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Cortisol, Fat and Weight Gain: Can Stress Make You Fat and Obese?

Updated on February 1, 2010

Stress-induced cortisol can make you fat and gain weight. It can even cause obesity. By understanding the powerful connections between cortisol, weight gain, increased fat production and storage, you can make some changes in your lifestyle to avoid stress-related weight gain or to lose weight more effectively. Read on...

Chronic stress has powerful effects on the body's production and storage of fat. High levels of cortisol induced by stress can lead to increase in body fat and obesity. This adds to all the other ways that stress promotes obesity.

There are various ways stress can lead to increase in body fat and obesity. Most people are aware of behavioral and emotional aspects of stress-related obesity. People who are often stressed out have trouble maintaining a healthy lifestyle. They may eat often even when they're not hungry -- this is called stress eating or emotional eating. Alternatively, they may eat high-calorie fast foods because they don't have time to prepare something healthy. In addition, they may be too exhausted to exercise regularly when they're under a lot of stress.

Physiological factors -- specifically, cortisol and cortisol-induced insulin -- are the main reasons why stress can lead to increase in body fat and obesity.

When faced with a stressful situation, the body triggers the stress response or fight-or-flight response. This leads to the secretion of cortisol, adrenaline and other stress hormones along with increased blood pressure, breathing and heart rate.

The normal stress response causes the rapid increase of heart rate and respiratory rate as well as blood pressure. Available energy is increased while digestion and other non-essential processes are decreased. So, the body is primed to fight or take flight and escape, whichever is needed.

The natural stress response is usually short-term and self-regulating. When the threat is gone, the body returns to normal. As cortisol and adrenaline levels drop, heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure as well as energy levels return to their baseline levels. Other systems inhibited by the stress response return to their regular activities.

The natural stress response goes awry when stress is constant and excessive. In today’s society, there are many causes of stress. Most people are inundated with overwhelming stress. For those constantly dealing with excessive and chronic stress, the body’s fight-or-flight response is constantly on. In turn, the resulting stress hormones released are chronically high.

How does stress-induced cortisol lead to increased fat production and storage, weight gain and obesity? Read on...

Cortisol, Fat and Weight Gain: Stress-Induced Cortisol Can Lead to Increased Body Fat and Weight Gain

Cortisol, Fat and Weight Gain: How Does Stress-Induced Cortisol Lead to Increased Fat Production, Weight Gain and Obesity?

Chronically-high stress hormones, especially cortisol and adrenaline, play a big role in increasing body fat production and storage as well as weight gain and the development of obesity.

  • Cortisol helps the body handle stress; so, when stress goes up, cortisol also goes up. Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism during stressful situations. This leads to increased blood sugar levels in the body which is required for quick energy. In turn, this stimulates insulin release which can lead to an increase in appetite.
  • Adrenaline increases alertness and metabolism by helping fat cells release energy.

When the immediate stress is over, the adrenaline levels return to normal. But, cortisol lingers to help bring the body back into balance after stress. One of the ways it gets things back to balance is by increasing appetite to replace the carbohydrate and fat used for the flight or fight response.

The problem is that in today's society, stress-causing situations -- such as, traffic jams or computer malfunctions -- do not really require the body to use up a lot of energy. So, cortisol ends up causing the body to refuel after stress even when it doesn't really need to refuel. This excess fuel or glucose is converted into fat resulting in increased storage of fat.

What makes matters worse is that cortisol-induced high levels of insulin also leads to increased production and storage of fat. So, exposure to chronically high levels of cortisol and cortisol-induced insulin are the main reasons why stress can lead to obesity.

Cortisol and insulin are important in development of stress-related obesity, but they are not the only physiological factors involved. They are most likely part of a chain of biochemical signals causing obesity.

By understanding the powerful connection between cortisol, weight gain, increasead fat production and storage, you can make some changes in your lifestyle to avoid stress-related weight gain or to lose weight more effectively.

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      Pradeep 4 years ago

      Thank you, thank you! Have enjoyed the vdoeis so much it's as if I'm sitting right there in the office getting advice. They are so intelligent, logical and reasonable. Been taking the advice of early rising when the light wakes me up and for the first times in my life, I feel good about getting out of bed, etc! It all works! Will go Christmas shopping at our next appt. Monday!

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      Lindsey 4 years ago

      on the back of the container or you could drink a lot of milk with egg white but you pbrlaboy wont be arsed breaking eggs after a workout. Then in the morning after the workout the night before i have another one with a good breakfast. Breakfast is your most important meal of the day and never have your meal before a workout, have your main meal after a workout. Get some dumbbells and use them slow and deliberate, prefably heavy enough to do say 15 repititions and struggling to complete the 15th on each workout. Do some bicep curls, you can also tie a string (decent size) to the dumbbell and the other end to the centre of rod through a hole. Grab each end and winde the string up with the dumbbell on the end for a wrist curl workout to get at the forearm muscles. Look up tricep workout and dumbbell Y press for your shoulders. All this will give you big arms and shoulders if you do it right over time. If your muscles feel like jelly then you got a good workout but most important of all stretching is very important so do stretchs as much as possible for the muscle your working out and move them about afterward. Workout a different muscle group each time you go to the gym etc i.e. upper, middle and lower workout. You have to give your muscles time to repairing after you rip them (its when you rip them they grow rather than toning) and repeat each muscle workout until you cant do any more (but don't over train and damage them) You will also have to eat well like a good steak or chicken and veges or tuna sandwiches etc.