Stress is such a huge part of everyday life now. Particularly since the pandemic with the challenges and grief that brought with it, many are experiencing levels of stress like never before. Chronic stress over long periods can be very dangerous for our health because cortisol, the natural hormone linked to helping our bodies cope with stress, can have negative impacts if its overproduced.
If cortisol is being overproduced in your body, it can cause issues with your sleep, your metabolism and your appetite. It can affect your immune system, your blood pressure and it can cause weight gain, amongst many other side effects.
What is cortisol good for
In normal everyday activities, cortisol is a hormone released into our bloodstream to help regulate our blood pressure, blood sugar levels and support our immune system. It’s also well known as the hormone that helps the body respond to immediate stress and our fight/flight reactions.
How cortisol is produced
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands in response to various signals from the body such as low blood sugar levels, stress or the circadian rhythm.
Usually as the cortisol levels in the body rises, signals are sent back to the adrenals to stop the production when necessary.
However, if your stress levels stay too high for too long, this can cause disruption in the natural process, and the level of cortisol in your body to be raised to an unhealthy level for too long, which can have a negative impact on your health.
One study looked at social stress and found that “One recent follow-up found that men and women who reported long-term conflicts within, or lack of support from, their closest relationships were more likely to have had an increase in waist circumference and body mass index (BMI) over the study period”.
Factors such as certain medication, illness, sleep disruption or psychological and emotional stress such as financial worries, traumatic events, relationship problems as well as intense exercise, excess alcohol and caffeine intake can trigger the release of cortisol.
Symptoms of high cortisol levels
If you are experiencing high levels of cortisol, you might feel like you are in a constant state of fight/flight.
Whether it’s due to physical or emotional factors, persistent elevated levels of cortisol can have negative effects on the body. It can disrupt various systems and processes, including:
- Weight gain, particularly in the abdominal area
- Thin and fragile skin that bruises easily
- Muscle weakness
- High blood pressure
- Increased risk of infections
- Thinning of bones (osteoporosis)
- Mood swings and irritability
- Irregular menstrual periods and decreased fertility in women
- Impaired glucose tolerance or diabetes
Why does Cortisol affect weight gain
Cortisol has an impact on weight gain for multiple reasons:
- Increased appetite. Cortisol stimulates appetite and cravings, particularly for high-calorie, sugary, and fatty foods. This can lead to overeating and the consumption of excess calories.
- Fat storage. Cortisol promotes the storage of fat, particularly in the abdominal area. Abdominal fat cells have a higher density of cortisol receptors compared to fat cells in other areas of the body, making them more responsive to cortisol-induced fat storage. This type of fat deposition is known as visceral fat, which is associated with an increased risk of health problems such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
- Insulin resistance. Prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels can lead to metabolic changes, including insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels and promotes the uptake of glucose by cells. When cells become resistant to the effects of insulin, glucose remains in the bloodstream, leading to higher blood sugar levels. This can promote fat storage and make it more difficult for the body to use stored fat as a source of energy, potentially contributing to weight gain.
- Muscle breakdown: Cortisol has catabolic effects on muscle tissue – meaning it can break down muscle protein. This can lead to a decrease in muscle mass. Since muscle plays a crucial role in maintaining metabolic rate, reduced muscle mass can lower the body’s overall calorie-burning capacity, potentially resulting in weight gain.
- Disrupted sleep and stress eating. High cortisol levels can interfere with sleep patterns, and insufficient sleep is associated with weight gain. Additionally, stress and elevated cortisol levels can contribute to emotional eating or the tendency to eat in response to stress or negative emotions, further contributing to weight gain.
What can you do about high cortisol
By avoiding external stimulants like coffee, alcohol and other substances. Reducing the levels of stress in life where possible, a healthy diet and ensuring you get quality sleep are all steps that will help towards keeping your cortisol levels in check.