Stress Induced Weight Gain

Could your stressful lifestyle be contributing to anxiety, tiredness, depression, poor sleep and poor nutritional habits? Are these issues leading on to overeating and weight gain for you?

Cortisol is a glucocorticoid (steroid hormone), produced from cholesterol in the two adrenal glands located on top of each kidney. Release of a certain amount of Cortisol is normal and is released in response to circumstances such as waking up in the morning, exercising and acute stress.

Cortisol plays a part in many roles in the body to carry out processes and maintain homeostasis. During the ‘fight-or-flight’ response (acute bouts of stress), cortisol is released and temporarily increases energy production, at the expense of other processes that are not required for immediate survival.  In this case, the resulting biochemical and hormonal imbalances resolve.

Problems occur when there is repeated elevation of cortisol levels.  When this happens, cortisol can have harmful effects on weight, immune function, and chronic disease risk.

Stress & Weight Gain: 

One way that weight gain occurs when cortisol remains elevated is by visceral fat storage. Cortisol can mobilize triglycerides from storage and relocate them to visceral fat cells (those under the muscle, deep in the tummy area).

Cortisol also aids the development of mature fat cells. This has to do with the enzyme control (11-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase), which converts cortisone to cortisol in adipose tissue. More of these enzymes in the visceral fat cells may mean larger amounts of cortisol produced at the tissue level, adding insult to injury (since the adrenals are already pumping out cortisol). Also, visceral fat cells have more cortisol receptors than subcutaneous fat.

A second way in which cortisol may contribute to weight gain goes back to the blood sugar-insulin problem. Consistently high blood glucose levels along with insulin suppression lead 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. Some studies have shown a direct association between cortisol levels and calorie intake in populations of women. Cortisol may directly influence appetite and cravings by binding to hypothalamus receptors in the brain. Cortisol also indirectly influences appetite by modulating other hormones and stress responsive factors known to stimulate appetite.

What Can I do?

Luckily, there is much we can do for clients to reverse the path of destruction. The best approach to keeping cortisol levels at bay is mastering stress management and optimizing diet. Link in with your Registered Dietitian to discuss our diet and lifestyle as a whole and help reduce inflammation.


Epel E, Lapidus R, McEwen B, Brownell K. Stress may add bite to appetite in women: A laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2001;26(1):37-49.

Epel ES, McEwen B, Seeman T, et al. Stress and body shape: Stress-induced cortisol secretion is consistently greater among women with central fat. Psychosom Med. 2000;62(5):623-632.