Stress and Weight Gain

Dr. Arjuna Veeravagu, ND RAc

Weight gain or loss is an issue that often occurs during and after times of elevated stress, and an imbalance of the stress hormone cortisol is often the cause.  Typically increased stress stimulates our adrenal glands to produce higher levels of the hormones cortisol, DHEA and adrenaline.  After a stressful situation has resolved, these hormones should soon return to normal levels.  However sometimes this re-balancing does not occur and results in people maintaining either excessive or insufficient adrenal hormone levels for long periods of time.  Both an excess and deficiency of cortisol can impact the function of blood sugar and thyroid hormones and trigger weight fluctuation and symptoms of low metabolism.

Recent genetic research has found that more than 170 genes are affected by stress or chronic cortisol secretion including genes for metabolic functioning which affect weigth gain and loss. For example, the protein hormone adiponectin plays a significant role in glucose metabolism and fat breakdown. As such, it has a fundamental role in weight loss. Stress hormones reduce adiponectin levels.



Some major stressors that can lead to cortisol imbalances are listed below:

emotional imbalances

insufficient sleep

excessive sugar and carbohydrate intake

shift work

frequent skipped or delayed meals

severe infections

overworking (mental or physical)

surgery or traumatic injury

excessive exercise (especially endurance)

toxic exposures



Cortisol has an intricate relationship with the hormone insulin which controls our blood sugar.  When cortisol levels increase, the cells of our body can become resistant to insulin leading to increased blood sugar, weight gain and eventually Type 2 Diabetes.  If cortisol levels drop excessively (called adrenal exhaustion), our blood sugar levels can also decrease causing hypoglycemia which can lead to weight loss and a low stress tolerance.  Both high and low cortisol can also trigger symptoms of low metabolism including fatigue, depression, feeling always cold, decreased memory and poor concentration.



Optimal production of hormones from our thyroid gland, which has a large role in maintaining a healthy metabolism, is controlled to a large extent by our body’s cortisol level.  Both high and low cortisol levels can impair the conversion of thyroid hormone from its inactive form to its active form resulting in a low thyroid situation causing weight gain and symptoms of poor metabolism.

Consult with your naturopath today to assess your unique metabolism and to design a treatment plan to correct imbalances.



Wilson, James ND. Adrenal Fatigue, Smart Publications, Petaluma, CA, 2003.

Shames, Richard MD. Nutritional Management of Stress-Induced Dysfunction, Advanced Nutrition Publications, 2002.

S Roy et al, “Wound Site Neutrophil Transcription in Response to Psychological Stress in Young Men”, Gene Expression, Vol. 12, no 4-6: pp 273-287, 2005