The Cortisol Connection: Stress Less to Weigh Less

October 23, 2013
Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS

Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS

Award-winning nutritionist and New York Times bestselling author.

stress weight gainStress isn’t just wearing you down, it’s making you fat!

And, you likely have cortisol to blame. One of the main adrenal hormones secreted to provide energy in response to stress, Cortisol stimulates the release of protein from muscle so it can be converted to glucose, inhibits protein synthesis, increases the release of fatty acids from fat tissue and stimulates the conversion of noncarbohydrates to glucose. All of the resulting extra blood sugar provides the fuel you need to respond to an immediate stress – that rush of adrenaline you feel when you narrowly avoid a wreck while driving.

When stress becomes a constant, as is the case for so many of us juggling busy schedules, careers and family, cortisol levels remain high, as do glucose levels. When the excess blood sugar is not used for energy production, it is stored as fat, often in the deep abdominal fat cells, which have four times more cortisol receptors than fat cells found just below the skin. Consequently, cortisol is drawn into the central fat cells, where it activates enzymes to store fat. This process is what gives you that midlife tummy bulge that’s so difficult to lose.

Cortisol influences overall weight gain in other ways as well. Increased levels set off food cravings, breakdown muscle tissue, and cause a vicious cycle with metabolism and sleep. Cortisol makes it hard to sleep—and insufficient sleep releases more cortisol and decreases your body’s ability to burn fat effectively. A landmark study in JAMA shows people getting approximately eight hours of sleep a night secrete half as much cortisol as those who sleep only six and a half hours a night.

Steady overproduction of cortisol also inhibits another important hormone, DHEA. As you age, DHEA production naturally decreases, but excess cortisol can interrupt hormones with major ramifications for your health. In particular, the cortisol-DHEA connection is closely related to the insulin-glucagon connection. As cortisol levels increase, so do insulin levels which can lead to insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

So, what’s the answer to controlling cortisol? In theory, my advice is to stress less, but I can attest that is always easier said than done.

However, there are some simple things you can do to help your body’s natural defense system against stress – watch this video for my top 3 tips for controlling cortisol:

A Simple Test to Assess Your Stress Levels

Unlike the traditional blood test, a salivary hormone test can accurately measures levels of hormones that are fully active, known as bioavailable or free hormones. Wrapped in protein so they can be transported through the blood stream, bound hormones are not fully biologically active. Using a blood test to assess hormones gives you and your health practitioner a distorted picture of your biologically active hormone levels.

I personally check my own hormone levels four times a year in sync with the changes in season. Many integrative practitioners offer in-office saliva-based hormone testing. It can also be done at home without a prescription through a partnership I’ve arranged. This salivary hormone test can assess up to six hormones (cortisol, DHEA, progesterone, estradiol, estriol, and testosterone) and includes individualized recommendations for supplementation and lifestyle changes.

Stem Cell-Like Support for Balanced Cortisol

Many of my clients have found that a glandular adrenal formula is an effective way to balance cortisol and help the thyroid maintain sufficient energy levels. In addition to high-grade raw bovine adrenal gland and raw bovine adrenal cortex , and tissue glandulars from the liver and spleen, look for a product with vital nutrients like vitamins A and C, vitamin B6 and pantothenic acid, zinc (to balance copper overload), and tyrosine (an energy-producing amino acid that supports the thyroid).

The adrenal supplement I’ve found to be most effective is Uni Key Adrenal Formula. It’s based on a formula I took for many years, and when the company went out of business, I asked UNI KEY to reproduce it because I didn’t want to be without it myself!


Related Articles and Podcasts

Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS, is an award-winning New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty books including The Fat Flush Plan series and her latest book, Radical Metabolism. She’s been rewriting the rules of nutrition for more than 40 years and is internationally recognized as a pioneer in the field of diet, detox and women’s health issues. 

For a FREE daily dose of tips and strategies for maintaining healthy weight, conquering insomnia, and much more…check out my Radical Health Tips.

I’d like to meet and greet you on my Facebook groups, so won’t you check us out at the Radical Metabolism RevolutionFat Flush Nation, or my Inner Circle!


  1. Sally Bennett

    What can one do to get Thyroid nodules to shrink or go away?

    • Team ALG

      Sally, you may find the Iodine Loading Test from UNI KEY to be very helpful, as iodine is an important component of thyroid and breast health. Iodine deficiencies have a high correlation to thyroid nodules, fibroids, and goiters.

  2. Judy

    I can’t seem to get rid of my upper gut no matter how good I eat. I was told I don’t have any hormones due to my adrenals. My ND gave me phyto b for hormones and it made my breast sore and she gave me cortisol (isocort) which is cortisol. I don’t understand why she gave me isocort becus I already have too much cortisol I thought becus of Adrenal issues. I’m taking Adrenal Supoort tonic but nothing seems to help. I’m confused what to do anymore.
    Please help.

    • Team ALG

      Judy, you may greatly benefit from an Adrenal Stress Panel through UNI KEY. Cortisol is directly related to belly fat, so that is very likely an underlying cause. The Adrenal Stress Panel will evaluate your cortisol levels and rhythm over a full day, so appropriate supplement recommendations can be made. There is always hope for rebuilding and fortifying your adrenal glands, you just need the proper plan!

  3. Sandra

    How do I increase available saliva to do a saliva test?

    • Team ALG

      Smelling a freshly-sliced lemon often works very well! Even thinking about your favorite food (or something really sour) can stimulate extra saliva production when you need it.

  4. Heidi Clark

    When I do the Fat Flush Smoothie Shakedown can I still take my probiotic?

    • Team ALG

      Yes, Heidi- we recommend a high quality probiotic on a daily basis. Flora-Key is our go to.


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