Many people believe that stress can cause you to gain weight. But what if we told you that stress can actually help you lose weight? That’s right – chronic stress has been shown to help with weight loss. But what is cortisol and why should you care? Let’s take a quick look at what is cortisol and how it works, and then we’ll discuss how you can start benefiting from its anti-obesity effects.
Cortisol: The Stress Hormone
Cortisol is a hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands when you are under significant mental or physical stress. Its production is governed by the hypothalamus – the part of the brain that controls appetite and energy. Cortisol encourages the body to break down stored fat and energy so you can survive the crisis at hand. Its production can be measured via a blood test known as the cortisol awakening response test (also known as the CORT test). In this test, a finger prick is required to draw blood and then analyze it for cortisol levels. The test is considered a reliable indicator of chronic stress and the benefits of cortisol therapy (medication or coaching).
The reason why cortisol is considered a ‘stress hormone’ is because it helps the body adjust to stressful situations. In the case of a natural disaster like a flood or hurricane, your body will produce more cortisol to help you cope with the anxiety engendered by these major upheavals. In the case of a break up or job loss, your body will produce more cortisol to help you through a time of significant emotional upheaval. It is considered “a protective hormone, ensuring you have enough energy to fight or flee from predators” (American Psychiatric Association (APA)). Interestingly, some research also suggests that people with high cortisol levels are more “resilient to external stressors” (APA). Resilience is the ability to bounce back after significant stress or tragedy. It’s pretty admirable, actually.
How Does Cortisol Work?
When you are under significant stress, your body produces more cortisol which in turn prompts your brain to send “hunger signals to the stomach” (APA). This leads to overeating and weight gain. But not anymore. Thanks to the scientific “mind–gut” theory, we know now that when you are in a state of chronic stress, your body will actually change in ways that benefit your overall health.
One important change that takes place is an increase in “glucose tolerance” (American Diabetes Association (ADA)). Glucose tolerance means your body can process “glucose – the basic unit of sugar found in ‘crude’ oil – more effectively, which in turn helps with weight loss” (ADA). In one study, those participants who took Cortisol (a synthetic form of cortisol, namely hydrocortisone) for six weeks lost an average of 2.5 “inches around their waists and 2.3 “inches off their arms’ circumference” (APA). This is compared to those who participated in a control group which didn’t receive the drug treatment.
Besides helping with weight loss, cortisol has been shown to help prevent “anxiety, depression, “fatigue, “lethargy, and “diabetes “(APA). In one study, people with type 2 diabetes who were administered Cortisol (10 mg per day) for four weeks had significant decreases in their blood sugar levels and hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c, a measure of “average blood glucose level over the last three months”) levels (Diabetes Research). They also reported feeling “less overwhelmed and depressed” while also “feeling more energy” (Diabetes Research). Other studies have found that cortisol can help reduce blood pressure, decrease cholesterol levels, and improve the function of the cardiovascular system (APA).
The Role Of Cortisol In Weight Loss
In addition to helping with “fatigue, depression, and diabetes,” cortisol has been shown to play “a key role in “the “fight or flight response “– a complex series of reactions your body launches “whenever you are faced with a ‘threat’ ” (APA). The flight response involves a variety of physiological changes which allow you to flee from danger. In a state of cortisol elevation, your body is better equipped to deal with the stressors in your life. So in this case, “weight loss is likely to occur as part of a “health improvement program, “to allow the body to adjust to external stressors” (APA). If this sounds like you, then it might be a good idea to try cortisol therapy – either through medication or coaching – to help you lose weight and get healthy.