The Stress-Weight Connection

Cortisol and Your Metabolism

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.




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


  • · emotional imbalances                                                · insufficient sleep
  • · excessive sugar and carbohydrate intake        · shift work schedule
  • · 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.