How Stress and Cortisol Affect Weight Loss

A baby is crying in the night.

Bumper to bumper traffic on the freeway.

Debt collectors are calling for overdue bills.

What do these three things have in common?

They all are sources of stress in a person’s life. Stress is something that is a part of everyday life, for better or worse. Some of us are better at handling stressful times than others, and some of us have a lifestyle that inherently brings more stress into it.

And, while there’s no way to eliminate all stress from your life, which you wouldn’t want to, as some stress is good and needed for the body to get stronger, you do want to do your best to improve the way your body faces and recovers from stress, particularly if you’re interested in getting fit and living a healthy lifestyle.

Today, we’re going to see how stress and cortisol affect weight loss.

First, let’s begin by gaining an understanding of the hormone at the root of stress — cortisol.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by your adrenal glands that regulate a wide range of processes throughout the body, including the immune response and metabolism. And while it is most well-known for the role it plays in the body’s stress response, hence its moniker the “stress hormone,” cortisol serves many essential functions in the body.

Namely, cortisol [1,2,3]:

  • Aids Metabolism of Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fat
  • Increases Blood Sugar (via gluconeogenesis)
  • Modulates the Immune System

It’s also worth noting that cortisol is involved in the inflammatory response. Cortisol does not cause inflammation, but levels increase in response to inflammation (such as during and after intense exercise when muscle repair commences).

Cortisol levels sharply increase in the morning when you wake up and peak roughly 30 minutes later. [4] From here, they slowly begin to decline throughout the day until another acute physical or emotional stress causes them to rise sharply again.

Now, cortisol has been labeled as an “enemy” of weight loss for quite some time due to some research indicating that individuals with elevated cortisol levels have difficulty losing weight, or even worse, causing weight gain. [8,9]

But here’s the thing — cortisol has a lipolytic effect in the body. [5]

This means that cortisol enhances the rate at which stored fatty acids are released into the bloodstream for beta-oxidation (i.e., fat burning).

“But, wait for a second… everything I’ve been reading about cortisol is telling me that it is the reason I can’t lose stubborn belly fat!”

As you’ll see, the cortisol-weight gain situation isn’t as simple as you’ve been led to believe.

And with that said, we arrive at the next topic of discussion — acute vs. chronic stress and weight gain/weight loss.

Acute vs. Chronic Stress

Stress (cortisol) in and of itself is not inherently bad. In times it can be very useful (and even necessary).

Case in point, acute stress, such as when you’re being chased through the jungle by a hungry jaguar, is essential. In this scenario, the acute stressor (wild jaguar chasing you) causes a spike in cortisol (and adrenaline) which activates the body’s fight or flight response. Here, cortisol increases blood sugar to give your muscles energy to fight or evade the hungry jungle predator.

Once the immediate threat has passed your body can then return to homeostasis, and your hormones return to their normal resting levels. (Assuming you defeated or outran the jaguar, that is).

In the above scenario, stress was useful and even life-saving.

Unfortunately, stress does have a dark side too. With chronic stress (due to either persistent physical and/or psychological stress), adrenaline levels go back to resting levels after a time, but, cortisol remains elevated throughout the day.

Why is this bad?

Well, chronic elevation of cortisol in the body has been linked to many adverse consequences, including [6,7]:

  • Weight Gain
  • Osteoporosis
  • Hormone Imbalances
  • GI Complications
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Heart Disease

As you can see, chronic stress is not good. And just in case you were wondering, performing an extended cut in which you are training intensely multiple times per week while eating at a calorie deficit constitutes prolonged stress on the body.

So, let’s dig a little deeper into how chronic stress causes weight gain and slows fat loss.

Chronic Stress, Cortisol, and Stalled Fat Loss

First, while cortisol does enhance lipolysis (breakdown of stored fatty acids) in the body, it tends to not draw as heavily from the fat located around your midsection. [9] This is part of the reason why people who are chronically stressed tend to have higher amounts of abdominal fat. [10]

Additionally, when cortisol levels remain high for prolonged periods, insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia occur, which further hinders fat loss and encourages weight retention/gain. [9]

As if that wasn’t enough, chronically elevated cortisol levels also promote muscle breakdown, inhibits protein synthesis, and counteracts the effects of other anabolic hormones, including testosterone, subsequently slowing your metabolic rate.

This is because the amount of muscle mass an individual has directly impacted their metabolic rate (less muscle mass = slower metabolism).

