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Cortisol --- Does It Really Make You Fat?
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January  7, 2013, last updated February 15, 2016
By Louise Carr, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist

If you’ve seen any of the hundreds of ads recently about cortisol, it would
appear that our weight loss is being sabotaged by our own bodies – and we
can do something about it. Cortisol, the natural “stress” hormone, has many
functions including stimulating fat and carbohydrate metabolism which can
lead to an increase in appetite. Cortisol is also linked with increased fat
stores around the abdomen. It appears the hormonal release of cortisol
under stress can promote weight gain, and if we limit cortisol levels we can
prevent piling on the pounds.

As with many other diet and weight loss programs, the theory behind
cortisol and stress appears to make sense when it comes to fat levels. But
how does cortisol affect your weight in reality? If you lower your cortisol
levels will you automatically lose more weight? Cortisol is presumably a
complex hormone and one that works naturally in the body, so is it actually
safe to take cortisol-lowering supplements?

What Does Cortisol Do?

Cortisol is an essential hormone that helps our bodies respond to stress.
Cortisol helps maintain blood pressure, stimulates the release of insulin, and
converts fat, carbohydrates and proteins into energy. Our levels of cortisol
naturally peak early in the morning and begin to drop during the day. This is
called the "cortisol awakening response".

The Cortisol Awakening Response

Our levels of cortisol are around 50 percent higher immediately after waking
up in the morning, according to 2000 research by the University of Trier,
Germany. This may be due to the actions of the hippocampus in the brain,
preparing our bodies to face the anticipated stress of the day.

Cortisol levels dip naturally during the day to build again during the night.
Our cortisol response may be largely genetic, according to further research
in 2000 by the University of Trier, Germany although sleep factors do affect
peak cortisol levels.

Waking up earlier in the morning results in a greater spike in cortisol,
according to 2003 research from the University of Düsseldorf, Germany. As
does waking up in the light rather than darkness (1999 research from the
Netherlands Institute for Brain Research, Amsterdam). All very interesting,
but how does cortisol affect our
waist line?  

Cortisol, Stress and Weight

Cortisol is a stress hormone and as such it helps prepare your body for a
“fight or flight” response to a physical or psychological stressor. When
cortisol is released it increases sugars in your bloodstream for fast energy,
suppresses your digestive system and increases your appetite.

Cortisol also has a complex effect on your moods, fear levels and motivation.
So, it seems, stress can affect both the physical metabolism of fats and carbs
as well as your emotional response to food.

Gaining fat around your abdomen? Cortisol could be partly to blame.  
Cortisol release may not only promote weight gain but affect where you gain
the weight.  Women with higher cortisol levels store their excess fat in the
abdomen rather than the hips, according to a 2000 study by the University
of California, leading to the hypothesis that stress-induced cortisol release
contributes to a build up of dangerous central fat. Abdominal fat is strongly
linked with cardiovascular disease,
heart attack and stroke. (Read more
about what is a
normal waist size for people of different heights.)

Does Excess Cortisol Make You Fat?

So, does having more cortisol in your body help you pile on the pounds? The
answer is yes, according to some experts.

A 1999 study by Yale University demonstrated that greater exposure to
cortisol among men and women with high levels of abdominal fat may have
played a role in contributing to this fat deposit.

A 2012 study from Leiden University Medical Center, The Netherlands
reported that “obesity, stress and sleep loss are all related in a vicious circle”
and cortisol levels are elevated in obese people.

And a 1995 study from the Developmental Endocrinology Branch, National
Institutes of Health showed chronic stress and the release of high levels of
cortisol strongly affected body composition and resulted in greater fat stores.

But before you reach for the cortisol-lowering supplements, consider this.
The relationship between stress, cortisol levels and weight gain is not easy
to predict or quantify. Every individual is affected in a different way by the
complex reactions taking place in their body when under stress. A dose of
cortisol-lowering drugs does not automatically equate to weight loss or a
decrease in weight gain.

A 2006 study from Oregon Health & Science University shows the cortisol/
weight gain connection much loved by marketers of weight loss supplements
is highly tenuous. Cortisol is not the only factor involved in obesity and
according to researchers it is not the major factor. Researchers couldn’t tell
if a cortisol rise resulted in weight gain or was the impact of gaining weight.

Whether you gain or lose weight depends on many factors - not just stress -
including, perhaps obviously, how much food you eat and what kind of food,
your exercise levels, your resting metabolic rate, and your genes. And
whether stress actually results in a rise in cortisol also varies between
individuals. Many of us are more reactive to stress than others, making it
impossible to predict whether stress is impacting on cortisol levels.

Stress probably does have an effect on your weight and your healthy
lifestyle. You’re certainly more likely to reach for the chips and chocolate
when you are feeling out of control.

But while the diet industry has tried to capitalize on the connection between
cortisol, stress and weight, no independent studies are available to directly
link supplements that lower cortisol with verifiable weight loss.

Hormones like cortisol are finely tuned and “turning them off” may have far-
reaching effects on other functions in our body.
Cortisol levels are related to
stress and play a part in the stress response but suppressing cortisol may
not actually reduce the stress you feel. Nor will suppressing cortisol levels
necessarily cause weight reduction.

A better approach is to address stress directly by using exercise, yoga,
counseling, meditation, deep breathing and other approaches to deal with
stress-induced weight gain. (Read more about Top 10
foods that help you
reduce stress.

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