Cortisol And Its Link To Weight Gain

Are you struggling to lose weight? Blame your stress hormones for high body mass index. Read more on the connection between high cortisol and obesity.

By URLife Team
04 May 2023

Stress and obesity are interlinked. According to a 2018 study published in the Current Obesity Reports, stress plays a major role in the development and prevalence of obesity in individuals who have an increased glucocorticoid (stress hormone) exposure or sensitivity. Cortisol is one of the main hormones involved in the stress response and can influence obesity risk, the relationship between stress and obesity is multifaceted and can be influenced by a variety of factors. Cortisol, a hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress plays a role in regulating a wide range of physiological processes, including metabolism, immune function, and inflammation.

Chronic stress can lead to dysregulation of the stress response system, including elevated cortisol levels. In turn, high cortisol levels have been linked to a number of negative health outcomes, including obesity, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease.


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A 2022 study published in the BMC Public Health found that abdominal obesity was prevalent in 31 per cent of urban and 19 per cent of rural Indian populations. The study also found that abdominal obesity was more common in women than in men. 

Being overweight is typically defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or higher, while obesity is defined as having a BMI of 30 or higher. BMI is calculated by dividing a person's weight in kilograms by their height in metres squared. Both excess weight and obesity can increase the risk of a range of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers. These conditions can have serious long-term effects on a person's health and quality of life, and can also increase healthcare costs. A 2022 study issued in the Diabetology and Metabolic Syndrome, reported that non-anthropometric metabolic risk factors (triglycerides, HDL cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose) in Indian men and women were 55%  and 34%.


Related story: How To Stress Less, Live Long And Be Healthy


What causes obesity?

Obesity is caused mainly due to consuming more calories like fatty and sugary foods than the body burns. Besides, other factors such as genetics, ageing, lifestyle choices, drugs, and hormone imbalances can also play a part in causing overweight and obesity. 

1. Hypothyroidism: Hypothyroidism is a medical condition in which the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormones to meet the body's needs. According to a 2019 study by the British Thyroid Foundation, Since the basal metabolic rate (BMR) in a person with hypothyroidism is decreased, an underactive thyroid is generally associated with some weight gain. The weight gain is often greater in those individuals with more severe hypothyroidism. 

2. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): Polycystic ovary syndrome and obesity are related as in both the conditions, women gain weight due to hormonal imbalance and slower metabolism. Insulin resistance can also make it more difficult for the body to use glucose for energy, leading to fatigue and increased hunger. Additionally, high levels of androgens can lead to increased abdominal fat storage.

3. Hypothalamic: The hypothalamus is a part of the brain that plays a key role in regulating appetite and metabolism, among other functions. According to a 2022 study issued by the National Organisation For Rare Disorders, when the hypothalamus does not function properly, it can lead to weight gain and difficulty losing weight. When the hypothalamus is not functioning properly, it can lead to a slowing of metabolic rate, causing the body to burn fewer calories at rest. This can lead to weight gain, even if calorie intake remains the same. 

4. Certain medications: Obesity is also triggered by certain medications used to treat a variety of conditions. 

  • Antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can cause weight gain as a side effect. 
  • Steroids, such as prednisone, are often used to treat inflammatory conditions such as asthma, arthritis, and lupus. These medications can cause fluid retention and increased appetite, leading to weight gain.
  • Anti-seizure medications, such as valproic acid and carbamazepine, are used to treat seizures and other neurological conditions. Some of these medications can cause weight gain, possibly by altering metabolism or causing fluid retention.
  • Certain diabetes medications, such as insulin and sulfonylureas, can cause weight gain as a side effect. This may be due to the medications' effects on blood sugar and insulin levels.
  • Beta-blockers, which are used to treat high blood pressure and other cardiovascular conditions, can cause weight gain by slowing metabolic rate and decreasing physical activity.


How are stress and obesity related?

The relationship between excess cortisol and weight gain is complex and can be influenced by a variety of factors. However, research suggests that chronically elevated cortisol levels, which can be caused by chronic stress, may contribute to weight gain in some individuals. A 2017 study issued in the European Heart Journal shows that people who are overweight with normal levels of blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol have a 28 per cent increased chance of developing cardiovascular diseases and type-2 diabetes.

When cortisol levels remain elevated over a prolonged period of time, it can lead to: 

  • Dysregulation of the stress response system
  • An increase in appetite 
  • Cravings for high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods, which can contribute to weight gain and obesity 
  • Increase in abdominal fat, which increases risk of metabolic disorders, such as insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.


Body Mass Index (BMI) is a calculation based on a person's height and weight, and it does not take into account factors such as muscle mass or body fat percentage. This is because muscle is denser than fat, meaning it takes up less space for the same weight. As a result, a person with a lot of muscle mass may have a higher weight and BMI, even though their body fat percentage is in the healthy range.

BMI is categorised into four segments:

  • Less than 18.5 - Underweight
  • 18.5-24.9 - Healthy weight 
  • 25-29.9 - Overweight
  • 30-plus - Obese


Can you be healthy at any BMI?

BMI can be a useful tool for assessing overall health risk, it is important to consider other factors, such as body composition, muscle mass, and where body fat is, in order to obtain a more accurate picture of an individual's health status.

The 2017 study shows no accord on the criteria to define obese individuals as ‘metabolically healthy obese’. Body weight and BMI do not always accurately reflect an individual's body composition. Weighing scales aren’t the key indicator of good health. You may be striving to achieve a perfect figure to fit into a certain clothing size by determining the bodily measurements—weight, height, body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, and waist-to-hip ratio. You may think you are in great shape because your BMI falls under the healthy category when that might not actually be the case. 