Side note: since weight gain is first and foremost a function of excess calorie intake, no matter how stressed you are or how much cortisol is coursing through your body will make you gain weight.

In other words, cortisol isn’t directly responsible for your weight gain, but the chronic elevation of cortisol can have several “downstream effects” and impact other hormones that cause you to eat more, thus exceeding your TDEE, and gaining weight.

Speaking of downstream effects, let’s take a look at how stress and cortisol impact your diet.

Chronic Stress, Appetite, and Weight Gain

Ever notice how when you’re stressed you tend to crave all the “wrong” foods (e.g., fried food, pizza, ice cream, etc.). There’s a reason for this, and thanks to researchers we know what that reason is.

When stress hormones (cortisol) increase, so do levels of the hormone that stimulates appetite in the body — ghrelin. [11] But that’s not all; cortisol may also make your brain less sensitive to the effects of leptin, the hormone that signals to your mind that you’ve had enough to eat.

Less satiety with increased feelings of hunger makes you more likely to overeat and less likely to stay on track with your diet.

This lousy combination leads us to eat more and possibly go on an all-out food binge.

And, to make matters just a little bit worse, some research indicates that stress can make us more prone to crave “comfort foods.” [12] By “comfort foods” we mean the hyper-processed, sugary, salty, fatty, packaged goods that are borderline addictive they taste so good. But with that delicious taste comes a truckload of calories devoid of much micronutrition.

This inevitably leads to weight gain, which causes further stress in your life and likely results in you continuing to turn to more of the wrong foods and this sadistic merry-go-round of stress-food binging-weight gain-stress goes round and round and round.

And it’s here where we see how chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels hinder fat loss and the main reason cortisol is often blamed for weight gain.

Chronic Stress and Weight Loss

Interestingly enough, not everyone reacts to stress the same way though. Some populations lose weight when they’re chronically stressed.

This is partly due to individual variations in one’s psychology. For example, one person might find a particular situation extremely stressful, while another p erceives it differently and with less stress.

Once the stressor has passed, both individuals cortisol levels return to baseline, but this occurs at different rates due to the magnitude of cortisol released and the frequency at which each person’s body can break down cortisol.

So, how does this have anything to do with weight loss?

Well, while some people tend to get hungrier and crave salty, fatty, and sugary foods when they’re stressed, others lose their appetite and eat little food.

While this might seem like a good thing (especially if you want to lose weight), this lack of desire to eat food also comes with a very much unwanted side effect — muscle loss.

You see, cortisol is a catabolic hormone in that it breaks down protein (amino acids) to provide the body with energy in the form glucose via gluconeogenesis. When you combine an increase in protein breakdown with inadequate protein (and overall calorie) intake you have the perfect recipe for accelerated muscle loss.

There’s even research to demonstrate just how catabolic extreme stress can be.

An 8-week study involving a group of US Army Rangers were fed a deficient calorie diet while exposed to a “multi-stressor” environment which included [13]:

  • Hot and cold weather extremes
  • Patrols in hostile terrain while lugging around a 70+ pound rucksack
  • Less than 4 hours of sleep per night
  • Low-calorie diet (many times only getting one meal per day)

As you would expect, the Rangers lost a considerable amount of weight over the 8-week timeframe, about 22 lbs. on average. However, what was more shocking was that 9 lbs. of that weight loss came in the form of muscle loss. The other 13 pounds was fat. [13]

Cortisol levels were extraordinarily high and testosterone levels, unsurprisingly, plummeted.

Similar findings can be observed in a case study on a drug-free bodybuilder during contest prep. Throughout three months of dieting, combined with an intense training regimen, the bodybuilder got to sub 10% body fat in spite of his cortisol levels being chronically elevated. [14]

Over the following three months (bringing total prep time to 6 months) cortisol levels remained twice the baseline, resting levels. However, the bodybuilder continued to drop body fat and finished his prep at 4.5% body fat.

Both of these studies highlight the fact that elevated cortisol levels did not induce fat gain or prevent individuals from losing fat.

So again, cortisol isn’t the lone culprit in why you may be struggling to lose weight, but it may be a factor depending on how you react in times of prolonged stress.

How to Manage Stress and Lose Fat Faster

Now that we’ve looked at both sides of the stress-weight coin let’s give you a few quick, easy tips on how to better manage stress and improve your state of mind and body composition.

Do Calming Activities

Do activities that you find relaxing and calming such as reading a book, listening to classical music, going for a walk in the forest, meditation, yoga, stretching.

