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Cortisol: The Stress Hormone

Looking at the effects of stress on our body through a scientific lens

We all know that stress, depression and anxiety are often associated with weight gain. Emotional eating is a common topic in recent years, and depression contributes to the rising levels of obesity in America; But aside from emotional eating, there is another factor to the suggestion that stress and weight gain are related. This is a hormonal factor and one that is harder to control. This hormone is commonly known as cortisol.

After a stressful event, the hormone cortisol is released into the bloodstream to replenish a person’s energy. It does this by activating the fat and carb metabolism, which in turn activates the release of sugar and insulin and makes a person HUNGRY.

Ideally, cortisol is there to help with a fight or flight response to a dangerous situation or a physical fight, and it replenishes the energy afterwards. The problem is that it can be released as well with emotional stress. Being that many people have constant emotional stress, they may be releasing the hormone often throughout the day, keeping their cortisol levels quite high. Not to mention that cortisol lasts longer in the body than some other hormones like adrenaline or epinephrine. 

Cortisol is commonly known to result in higher levels of hunger, stress-eating and triggered fat storage. It’s not surprising that having high levels of cortisol is believed to cause weight gain in addition to high blood sugar and elevated risk of heart disease.

Although many physicians will back up the theory and research that suggests high cortisol levels can cause weight gain through fat deposits, there have been varying results. Many people have higher cortisol levels, while other people react to stress with lower levels. What we do know for certain though is that cortisol increases appetite (and therefore food intake) and that eating during stressful periods often leads to an unhealthy habit of stress-eating. These two factors along with the theory that cortisol increases fat storage makes it apparent that stress management is a big part of staying physically healthy.

So how do I counter it?

Aside from the obvious solution to try and lessen the amount of stress you have daily, there is one more answer. The number one way to counter elevating cortisol levels is to EXERCISE. Working out releases endorphins which decrease stress and lower cortisol levels. Exercising for only half an hour a day can significantly lessen the effects cortisol has on you. Be careful not to overwork yourself though, because putting too much stress on your body can increase that cortisol again.