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The Science of Stress, Cortisol, and Weight Loss

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The Science of Stress, Cortisol, and Weight Loss

High levels of stress and cortisol sucks…but can it interfere with weight loss, or even cause weight gain?

 

The “stress hormone” cortisol is a favorite scapegoat of the shameless weight-loss pill pushers.

The marketing pitch is that when your body is stressed, it releases cortisol, which causes bloating and fat storage, especially in the belly area. Therefore, the pitch continues, if you simply take pills that block cortisol, you can accelerate weight loss without exercising or changing how you eat.

Sounds enticing, but this myth is bogus.

Cortisol, like every other hormone in the body, has a specific purpose, which includes regulating the energy levels of the body. It does this by mov­ing energy from fat stores to tissues that need it and, when the body is under stress, by providing protein for conversion into energy.

Things like restricting calories, weightlifting, traveling, and getting angry increase cortisol levels, but this isn’t inherently bad. 

As you’ll see, this myth is yet another example of fitness alarmists misinterpreting and over-simplifying research.

Cortisol Doesn’t Mess with Weight Loss…Unless It Gets Out of Control

There are two studies often cited to promote this myth of stress and cortisol impairing weight loss or causing weight gain.

The first, conducted by Yale University, included men and women. The researchers associated increased levels of stress and cortisol with increased levels of abdominal fat.

Media sources and wannabe gurus jumped on this observational research (which can only indicate correlation, not causation), touting it as scientific “proof” that cortisol induces weight gain, particularly in the abdominal region.

This is an ironic position to take considering the fact that cortisol actually induces lipolysis (the breakdown of fat into usable energy, known as free fatty acids) and oxidation (the burning of those fatty molecules). Acute cortisol spikes help with fat loss, which is part of the fat-burning power of exercise. (Click here to tweet this!)

It’s interesting to note, however, that while cortisol increases whole-body lipolysis, it tends to spare abdominal fat. This partially explains why people with chronically elevated cortisol levels are characterized by abdominal obesity.

As with other hormones in the body, the problems with cortisol begin when there’s too much for too long.

When cortisol levels become elevated over prolonged periods, insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia (excess insulin in the blood) result, which leads to easier weight gain. It also leads to the degradation of muscle mass, which slows down your metabolism and sets the stage for various health problems.

Regardless, since weight gain requires excess calories to be eaten, no amount of cortisol can cause you to gain weight unless you give your body more energy than it burns. (Click here to tweet this!)

The scientifically accurate statement is that chronically elevated cortisol levels in addition to excess calories appears to lead to increased abdominal fat. And that leads me to the final point to discuss about this myth, which is how stress and cortisol affects appetite, which can result in weight gain.

The Dwindling Spiral of Stress and Weight Gain

The relationship between stress and overeating has been thoroughly researched.

A literature review conducted by Louisiana State University found that as stress hormones like cortisol increase, so do ghrelin levels (ghrelin is the hormone that stimulates appetite). This hunger drives us to eat more and sometimes even binge.

We’ve all experienced this before, turning to food to cope with stressful situations in our lives. Further weight gain just adds more stress, which can lead to more overeating, and so the unhealthy spiral goes.

Furthermore, research has shown that stress can lead to a preference for “comfort foods” (tasty, high-fat, high-carb, and thus high-calorie dishes), which only aggravates the overeating problem.

This is the real weight loss menace posed by chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels, and the main reason why they have been associated with weight gain.

6 Simple Ways to Reduce Stress and Lower Cortisol Levels

Here are 6 easy ways to keep your cortisol levels under control, which not only makes weight loss efforts easier, but makes life just more enjoyable.

  1. Do things that you find relaxing, like reading a book, listening to calming music, or going for a walk.
  2. Get in your exercise. Research has shown that low-intensity exercise lowers cortisol levels, and while high-intensity temporarily exercise spikes cortisol levels, it also causes physiological changes that help the body better deal with, and nullify, negative effects of stress.
  3. Get enough sleep.
  4. Cut back on alcohol.
  5. Take Vitamin C. One study showed that 1 gram per day significantly reduced cortisol levels in junior elite weightlifters.
  6. Supplement with glutamine. Research has shown that supplementation with glutamine can help reduce the negative effects of exercise stress.

Try incorporating these simple stress busters into your lifestyle and you may be surprised how much better you feel and how much easier it is to prevent weight gain.

What do you think about stress, cortisol, and weight loss? Have anything else you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • António Alves

    Hi Mike,

    Is it ok for me to ask my questions on unrelated posts?

