Hormones of Obesity: Cortisol

Steroid hormone cortisol (hydrocortisone) structural formula

Cortisol: The Beer Gut Hormone

Steroid hormone cortisol (hydrocortisone) structural formula
Steroid hormone cortisol (hydrocortisone) structural formula

Cortisol is a steroid hormone of the glucocorticoid class that is made and released by the Adrenal Glands in response to stress (Examples of glucocorticoid-like hormones are hydrocortisone and prednisone).  The adrenals located above each kidney.  It is often released in hard times to prepare you for difficult times like periods of fasting and stress.  It has many functions but they include producing glucose in the liver, suppression of the immune system, and aid in the release of fats, amino acids, and carbohydrates into the bloodstream.    

Stress System: Cortisol
Stress System: Cortisol

How does cortisol work?  

  1. A stressor occurs.  
  2. The cortisol hormonal cascade begins.  See the diagram above.
  3. Cortisol prepares the body for a fight-or-flight raising blood glucose for energy.  It also increases the blood fatty acids and amino acids for the same reason.  
  4. Cortisol inhibits insulin production in an attempt to prevent glucose from being stored, favoring its immediate use.
  5. The stress resolves the situation.
  6. Hormone levels return to normal.
  7. The body returns to storing glucose (sugar), amino acids, and fats.  

So, how does cortisol contribute to obesity?  Cortisol has two deleterious (bad) effects that increase the risk of obesity.  Cortisol increases your ability to respond to a stressful event.  Mobilization of energy is on what this happens.  Cortisol causes our bodies to increase blood sugar, fats, and amino acids.  Amino acids are building block of muscle and protein.  This increase in amino acids in the bloodstream will be used to make sugar in the liver.  This decreases the ability to repair muscle and if the stress is long-term or chronic, muscle mass will drop.  This will decrease the ability to burn calories in the future since muscle is the factory that is responsible for most of your metabolism.    

Cortisol Effects
Cortisol Effects

What Causes Cortisol to Increase?  Cortisol is a stress hormone.  It increases with any stressful event.  The definition of stress is different for each person.  Insomnia, caffeine, infections, trauma, anger, and starvation will all increase cortisol.  If you reduce your stress and rest, you will recover from the stress, but if now, you will not fully recover and the acute stress will likely become chronic.  

How can I reduce my cortisol?  The key to reducing your cortisol is to reduce the stress or stressor.  But, there are a few things I can recommend that should assist you in the endeavor.  

Cortisol Reducers:  

  1. Go for a walk or moderate exercise (running can increase cortisol)
  2. Get a message
  3. Reduce you sugar intake
  4. Listen to music
  5. Meditate
  6. Get enough sleep – napping helps
  7. Black or green tea
  8. Reduce you caffeine intake
  9. Watch something funny – laughing works
  10. Go to church
  11. Chew Gum
  12. Acupuncture 
  13. Outdoor activity
  14. Deep breathing

No item will work for everyone.  I am sure if you are scared of wild animals and insects, the outdoors might not be the best place for you to go.  I wrote another in-depth article on stress and cortisol.

The bottom line: Cortisol can help make you fat. You need to control your stress to avoid cortisol induced weight gain.

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About the Author

I am a family physician who has served in the US Army. In 2016, I found myself overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, so I made a change to improve my health. This blog is the chronology of my path to better health and what I have learned along the way.

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