  • Having a healthy BMI doesn’t guarantee metabolic health. A very muscular person may have a high BMI, even though they have a low body fat percentage and are not overweight or obese. 
  • Conversely, someone with a low BMI may still have a high body fat percentage, especially if they have little muscle mass. This is sometimes referred to as the "skinny fat" phenomenon, and it can increase the risk of various health problems such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic disorders.

Thus, it's important to consider other factors besides BMI when evaluating an individual's health and risk for disease. Body fat percentage, waist circumference, and other measures of body composition can provide more accurate information about an individual's health status. 


Related story: Here's Why BMI is Flawed Indicator of Health


Health Indicators To Check

It is possible for a person to be overweight or obese and still be considered metabolically healthy if these other indicators are within normal ranges. However, it is important to note that this is not the case for everyone, and not all people who are overweight or obese will be metabolically healthy. Additionally, being metabolically healthy does not necessarily mean that a person is completely free from health risks, as there are still potential long-term health consequences associated with being overweight or obese.

While body weight and BMI are important factors in assessing health risks, they do not provide a holistic overview. Other indicators or markers to measure your well-being are:

  • Blood pressure 
  • Blood sugar levels
  • Blood fats ( cholesterol and triglycerides)
  • Markers of inflammation (C-reactive protein)


Related Story: How Going Slow Can Help You With Weight Loss


How does BMI affect mental and physical health? 

Mental and physical health are interconnected, and one can influence the other. Being mentally and physically healthy means that an individual is in a state of well-being in both their mind and body. 

1. Physical health refers to the condition of the body and its various systems. Being overweight or obese can increase the risk of : 

Being underweight can cause

  • A depressed immune system 
  • Anaemia 
  • Osteoporosis


2. Mental health refers to a person's emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Mental health conditions can influence your appetite and cravings, making it harder to maintain weight. 

  • Chronic stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia

On the flip side, if you are heavily restricted due to diet culture and weight, stigma can also lead to self-criticism and disordered eating. 


What can you do if you have a high BMI?

If you have a high BMI (Body Mass Index), it is important to take steps to reduce your weight to a healthy range. Factors such as diet, exercise, and lifestyle habits can play a significant role in overall health and disease risk, regardless of BMI or body composition. Here are some things you can do:

  • Switch to a healthy diet: Eating a healthy, balanced diet is key to reducing your BMI. Focus on eating more whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. Limit your intake of sugary and high-fat foods.
  • Increase physical activity: Engaging in regular physical activity can help you burn calories and lose weight. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, most days of the week.
  • Monitor your progress: Keep track of your weight and BMI over time to monitor your progress. This can help you stay motivated and adjust your approach if necessary.
  • Avoid smoking and alcohol: Engaging in harmful behaviours like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can also have a negative impact on physical health, regardless of BMI. 
  • Consult a healthcare professional: Your healthcare professional can help you determine the best plan of action for losing weight and reducing your BMI. They can also identify any underlying health conditions that may be contributing to your high BMI.
  • Seek support: Losing weight can be challenging, so it's important to seek support from family, friends, or a support group. Consider working with a registered dietitian or a personal trainer to help you reach your goals.


Overall, it is important to take a holistic approach to assessing health and disease risk, considering a variety of indicators beyond just body weight or BMI. A healthy lifestyle that includes regular physical activity, a balanced diet, and other healthy habits can help reduce the risk of chronic diseases, regardless of body weight.


Related Story: How to Resist Toxic Diet Culture


How to help your family be healthy?

Stress and obesity are closely linked, as chronic stress can lead to overeating and weight gain over time. Here are some ways to reduce stress and obesity:

1. Be a role model to your children: Children are more likely to adopt healthy habits if they see their parents and caregivers practising them too. Set a good example by eating healthy foods, being physically active, and managing stress in healthy ways.

2. Get moving often: Find ways to be active together as a family, such as going for walks, bike rides, or playing sports. Encourage your family to engage in at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day.

3. Limit screen time: Excessive screen time has been linked to an increased risk of obesity in children. Set limits on how much time your family spends in front of screens each day, and encourage other activities like reading, playing board games, or being active outdoors.

4. Practice stress-reduction techniques: Techniques like mindfulness meditation, deep breathing, and yoga can help to reduce stress levels and promote relaxation. These techniques can also help to reduce emotional eating and promote healthier eating habits.

5. Control portion size: Eating a healthy, balanced diet can help to support overall health and well-being. Focus on eating a diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. This can help to reduce inflammation, boost energy levels, and promote weight loss.

6. Go to bed early: Getting enough sleep is essential for reducing stress levels and promoting weight loss. Aim for an early bedtime routine and encourage everyone to follow the same. 

By incorporating these strategies into your daily routine, you can help your family adopt healthy habits and achieve a healthy BMI. Remember to be patient and supportive, and to celebrate small victories along the way.


Need all your wellness solutions in one place? A whole new world awaits just a click away.


Health Risk Assessment at UR.Life

Regular health checks are essential for everyone but they are particularly important for individuals who are at risk of or already have metabolic syndrome. Taking regular health checks can help detect metabolic syndrome at an early stage when it is easier to manage and treat. 

With the UR.Life HRA, we help you to invest in your well-being through seamless interventions and targeted medical treatments. Our holistic wellness approach caters to all aspects of your well-being. We ensure that you can bring your whole self to work.

With our medical professionals by your side, routine health check-ups will never be an issue. Advanced laboratory technologies back UR.Life’s Occupational Health Centers (OHC), and with highly qualified experts/technicians, we’re committed to delivering trusted and quality recommendations, modifications and advice to you.

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