    Anyways, today I started working out with a proper diet plan (yay!). Since it is Monday ( and pretty much everybody does chest) I did back. All went well, however when I was doing the Close-Grip Lat Pulldown I didn’t really feel my back working. Maybe it was improper form.

    I did my own research and it seems that Pull ups are a decent substitute (I guess close grip pull ups) . Do you think it is ok for me to switch to pullups? I can’t do a pullup yet so I have to use that machine that you put your knees on and reduce the weight as you get stronger. Is this ok?

    Thanks!

    • Michael Matthews

      Sure!

      Awesome on starting. Yeah, you can def switch to assisted pull-ups. Stick to the 4-6 rep range though!

      • António Alves

        What about any substitutes for the dip/decline? I’ve tried the dip, but since the only place I can do it is in the assisted pull up machine, it is impossible to lean forward to perform the chest variation without hitting the weights. Also, I don’t think my gym has a barbell decline but I can probably do decline on an adjustable bench. If this is not the case, do you have any other suggestions that might work as well?

        Thanks!

        • Michael Matthews

          Assisted dips are actually good, but if you want to drop them, I wouldn’t sub for decline presses. Sub for more incline presses IMO.

          • António Alves

            I still want to have the same results, it’s just that I felt I wasn’t able to do the exercices. It is impossible to do the dip (chest variation) but not the normal dip. However, the latter doesn’t work the lower chest does it?

          • Michael Matthews

            Honestly the lower chest doesn’t need targeting. Decline presses suck because the ROM is about half the flat press. And the upper chest is the most stubborn part, which is why I focus on it a lot.

  • PLiddi

    “..but this myth is bogus” – hehe, double negative. Interesting well-grounded article on the whole, thanks Mike!

    • Michael Matthews

      Hahah oops. I r gud writer.

      Thanks. 😉

  • bro science

    Staying well-hydrated reduces cortisol —- true or broscience?

    • Michael Matthews

      Hmm I haven’t come across this in the literature I’ve read, but it may be true.

  • Athlete

    I love this! I’m an elite athlete and am constantly hearing people use the stress excuse as ther reason why they eat so much. SELF CONTROL

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks for the comment! Yeah, discipline is the key.

  • Paulo Ferreira

    Michael, I usually find your posts awesome and very informative, but this one almost makes me want to hit my head on a wall. 😛 The reason: conflicting advice! Everyone keeps saying you must keep your cortisol levels at check because if you don’t, you can kiss your fitness goals goodbye. Guys like IFBB pro Ben Pakulski even suggest (in his MI40 program) you should take 4 grams of vitamin C on workout days to lower it: in the morning, pre-workout, 30 minutes into your workout and before bed (which leaves 2 grams for rest days).
    If I read you correctly, you say high cortisol levels while training are actually a good thing if your goal is to burn fat (!). On the other hand, it also denies the ever growing theory that you shouldn’t train over an hour because of – you guessed it – higher cortisol levels, not to mention those who advise against any kind of slow cardio at all for the same reason (you say it actually lowers cortisol).

    I’m not pointing fingers here, but it sure makes a guy dizzy trying to find his way around what works and what doesn’t in the fitness world. 😉

    • Michael Matthews

      Yes, high cortisol levels when training are a good thing. They induce muscle breakdown and lipolysis, which is what we want to occur (so our body can rebuild the muscles and burn the fat for energy).

      The bottom line with cortisol:

      CHRONICALLY ELEVATED cortisol is an issue. Acute spikes due to exercise is not, period.

      Don’t get wrapped up in trying to manipulate cortisol levels unless you actually have a problem.

  • Mark

    Hey Mike, have you every worked with anyone who has chronically elevated cortisol levels? I was prescribed a benzodiazepine over 10 years ago and didn’t realize how bad it is for you and that it’s highly addictive. So basically I haven’t been able to get good quality REM sleep because of this drug. I have been tapering for 8 months and have another 2 months before I am drug free. I then face up to a year or more of withdrawal symptoms. I am sleeping roughly 3 hours a night (sometimes 1-2) and my cortisol levels are probably very high. I’m still hitting it hard at the gym but haven’t been able to progress for the listed reasons. The doctor told me to avoid strenuous exercise, but I want to at least preserve the little muscle I do have (I used to be a lot bigger but have lost close to 30lbs of muscle being on this medicine). I was wondering if I should decrease the weights so I could do maybe 6-8 reps, instead of 4-6. A lot of times I barely manage to get 4 reps when I go really heavy and think that it spikes my cortisol too much. Also, I can’t take any supplements that affect my GABA receptors. Any insight/advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

    • Michael Matthews

      I’ve emailed with people that have had this issue but haven’t coached them over extended periods of time, no.