Exercise

Yes, we realize that moderate-high intensity exercise is a physical stressor on the body, but for many people training is a mental “de-stressor.” A time when they can unplug from their troubles and focus on putting in the work lifting weights. Plus, studies note that intense exercise brings about physiological changes that improve the body’s ability to handle stress. [15]

Also, some research indicates that low-intensity forms of exercise can lower cortisol levels. [16]

Sleep

Sleep is the body’s time to recover, recharge, and grow from the day. Studies have shown that failing to get sufficient sleep leads to elevated levels of cortisol the following day. [17]

As we discussed above for the Army Rangers chronic elevations in cortisol and constant exposure to stress can impair muscle retention/gain as well as testosterone levels. Sleep deprivation is a form of chronic stressor in that you’re never allowing the body the proper amount of rest and recovery it needs.

Getting adequate sleep, which for most people is 7-9 hours per night, is essential to keeping cortisol levels in check and helping reduce the muscle-wasting effects of stress.

If you need help turning off your brain at night, SteelFit® Steel Dreams offers an all-natural, non-habit-forming solution.

Steel Dreams™ contains a comprehensive matrix of natural sleep and recovery aids scientifically formulated to help reduce stress, calm a hyperactive nervous system, and improve sleep quality and duration.

Stress-Relief and Anti-Anxiety Supplements

It’s more common than ever for individuals to be in a state of chronic stress, whether it be due to toxic work environments, relationships, or home lives. As such, supplements that help reduce stress and anxiety are in higher demand than ever.

Some of the best stress-relief and anti-anxiety formula include the any/all of the following ingredients:

L-Theanine

L-Theanine — an amino acid in green tea that binds to GABA receptors in the brain, increasing levels of the calming neurotransmitter, boosting alpha brain waves and lowering beta brain waves. Research has shown that L-Theanine dosed between 100-200mg significantly reduces an individual’s response to stress and decreases cortisol levels up to 3 hours post-stressor. [18]

Both Steel Pump® and Steel Dreams™ contain 200mg of L-Theanine to promote a state of calm and improve the stress response.

Adaptogens

Adaptogens are plants or herbs that improve the body’s ability to encounter, interact, and recover from stress and support the adrenal system. These botanicals are staples of traditional medicine, having been used for thousands of years to help people of diverse cultures mitigate the stressors of the time.

These days, adaptogens are more popular than ever as individuals seek all-natural remedies to combat feelings of stress and anxiety and avoid walking down the tenuous path of prescription anti-depressants.

Some of the most popular adaptogens include Rhodiola rosea and KSM-66® Ashwagandha. FYI, KSM-66® is included in both Steel Pump® and Steel Dreams™ at the research-backed dose of 300mg.

Numerous research studies have been conducted on these two ingredients demonstrating significant reductions in cortisol levels, decreased feelings of stress, and improved cognitive function.[19,20]

The age-old cold remedy, Vitamin C, may also be something you consider trying to combat your feelings of stress. One study, in particular, noted that when individuals consumed 1g of Vitamin C they experienced significant reductions in cortisol levels. [21] 

Cut Back on Alcohol

How many times have you seen on TV or in the movies where characters complete an incredibly stressful encounter and head straight for a stiff drink?

While it might seem that alcohol is helping you reduce stress (it is a depressant after all), it might not be as good as you think. Research has noted a positive association between the amount of alcohol consumed per week and cortisol levels. In fact, for every unit of alcohol consumed, researchers have pointed out a 3% increase in cortisol. [22]

Now, we’re not saying you have to completely give up alcohol (though you can if you choose to do so), but don’t use it as your main go-to stress-reliever.

The Bottom Line on Stress, Cortisol, and Weight

Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone released when we perceive and encounter a threat. In regard to weight, cortisol has been noted to both encourage weight gain and weight loss. The primary determinant is in how an individual deals with stress. Regardless of the scenario, it’s important to note that cortisol is not solely to blame for weight gain, though it may make losing stubborn belly fat difficult.

If you feel chronically stressed, there are all-natural means to help relieve stress and anxiety and don’t come with the tolerance, habituation, dependence, or downsides of prescription pharmaceuticals.

If you need help dealing with stress, try some of the tips in this article, and if you primarily need help “turning off” your busy mind at night, Steel Dreams™ is packed with natural ingredients to help reduce stress, calm body, and mind and lull you into a deep, restorative sleep.

References

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