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Are Cortisol Levels And Stress To Blame For Your Weight Gain?

How this stress hormone can cause numerous health problems and how you can fix it.

You have likely heard of cortisol before, most often in a negative light and possibly related to stress and weight gain. While there appears to be a connection between high cortisol levels and increased abdominal fat distribution, there is still much to be determined by research.

Here is what we know and the factors you can improve to reduce the risk of cortisol causing weight gain or negatively impacting your health.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone that's naturally produced by your body and secreted by the adrenal gland. It serves many functions, including maintaining blood pressure, controlling blood sugar, and regulating your metabolism.

Cortisol levels fluctuate throughout the day with the highest reading most likely to be in the morning and the lowest reading coming in around midnight.

Environmental and internal factors likely to cause an increase in cortisol release include:

  • Chronic stress
  • Acute stress
  • Physical stress
  • Psychological stress

As you can see, cortisol is often referred to as a stress hormone because stress is a key factor in regulating cortisol release.

Although both males and females are likely to experience an increase in cortisol in response to stress, research notes that females have a higher susceptibility to psychological stress and therefore are more likely to have a higher cortisol level following a stressful stimulus compared to males.

RELATED: Learn how to fire up your metabolism and lose weight the smart way.

How is cortisol linked to weight gain and overall health?

Research in overweight females has indicated those with a higher waist-to-hip ratio (those who carry more body fat in their abdomen compared to lower body) secrete more cortisol during and after stressful situations compared to their lower waist-to-hip ratio counterparts.

This abdominal obesity is known to be associated with an increased risk for chronic diseases, like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Although the mechanism for abdominal weight gain associated with high levels of cortisol is not concrete, experts believe that higher levels of cortisol can lead to increased food intake and reduced energy expenditure.

In addition to cortisol impacting weight, high levels of this hormone may lead to increased blood pressure, irritability, insomnia, low libido, and abnormal blood sugar levels.

How can you change your diet to manage stress levels?

Although you may not be able to control the initial feeling of stress you have in response to a stressful stimulus, you can work on controlling how your body responds.

In fact, there are numerous dietary factors that play a role in stress and cortisol levels. By making diet changes, you may be able to more effectively manage cortisol levels and prevent weight gain.

Eat This:

  • A diet rich in lean protein, healthy fats, and fibrous vegetables is ideal for many people, but especially those with high levels of cortisol. Because carbohydrate metabolism appears to be negatively impacted with high levels of cortisol, it may be beneficial to limit high-glycemic carbs (those that are usually processed and low in fiber).
  • Adaptogenic supplements like ashwagandha root and cordyceps (a class of mushrooms that has recently become more popular in the supplement industry) show positive benefits for stress management.

Not That!

  • Avoid foods and drinks that have a stimulating effect on your adrenal gland, like caffeinated beverages. Caffeine can induce many of the same side effects as cortisol, like insomnia and high blood pressure, but it can also overly stress the adrenal gland that is responsible for producing and secreting cortisol.
  • One should also limit alcohol, sugar, and other processed carbs. These drinks, ingredients, and foods can exacerbate an existing issue with carbohydrate metabolism associated with high levels of cortisol.

What else can you do to lower cortisol levels?

In addition to these dietary factors that regulate stress levels, calming exercises may also be beneficial in managing your response to stress, too.

Research is finding purposeful relaxation exercises and practices can reduce basal levels of cortisol, and when used immediately following an acutely stressful situation, these practices can even reduce cortisol levels in response to stress.

These strategies may be easier said than done, but re-training your mind and body how to respond under stressful circumstances may be one of the best tools we have to combat the negative mental and physical effects stress can have on your body.


Although it is a necessary hormone with important functions, too much cortisol can lead to a cascade of negative health factors. Managing stress and improving dietary practices are two natural ways to help your body minimize cortisol levels.

Melissa Rifkin, MS, RDN, CDN
Melissa is a Connecticut-based registered dietitian with over 15 years of experience, including clinical and outpatient settings, and runs the popular nutrition education Instagram account, Confessionofadietitian. Read more about Melissa
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