Cortisol, and Its Effect On Weight-loss

Cortisol has a bad reputation among bodybuilders, it is known as the infamous stress hormone, and it might be behind your stress-related weight gains. However, if you want to see the full picture, this article is meant to help you understand how is cortisol associated with your weight and how important it is to achieve a healthy balance of this hormone.

How cortisol impairs weight loss

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland. It is released into the bloodstream in response to a variety of stressors and following a rhythmic pattern associated with our internal clock. It is essential to maintain a healthy metabolism, but very high levels cause an alteration to the metabolism of energy. Not only that, but there are other reasons why cortisol may be increasing your weight.

In short, this is why:

  • Cortisol raises blood sugar and circulating levels of fatty acids.
  • This hormone promotes liquid retention and causes high blood pressure.
  • It promotes the activity of fat-storing enzymes in your fatty tissue.
  • It slows down your metabolism by impairing the activation of thyroid hormones.
  • By increasing the synthesis of cortisol, your body reduces the synthesis of testosterone.

Thus, cortisol can be taxing to the organism, and having a stressful life or even working out excessively may be causing an excess of cortisol in the blood.

Cortisol in your fat cells

This is what happens when your cortisol goes wild:

Cortisol sends a signal to the body that the organism is under stress or under attack and needs to store energy. The best way to store energy is through the fatty tissue, so cortisol helps fat cells differentiate and grow. It stimulates something called adipogenesis, which is the formation of fat tissue, and creates more and more triglycerides to fill adipocytes.

But that’s not the end of it. Now we have turned our attention to your fatty tissue, we need to talk about an enzyme called beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase, which activates and inactivates cortisol. We will call this enzyme HSD, and there are two types, HSD1 in your adipose tissue and HSD2 in the kidneys and other organs.

When cortisol is high, HSD2 becomes hyperactive and turns excess cortisol into an inactive metabolite called cortisone. Inactive cortisone travels everywhere, including your adipose tissue. Once there, HSD1 turns cortisone back into its active counterpart, cortisol. Thus, there are extremely high levels of cortisol in the adipocyte, and they are responsible for weight gain.

Fluid retention and hormonal interactions

Another problem with excess cortisol is fluid retention. You have probably heard how important water balance is in maintaining your weight and how water may be responsible for speedy weight gain or weight loss.

Cortisol increases an antidiuretic hormone in the kidneys. As the name implies, it does exactly the opposite to diuretics: instead of helping you eliminate water from the urethra, it pumps back sodium and liquids into the organism. So, even if that is not contributing to your body fat percentage, it is definitely slowing down your advances in the scale.

Another factor we need to cover is hormone interactions, and we will focus our attention on two different hormones affected by cortisol rises: thyroid hormones and testosterone.

Thyroid hormones are closely linked to your metabolism, and their concentration provides a sort of metronome to your organism. That’s why you see women with hypothyroidism with a slower metabolism, overweight and with low energy levels while patients with hyperthyroidism are often scrawny with a frantic and nervous pace.

Cortisol interferes with the production of thyroid hormones and slows down the conversion of T4 into a more active thyroid hormone, T3. In doing so, cortisol slows down the metabolism trying to preserve energy in a stressful event. However, even if cortisol has somewhat good intentions, the overall result is lower energy consumption and increased storage of fat.

Similarly, cortisol has an important effect when it comes to testosterone production. Pregnelonone is a steroid precursor for both cortisol and testosterone, and even if testosterone is considered important by the organism, in a stressful event cortisol has the upper hand. In other words, your body sacrifices testosterone production to create more cortisol.

Now, if you remember testosterone, it helps you build muscle mass but it may also speed up your weight loss. By increasing your levels of cortisol, you no longer have this beneficial effect of testosterone, and you will be prone to weight gain.

Achieving a healthy cortisol level

As we mentioned in the introductory paragraph, cortisol has a bad reputation, and so far it is apparently justified. However, keep in mind that cortisol is essential for your daily living. It is a part of your inner clock and helps your body respond to various types of stressors. Thus, it is excess cortisol that you want to avoid.

There is no way to prevent every trigger of cortisol. There are plenty of stressors, including infections and even prolonged exercise. Everything that triggers inflammation also promotes cortisol as a first line of defense. Everything that puts your body on alert will also trigger cortisol release to the bloodstream.

Thus, this is good advice to take if you want to achieve a healthier level of cortisol:

  • Manage stress properly: It is impossible not to feel stressed sometimes, but chronic stress and anxiety are detrimental to your health and your weight. Practice meditation and breathing techniques. These and many other forms of stress management have been found to reduce salivary levels of cortisol in individuals with high levels of stress.
  • Be careful with excessive dieting: If you want to lose weight and start a diet that is fantastic. But be careful with extreme diets and very low calorie intake. This may trigger an alarm in your body, activating your cortisol to save up energy and store more fat in believing that your organism is under attack or in danger.
  • Do not overtrain: Spending excessive time in the gym or doing cardio causes ongoing inflammation in your muscle tissue and increases your metabolic stress. In time, your cortisol levels will increase and you will start favoring storing fat instead of burning it. Thus, what you want to achieve is a good balance between strength training and cardiovascular exercise to increase your muscle mass and favor fat loss at the same time.

The takeaway

Cortisol is definitely a cause of weight gain in people with excessive levels of stress. It contributes to fat storage by directly affecting the differentiation and synthesis of fat and by interacting with other hormones as well. It may also increase your body weight by retaining water and adding up to your water weight. Still, it is a useful hormone for your metabolism and daily activities. A good way to achieve healthier levels of cortisol is learning to manage stress, and avoiding excess in both dieting and working out.

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