What is Cortisol? Does it Make me Fat?

Have you seen the ads about cortisol? They seem to be everywhere, on TV, and especially online and in social media. If you have ever searched for, or clicked on, anything having to do with weight loss, you most certainly have been served an ad telling you that stress is increasing your cortisol levels and that cortisol is increasing your belly fat. All you need to do is to take a supplement to control your cortisol, and your belly will shrink. This message is pretty compelling, especially for those of us who are stressed and are worried about our waistlines.

What is cortisol, and why is it called the “stress hormone”?

Cortisol is one of many hormones our bodies produce that can affect our weight. For example, if we haven’t eaten for a long time, our body produces ghrelin, the hunger hormone, which makes us want to eat. We produce cortisol during times of stress, as part of a complex system of signals that allow us to engage in “fight or flight” when faced with real or perceived danger.

When faced with a stressful situation, once the brain signals the release of cortisol, there are several immediate effects:

• We have increased energy: By increasing glucose in the bloodstream, cortisol provides immediate energy to large muscles.
• We have better mental clarity and focus: Because cortisol enhances the brain’s use of glucose.
• We become more efficient: Systems not immediately required for survival, such as digestion, reproduction and growth processes, are suppressed.
• Our immune response is altered: It changes immune system responses and suppresses inflammatory reactions.

Under normal situations, without extreme stress, the natural rise and fall of cortisol is necessary for your body to function in a healthy way. Cortisol is responsible for cleaning up immune cells that increase inflammation, and increasing the availability of glucose to your brain, which results in energy and alertness.

Throughout the day, your cortisol level will change. The body’s cortisol production system is self-adjusting, so when it is functioning properly, cortisol is highest in the morning and lowest at night.

What does all that have to do with my waistline?

When you are exposed to chronic stress, your cortisol level remains high and since it is never able to reduce, you are less able to relax, sleep and heal. This is when cortisol can affect your weight in a variety of ways:
• Appetite and Cravings: Chronic stress and consistently high cortisol levels can lead to increased appetite and cravings for high-sugar, high-fat foods, which can contribute to weight gain if those cravings are acted upon.
• Fat Storage: Cortisol can also influence where your body stores fat. Studies suggest that high cortisol levels, particularly in combination with high insulin levels, promote the storage of fat behind the muscle the abdominal area. This fat, known as visceral fat, is more dangerous than subcutaneous fat, which is the more squishy fat that lives in front of your muscles throughout the body. This is where those belly fat ads come from.
• Impaired Metabolism: Chronic stress and elevated cortisol can also lead to disruptions in metabolism, insulin sensitivity and other hormonal changes that might promote weight gain or hinder weight loss.
• Disrupted Sleep: High cortisol levels can interfere with healthy sleep patterns. Poor sleep, in turn, is associated with weight gain, including an increase in belly fat.

So yes, cortisol, caused by chronic stress is definitely a contributing factor to weight gain, and often cortisol-related weight gain is concentrated in the abdominal area. This makes those cortisol supplement ads half true.

Can supplements reduce cortisol?

The short answer (and maybe the long answer) is no!

There are two types of supplements that claim to reduce cortisol. Some are adrenal extracts. Others include common mild substances commonly thought to reduce stress.

Adrenal extracts can be dangerous, and there is no proof that the amount in supplements can actually reduce cortisol. Different forms of adrenal extracts, made from the glands of cows and pigs, have been repeatedly banned by the FDA. However, the FDA does not monitor supplements so there is no way to regulate what is being sold.

Taking adrenal extracts could have the unintended consequence of stopping your adrenal glands from working properly, which interrupts the production and release of cortisol and other important hormones. If the adrenal glands stop working, it can take them months to start working correctly again after you stop taking the supplements. The most serious complication is adrenal crisis, which can be deadly if not treated right away.

Supplements that include substances thought to reduce stress, like lemon balm and chamomile are on the right track and are probably not harmful. But there is no evidence that they actually work. Tea with those substances is a much more effective delivery system. But ingesting any substance is not the best way to reduce stress and will not reduce cortisol levels.

The truth is, only stress reduction can reduce cortisol levels.

The good news is that we all have the ability to reduce our own stress.

What are the best ways to reduce stress?


Simply taking long, deep breaths can go a long way towards reducing stress. That’s why many smart phones, watches and fitness trackers offer breathing reminders. When we are under stress we don’t breathe deeply and regularly. Taking a moment to do just that will mitigate your body’s reaction to stress.


Next time you are feeling stressed, take a moment and give yourself some credit for your abilities and accomplishments. Try to see mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow. If you are worried about a bad outcome, think it through. Will that bad outcome really be so terrible? If you can get in the habit of reframing stressful thoughts, your entire body can begin to relax.

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