      Damn, I’m sorry to hear about that. Have you looked into natural things you can take to help?

      http://www.greenmedinfo.com/disease/cortisol-high

      You know I’m actually not sure if high-rep or low-rep lifting elevates cortisol levels more, but lifting in general is going to put your body under quite a bit of stress. A friend of mine with chronically high cortisol levels (and low T levels) ran into problems with this.

      Is your T low as well?

      • Mark

        I haven’t had my T levels tested but I would assume so since high stress is associated with low T. I was told to go easy on the exercise, focusing on stuff like yoga and walking, but that’s hard to accept as a longtime weightlifter. Maybe I should have an extended de-load period where I’m just going to get a little bit of a pump until I recover from this. I know I’m going to lose even more muscle by not lifting progressively, but I may be doing harm then good if I’m breaking down muscle with intense workouts but then my body can’t recover. It feels like I’m always overtrained. Great article, by the way and thanks for your input.

        • Michael Matthews

          Yeah exactly. I would look into naturally boosting T levels as well. It will help with cortisol.

          What do you think?

  • Thanks for stopping by and checking out my article! I hope you enjoyed it.

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  • Kari

    Hi,
    I know this is an old article but it popped up when I was looking for info about weight training and cortisol.
    I’ve been unwell for the most of the past year. I didn’t really see connections between my illnesses so continued training when I started to feel I could, sometimes definitely pushing myself too hard. My health took a serious dip in Sept and I was out of action completely for 2 months, I could barely move let alone train. I’m still getting tests but it’s looking like I have coeliacs so it’s like my body was gradually just shutting up shop over the past year and I’m now aware I was probably putting my body through a lot of stress when it was already struggling.
    Over the past 2 years, I’ve ate very well, follow my macros most of the time but have had moments here and there where a cheat went a bit AWOL. Overall though, I’m pretty balanced. I eliminated gluten in Nov and have really improved health wise, though still not 100%. I’m now looking to gradually get back to exercising and want to do it sensibly. I’m aware my cortisol levels have probably been through the roof and really don’t want to put my body under extra strain. I just don’t know where to start. I did some light lifting in Dec but felt I’d come back too quickly as I was really fatigued. So have not done any form of exercise for 7 weeks and hardly anything for the 12 weeks before that.

    Do you have any info for getting back to training after illness ?
    Thanks

  • Pingback: Stopped Losing Weight? Here's Why (and How to Fix It) | Muscle For Life()

  • Miguel Rodrigues

    I have all the symptons of high cortisol levels,should i stop Intermittent fasting or just apply the 6 rules you mentioned earlier?thanks mike

    • Yeah do those 6 things and see how it goes. If you’re liking it, you should be fine keeping up the IF.

  • Katherine H.

    I am 40+ years old. I have been diagnosed with several heath issues one of which is Fibromyalgia and I constantly have pain. I am sure my weight does not help. I have had an incredible amount of stress due to health issues and personal ones to and I have a tendency to worry about a lot of things. I had a recent weight gain jump of about 20+ pounds to which I expressed concern to my doctor and she told me it is my cortisol levels even though I am not aware of any testing she based this on other then knowing I have been really stressed out. I feel like she does not take me serious in my concerns. I had never had a weight problem growing up and used to think I was fat when I weighed 120lbs. Now I know I wasn’t 🙁 I had a great deal of energy and could eat anything and not gain weight and then…I had kids…my body has never been the same nor my energy level and my hollow leg disappeared. I have problems with low blood sugar levels at times because I will simply forget to eat. I have no energy and have poor eating habits and at times I don’t even have the energy to get out of bed. I hate looking in the mirror it is like looking at someone else. I recently went to a birthday party for my Granddaughter and my ex-husband’s wife unknowingly to me took pictures of me and posted them online. I looked at them and just felt sick at what I saw. I need a starting point and am hoping you can help. I do not have a lot of money to just go buy things for miracles to happen and not a lot of people to go to for help on how to do the weight loss thing. I am not a junk food junkie nor a soda drinker I believe I just have poor eating habits and I also tend to eat late. I did get a used treadmill but not had the gumption to get on it.I have blood pressure issues and retain water often and have anxiety/panic attacks. I am sick and tired of being sick and tired and I found out I have a new grandchild on the way. I would like to be around to get to know him/her and if changes are not made, I may not be. Any help…steps or a good starting point you can give would be much appreciated. Thank you for your time

    • Hey Katherine!

      I’m sorry to hear about the weight and health issues.

      I think we should start simple. Clean up your diet a bit and get you doing something simple for exercise like daily walking?

      Give this a read as a start:

      https://legionathletics.com/diet-meal-plans/

      Let me know what you think.

