The Stress, Cortisol and Fat Connection

Stress and Cortisol Release Linked to Increased Fat

“Recent studies have shown an association between uncontrollable stress and abdominal fat distribution. It has been suggested that changes in cortisol secretion might represent one possible mechanism for this relationship.” We live in a crazy world where stress is on the rise and keeping our adrenal glands working overtime. Pressure from the job, juggling the kids and household responsibilities, financial hardship, illness and struggling relationships are just a few reasons stress hits us square in the face and in the gut. When we live under an umbrella of chronic stress it negatively affects our health and now studies are saying our waistlines. Project Aware and on Cortisol and Weight stated “experts now believe that the problem for many of us is being in a constant state of stress. Exposure to cortisol over the long term can lead to weight gain, as your appetite and insulin levels are continuously increased.” Let’s take a look at how cortisol is released in the body and how it may be impairing your ability to lose fat.

What is Cortisol?

Origins of obesity
Stress Can Hinder Fat Loss. Markus Guhl / Getty Images

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland and is part of a group of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids. Cortisol is naturally released to keep our body balanced throughout the day, but springs into overdrive during periods of high stress. The adrenal gland works with the hypothalamus and pituitary glands to flood the body with cortisol and hormones which is part of the flight-or-fight response. The body is now on high alert to protect itself and the release of cortisol hormone during this time is essential. Once the emergency is resolved, hormone levels return to normal and bring the body back into balance. Now, what happens when this burst of cortisol hormones goes haywire and sends a continual cortisol drip into your system in response to constant stress?

Does Cortisol Make You Fat?

Stress and Fat
Stress May Play a Role in Abdominal Fat. imagedepotpro/Getty Images

Studies are linking cortisol and stress to fat increase and further research is ongoing for more definitive answers. A constant state of stress equals a continual release of cortisol and according to a Harvard Health Publication “But if stress persists, it’s a different story. The adrenal glands release another hormone called cortisol, and cortisol increases appetite and may also ramp up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat.” Cortisol has a big job maintaining homeostasis (balance) within the body and providing extra energy (glucose) when needed during stress. The additional glucose created from chronic cortisol release is said to be converted into fat and according to Robert M. Sapolsky, Ph.D., a professor of biological sciences and neuroscience at Stanford University "The net effect of this will be increased fat deposition in a certain part of the body." Bottom line: chronic stress is shown to have negative health effects on the body including links to increased fat and unhealthy food cravings. What to grab from this information is the importance of implementing stress reducing strategies and getting the body back into a healthy daily balance.

How Do I Reduce Stress and Cortisol Release?

Stress Relief
Take a Walk for Stress Relief. WIN-Initiative/Getty Images

A life without stress is impossible, but how we handle stress is within our control. Incorporating stress reducing strategies is going to sound familiar to what you have heard in adopting a healthy lifestyle. The important thing is not to brush the information under the rug and recognize chronic stress and keeping cortisol levels fired up are not healthy. The following tips will be helpful:

  • Exercise: proven to reduce stress and control insulin levels. Exercise gets the body moving and burns off energy caused by stress triggers.  Choosing to exercise over consuming “comfort foods” during stressful situations not only helps prevent unwanted weight gain but sets up a better way to handle stress. A good walk or workout is cheap therapy to help manage stress. Make time for exercise!
  • Relaxation: meditation, prayer, yoga, deep breathing and similar techniques have been shown to reduce stress and provide a calming effect on the body. Improving time management is also essential to reducing stress. Stop being caught up in the “too busy” trap where adrenaline and cortisol are running the show. Step back and realize the importance of a balanced, less stressful daily routine as your new normal with a more relaxed state of mind and health as the priority.
  • Mental Game: when it comes down to life and stress, how we perceive and deal with it is important. There is truth to that saying “life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond to it.” Mastering healthy responses to stressful situations, especially those out of our control will help with stress reduction and enable us to learn positive lessons from life. Don’t allow the stresses in life to get the best of your positive mental game. In the fabulous words of Disney’s Frozen, “Let it Go.”!
  • Eat Healthy: it will be important to resist the temptation of eating sweet fatty foods during times of stress and turn to healthy foods known to maintain balanced insulin levels. The system is struggling enough with the extra cortisol and adrenaline rush and does not need further help from “junk” foods. Enjoy a diet high in fiber with lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats known to keep the body feeling great, full of energy, and better able to cope with stress.


Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School, Why stress causes people to overeat, 2/12

Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Chronic stress and obesity: A new view of “comfort food”, Mary F. Dallman et al., 5/14/03

Journal of Health Psychology, abstract, Food cravings mediate the relationship between chronic stress and body mass index, Ariana Chao et al., 6/15

Journal of Health Psychology, Homeostatic theory of obesity, David F Marks, 6/29/15

Journal of Behavioral Medicine, Psychosomatic Medicine, Stress and Food Choice: A Laboratory Study, Oliver, Georgina PhD et al., 11/2000

Psychoneuroendocrinology, Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior, Elissa Epela et al., 1/01

Nutrition Abstract, Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity, Susan J. Torres et al., 12/07

Association of Women for the Advancement of Research and Education, Cortisol and Weight, Tiffany Spudich, Pharm D, January 2007

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