Hormones That Affect Weight Management: CORTISOL


If you’ve heard about cortisol, I’m sure you see it as you arch nemesis – the hormone that completely disregards all your efforts to stay in shape. You are right – cortisol can definitely have a huge impact on your weight-loss efforts. However, you need to realise that this hormone is also ESSENTIAL for our well-being.


cortisol weight-loss


Let me explain further…in a simple FACT SHEET 🙂


What is cortisol?


Cortisol is a stress hormone MADE in the adrenal glands and RELEASE is controlled by:

  1. The Hypothalamus in the brain
  2. The Pituitary in the brain
  3. The Adrenal Gland in the kidneys

However, almost ALL cells in the body have cortisol RECEPTORS.


How does it work?


Cortisol secretion is controlled by the HYPOTHALAMIC-PITUITARY-ADRENAL AXIS.


When levels are LOW:

low cortisol levels


When levels are HIGH:

high cortisol levels



When is cortisol released?


It is released as a stress response:

  1. Waking up in the morning
  2. Exercise
  3. High stress levels

The process when you are STRESSED

cortisol process


When are cortisol levels at their highest?


Levels are usually highest in the morning after waking, and then lower throughout the day. However, if you work nightly hours instead of normal day hours – the pattern becomes reversed.

This suggests that cortisol release is linked to our daily routine.


Why is cortisol important?


  1. It controls metabolism
  2. It controls blood sugar
  3. It is anti-inflammatory
  4. It regulates memory formulation
  5. It controls salt and water balance
  6. It controls blood pressure
  7. It supports a developing foetus


How is cortisol important for our metabolism?


Cortisol controls WHAT energy source is used and HOW MUCH of it is used to meet specific demands placed on our bodies.


Why are high levels of cortisol a problem?


Let’s face it – in today’s society all of us are stressed ALL the time! It’s terrible, but we have a lot to keep up with in life (much more than in the past). And if you’re a Type A personality you are more predisposed to being highly strung than the rest of us. The problem is that HIGH stress levels translate to HIGH cortisol levels 🙁


So many things can cause stress: relationships, work demands, financial demands, personal ambition, emotional struggles, hygiene, tidiness… the list goes on and on. The point is that we might not be able to remove the stressors from life at all – they are all part of life. However, we need to learn HOW TO DEAL WITH STRESS and HOW TO MANAGE IT.




1) Your immune system is at risk!

Cortisol is anti-inflammatory. The problem, however, is that with our modern lifestyle we suffer from CHRONIC INFLAMMATION. This is due to a combination of high stress, little sleep, and bad diet. So basically – we have high levels of cortisol ALL THE TIME, and this causes your immune system to become compromised (think food allergies, colds, digestive problems and and AND!).

2) Your gut won’t be happy!

When cortisol levels are HIGH, your parasympathetic nervous system becomes suppressed. This is because cortisol activates the ‘fight or flight’ response which relates to the sympathetic nervous system. Okay, so your parasympathetic nervous system is down – and all “quiet” activities have taken a backseat to you running away from danger (so to speak). These quiet activities include DIGESTION and ABSORPTION. Your stomach is struggling to digest your food and is also struggling to absorb nutrients from it! This results in indigestion and a large array of other stomach problems like ulcers and an irritated stomach lining. And you know what happens then? MORE INFLAMMATION! AND MORE CORTISOL IS RELEASED!

3) You’re at a risk for a heart attack!

When cortisol levels are high – your blood vessels are constricted to allow blood to pump harder and faster (more oxygen for ‘fight or flight’). This is a good thing when you’re faced with a stressful situation because it allows you to react faster. The problem is that these days we are ALWAYS stressed, and it’s very unhealthy to have blood pump in this way all the time because it can lead to damaged blood vessels and plaque build-up. All these things increase your risk for a heart attack!

4) Your fertility is compromised!

If the above isn’t enough, high levels of cortisol can disrupt your production of sex hormones. This is because androgenic sex hormones are produced in the same glands as cortisol. So you might experience a disruption in ovulation, menstruation, as well as erectile dysfunction in men.

5) You’re gaining weight and you can’t understand WHY?!

Okay, so this one relates more to the subject of this article – so I’m going to explain in more detail below…


How will cortisol make you gain weight?


1) Cause visceral fat storage

Visceral fat is fat that get’s stored around your belly, under muscles and surrounds your internal organs.

HOW? When cortisol levels are high – triglycerides (fat particles from food) move to visceral fat cells. Cortisol also helps adipocytes develop into proper fat cells. Cortisone is converted to Cortisol in fat cells by an enzyme called II-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase – and MORE enzyme equates to MORE cortisol being produced. This only makes matters worse because cortisol levels are already high, and therefore fat cells are only  getting bigger and bigger.

2) Increases appetite and food cravings

High levels of cortisol cause elevated blood sugar levels and suppress the release of insulin. Insulin would have moved sugar out of the bloodstream to be used as energy or stored for later use. However, this process isn’t happening – and cells aren’t receiving glucose to use for energy! Now your cells are so hungry for energy – they send hunger signals to your brain causing you to experience severe food cravings. What happens then? You overeat! And the unused energy gets stored at FAT!


Okay okay – so now you’ve heard about all the PROBLEMS, let’s move on to the SOLUTION!


How do I REDUCE cortisol levels?



Many of you might think: “blah blah blah! I don’t have time for fricken yoga!” But the reality is it helps! Yoga might not be your thing, but if you’re serious about lowering your stress levels you need to be serious about finding something that does the job! It can be yoga (which is a great way to clear your mind and stretch out the tension in your muscles), breathing exercises, gym, a sport like golf, a massage, or even emotional therapy. Also very important is GET MORE SLEEP!



Banish the junk food that only adds insult to injury and nourish your body with healthy produce. Inflammation causes high levels of cortisol, therefore, we need to focus on a diet that reduces inflammation. The fact is, nutrition can make a massive difference to you if you let it. Try and eliminate or reduce pro-inflammatory foods and maximise the amount of anti-inflammatory foods.

What are PRO-INFLAMMATORY foods?

  1. Foods with a high GI
  2. Foods containing saturated and trans fats
  3. Foods low in fibre
  4. Caffeine
  5. Alcohol
  6. Foods low in antioxidants and micronutrients



pro-inflammatory foods


 What are ANTI-INFLAMMATORY foods? 

Some examples:

anti-inflammatory foods


How do you test your cortisol levels?

You can get your cortisol levels tested by means of a saliva test called Adrenal Stress Index (ASI). It is considered the most reliable method as it takes 4 saliva samples at specific times of the day, and is thereafter sent to a lab for analysis.


From the above, you can see that cortisol can have a major impact on your weight-loss efforts. It is important to keep levels at their optimum: NOT TOO HIGH AND NOT TOO LOW. However, in today’s society we are predisposed to HIGH levels of cortisol due to our fast-paced and stressful lifestyles. Most of us, therefore, have to focus on LOWERING cortisol levels by effectively managing our stress levels and eating a proper diet that is LOW in pro-inflammatory foods and HIGH in anti-inflammatory foods.



I hope this article helped you further understand the mechanisms of cortisol!

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  1. Hi Loraine, your article is very informative & helpful – simplifying the difficult scientific facts into something that is understandable! Thanks! Also – I enjoyed your sweetpotatoe recipe! It was amazing!

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