    • Laurie Willaman

      You just described me to a tee. I hate it. I’m sorry your having so many issues to. I’m on here looking for help to. I just want to feel good again. Good luck honey

  • Joe Schaffer

    Mike… I keep stumbling on your site or articles you have written. Thanks for sharing your expertise with so many of us. This article piqued my attention. I am 41 (okay, soon to be 42 but in denial) and have lifted and exercised all my life. I have always been a bit “chubby” but keep it at bay. After New Year’s I was hoping to put some muscle back on and lose some body fat. I started a much cleaner diet in early January, cycle between heavy and light weightlifting routines (lifting each body part once per week – one day heavy, one day light, rest, one day heavy one day light, rest, repeat) and interval training three or four times per week. I can definitely tell I am gaining some muscle, but over the past few weeks I seem to be adding loose fat to my abdomen.

    I have some signs of overtraining, but I think those are related more to life (e.g., restless sleep, some minor joint soreness, etc.). But my diet is so much better than it has been, and for 6 out of 7 days I know I am in a calorie deficient state (i tend to cheat a bit on Saturday with my family). I exercise hard but honestly I have primarily a desk job all day.

    if I have heightened levels of Cortisol how might I be able to tell, or should I just try some of the things you recommend above. I have to admit, it is pretty frustrating to be cutting out all the “fun” in my diet, working out hard, and not seeing any fat loss. I am eating far more protein and using some supplements (mainly creatine), so it is nice to see some muscle being added, but sheesh, I would expect more fat loss than what I am experiencing.

    Your thoughts?

  • John C. W

    So if you were suffering from bloating (which you may know I’m still working on and I think will finally be gone within about a month) does that mean you can’t lose any fat at all? Cuz it certainly looks like in my stomach I can’t lol

  • Matt DiPaolo

    In your TLS Book you say that if your weight is not moving after two weeks to watch your sodium and cortisol levels. And if that doesn’t work then to cut 25g of carbs. My wife’s question is, is it ok to jump straight to the carb cut? She will continue to watch her sodium intake but at the same time she has low blood pressure and it was recommended for her to increase her sodium intake.

  • Wishywashy

    Hey Mike how long is too long? Last night i stressed myself for 5 hours. This one time only though

    • Few hours at a time? No big deal. Chronic stressing is where trouble starts.

  • Debbi Franks Srp

    I have high visceral fat due to Cushings disease. I had it for seven years before my adrenal gland was removed. I do take steroids to be healthy. I have Neuropathy in both feet which makes walking difficult.. In addition I have had three neck surgeries leaving me with nerve damage in my right hand
    How can I exercise tI can not lean on my hand for many yoga poses. I have limited use of my right hand and can not hold much weight.How can I lose the fat. I eat mainly vegetarian too. My fat is on ly in my belly. My surgery took an extra two hours, a third surgeon and ultrasound to find my gland due to the fat.

    • Thanks for all the info. I’d check with the doc on what exercises you’re approved to do. I wouldn’t recommend any exercises that cause pain or discomfort and that haven’t been approved by the doc first.

      As to dieting for fat loss, I’d check with the doc on that as well. Weight loss simply comes down to energy balance and macros play a big role when composition is concerned. However, with your medical situation, I’d check with the doc before starting any sort of diet.

      Sorry I couldn’t be of more help!

  • Jdib

    What do you think about MPA Cortisolve? Primarily used before fasted workouts and training?

  • Sarah Collman

    Hi Mike! I’ve been on a weight loss journey for 3 months now, and I was able to lose 10 pounds within the first month. Since then I’ve been stuck at the same weight (not gaining, but definitely not losing). I’m wondering if cortisol is to blame–I’m a pretty high-strung person, and one of my biggest stressors is trying to lose weight. Thoughts?

  • Lauren J Vigliotti

    good article. I believe that my 7 years of chronic overexercise/endurance training and under-nutrition resulted in hypothyroidism and adrenal fatigue. I suddenly gained 10 pounds and had a lot of hypothyroid symptoms. I am now taking medication and feel much better but still feel i have some degree of adrenal fatigue and have been unable to lose the weight. Could cortisol imbalance be to blame?

  • Andrea

    I too, have high cortisol, I think, and want to do HIIT fasting before breakfast. Is that going to make my situation worse, or is it ok with FORGE?

    • Forge doesn’t specifically lower cortisol, but there’s no reason you can’t incorporate fasted HIIT into your routine. Give it a shot and see how it goes 🙂

      • Andrea

        I didn’t want it to lower it. but what I wanted to know, is will fasting HIIT and forge cause my body to stress more and raise cortisol?

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