist with stress, irritability, sleeplessness and mild anxiety.

B Complex – helps support the nervous system during times of physical and mental stress.

Vitamin C – can assist with healthy adrenal function and help reduce raised cortisol levels.

Chromium - can assist with aiding the transport of glucose into cells.


There are also lifestyle measures you can take that can really help you lower your cortisol and keep your stress under control.

Try to get enough sleep – limit screen time before bed, reduce caffeine in the afternoon and evening, and try to stick to a consistent bed time. Getting to bed before 10pm is ideal!

Exercise – mild to moderate exercise can help you manage your cortisol levels. Try not to overdo exercise as too much will increase your cortisol levels.

Mediation & mindfulness – can go a long way in reducing your stress levels and in turn reducing your circulating cortisol.

Learn to relax – look for activities that relax you, these could include playing with your children, getting a massage, watching a movie, reading a book, taking a bath, listening to music, going to the beach or catching up with some friends. It’s always great to find things that make you laugh as this will immediate release stress. Like they say laughter is the best medicine!

If you are aware you are becoming increasingly stressed try to take note, identify what is causing you stress and try to address it, set aside some time for some self-care and look at our tips to help calm down and keep your cortisol levels at bay.

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