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The Link Between Cortisol and Weight Gain

Recent studies have identified a link between elevated blood cortisol levels and weight gain. This relationship sheds light on why, for some people, weight can be very difficult to shift and does not respond well to dieting and exercise.

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the cortex of the adrenal gland. It plays a critical role in the metabolism of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, as well as monitoring sodium and potassium ratios. In addition, it is a powerful anti-inflammatory but also slows healing and depresses the immune system.

Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands under times of stress. Its role is to invoke the “fight-or-flight” response, that is, its evolutionary function is to help the body mobilize forces to either fight the threat or run from it. As stress has become an increasing feature of modern life, it is not uncommon for cortisol to be continuously excreted into the blood stream, resulting in permanently elevated serum cortisol levels. Over time, depleted adrenal glands struggle to cope with the stress that modern Western life presents.

Unfortunately, chronically high levels of circulating cortisol contribute to the laying down of fat reserves in the abdominal area of the body, resulting in an “apple-shaped” profile, comprising a thickened torso—including stomach, back, neck, and upper arms—with a relatively slim hip and thigh structure. This classic apple shape is of concern to both doctors and sufferers because fat that predominantly occurs in the upper half of the body increases the likelihood of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. It is also particularly difficult to shift and often does not respond in the customary manner to a change in dietary and exercise habits.

To complicate matters further, it has now been recognized that the stress that strict dieting puts on the body actually stimulates cortisol output, thus making weight control even more difficult for some individuals. In addition, constant secretion of cortisol to fuel the “fight-or flight” response results in rapid swings in blood sugar, which ultimately leads to further overeating. Individuals also differ in how much cortisol their bodies produce under stress, resulting in further uncertainty in correlating stress levels, cortisol secretion, and fat deposition.

So, what can be done to break the cortisol cycle? Stress reduction is the first line of defense, but stress comes in many forms and individuals should explore what issues need to be addressed and what techniques to counteract stress would best suit them. Part of any stress reduction campaign should include a healthy diet, and it is in this latter area that nutritional supplementation can provide an excellent starting point in restoring the body to a healthy balance.