Could stress be the cause of weight gain?

woman in black long sleeve shirt covering her face with her hands

By Holly L

June 18, 2021

Excess cortisol can significantly impact your ability to lose or sustain a healthy weight.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone produced in the two adrenal glands located on top of each kidney. Cortisol is released first thing in the morning when we wake to help us get up and ready for the day, it is then reduced at night in order to allow us to sleep. Throughout the day our cortisol levels can fluctuate in response to exercise and stress; this is why it is known as the “fight-or-flight” hormone.

What happens in our bodies when cortisol is released?

The bodies response to stress is intended as a survival mechanism, typically this is what happens:

  1. An individual is faced with a stressor.
  2. The adrenals secrete cortisol.
  3. Cortisol prepares the body for a fight-or-flight response by flooding it with glucose, this supplies an immediate energy source to our large muscles.
  4. When this process is in operation insulin release is inhibited (this is the hormone that deals with sugar in the blood, sending signals to the cells to take and store glucose). It does this because it wants the glucose available for immediate use.
  5. Cortisol narrows the arteries and increases heart rate, both of which force blood to pump harder and faster preparing our muscles for what’s to come.
  6. Hopefully, we resolve the situation and discover there is no need to actually fight or flight
  7. Hormone levels return to normal.

So what’s the problem?

In short, the theory is that with our ever-stressed, fast-paced lifestyle, our bodies are pumping out cortisol almost constantly, which can wreak havoc on our health. Elevated cortisol over the long term consistently produces glucose, leading to increased blood sugar levels. Not only does this put us at risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes but can also lead to weight gain.

Weight Gain

You may have heard of “stressed out belly”?  this is because the increased levels of cortisol can increase the amount of visceral fat (around abdomen and organs) we store. This is also the most dangerous type of fat to store for heath.

A second way in which cortisol may be involved in weight gain goes back to the blood sugar-insulin problem. Consistently high blood glucose levels, along with insulin suppression leads to cells that are starved of glucose. But those cells are crying out for energy, and one way to regulate is to send hunger signals to the brain. This can lead to overeating. And, of course, unused glucose is eventually stored as body fat.

Another connection is cortisol’s effect on appetite and cravings for high-calorie foods. Cortisol may directly influence our appetite by modulating other hormones and stress responsive factors known to stimulate appetite.

Excess cortisol can lead to other health issues

Imagine what goes on in a cortisol-flooded, stressed-out body when food is consumed: Digestion and absorption are compromised, indigestion develops, and the mucosal lining becomes irritated and inflamed. Ulcers are more common during stressful times, and many people with irritable bowel syndrome and colitis report improvement in their symptoms when they master stress management.

As we’ve seen, cortisol constricts blood vessels and increases blood pressure to enhance the delivery of oxygenated blood. This is advantageous for fight-or-flight situations but not perpetually. Over time, such arterial constriction and high blood pressure can lead to vessel damage and plaque buildup—the perfect scenario for a heart attack.

Long-term stress and elevated cortisol may also be linked to insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, thyroid disorders, dementia, depression, and other conditions.

The Good News

Fortunately, there is much we can do to reverse the path of destruction. The best approach to keeping cortisol levels at bay is mastering stress management and optimising diet.

Stress Management

Check out Woodson Merrell’s The Source for some powerful yet common-sense, evidence-based advice for de-stressing and regaining optimal health. Some strategies include getting more and better-quality sleep, breath work, acupuncture, cardio/resistance/relaxation exercises, and addressing psychological/emotional issues.

Diet and Nutrition

Diets high in processed foods and sugar cause inflammation in the body.  For some people FODMAPs, night shade vegetables, dairy and raw nuts and seeds can also cause inflammation. High levels of inflammation also cause elevated cortisol levels. If we can naturally decrease inflammation in the body and minimize stress, decreased cortisol levels should follow, resulting in decreased chronic disease risk and improved wellness.


Implementation of targeted dietary and lifestyle approaches is an extremely powerful way to reduce stress, minimise inflammation, and reduce the risk for illness and chronic disease.

As an Executive Coach and Health Coach I work with my clients holistically in implementing behavioural changes both inside and outside of work enabling them to take control of their health and wellbeing which in turn enables them to be exceptional leaders.

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