Are Your Stress Hormones Making You Fat?

Stress is defined as the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change. And it can be sub-divided into 4 categories: (the body responds in the same manner, regardless of the stimulus)

  • Psychological (divorce, grief, anxiety)
  • Environmental (noise, light, vibration)
  • Metabolic (inflammation, obesity)
  • Physiological (trauma, insomnia)

The stress response has 3 stages.

  1. “Fight or flight” response
  2. Cortisol resistance
  3. Exhaustion phase

During the flight or flight stage,

  • Adrenal glands releases 3 main hormones (adrenaline, noradrenalin and cortisol)
  • All non essential processes are switched off (digestion and fertility)
  • Blood is directed to the muscles
  • Skin chills, sweats and hair stands on end
  • Immune system is switch on
  • Breath quickens, bronchials dilates
  • Heart races and blood pressure rises
  • Glycogen to convert to blood sugar (glucose)

The entire body is suddenly in a state of high alert, its primed and fueled to get ready to fight or run. But what happens if we don’t fight or run? In modern society most people are inactive, or if they are active their stress is due to workplace stress and fighting and running around the workplace is not a good look. So what happens to the extra sugar?

When we have over a teaspoon of sugar in the blood, it causes the pancreas to flood the body with insulin. Insulin is our FAT STORAGE hormone.

In summary: Cortisol is the stress hormone responsible for fuelling your muscles by converting glycogen to sugar, if not used, your pancreas responds by sending in insulin, which converts the sugar into fat.  The only alternative to this is to MOVE, burn that extra sugar so it’s not available to be converted to fat. Or practice stress management techniques to help minimise your stress levels in the first place. (Exercise is again the prefect solution)

Some more on Cortisol, Cortisol is naturally secreted throughout the day. It peaks around 7am and bottoms out around 11pm. Its best to exercise in harmony with your body’s natural circadian rhythm, therefore you’re best to workout first thing in the morning.

The other main hormone involved in circadian rhythm is melatonin, the sleep inducing hormone. Melatonin works in opposition to cortisol and starts to rise as the sun goes down and reduces as the sun comes up.

Morning people are working with their body’s natural cycle; night owls are working against themselves.

Cortisol resistance occurs when your stress hasn’t resolved and is on going.
The adrenals are pumping out high levels of cortisol, except your body is no longer recognizing it. Cortisol resistance goes hand in hand with insulin resistance (prediabetes). Common signs of cortisol resistance include:

  • Increased visceral fat formation (abdominal fat)
  • Increased appetite
  • Fluid retention
  • Inflammation
  • Immune suppression
  • Mood disorders
  • Premature skin ageing
  • Insomnia
  • Elevated blood pressure.

The final stage is exhaustion. Otherwise known as chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia. The adrenals have stopped producing cortisol.  Signs and symptoms include extreme weakness, fatigue, lack of appetite – weight loss, digestive issues-usually altering diarrhea with constipation, muscle or joint pain, anemia, low blood pressure etc.

Stress affects everyone from time to time; it’s an unfortunate part of modern living. What is needed here is stress management tools to minimise its impact.
Here are some tools:

  • Exercise!!! I don’t care if its cardio, weights, yoga, pilates, dancing etc. Movement is essential.
  • Breathing techniques
  • Mediation
  • Massage
  • Pet therapy
  • Correcting melatonin levels can help correct cortisol levels. Try and get natural light during the day and reduce light before bedtime. Avoid blue light (screens –tv, computer) before bed. Get some pre mid-night sleep.
  • Discover your life purpose/spiritual connection
  • Create time for hobbies such as music, arts/craft, gardening etc.
  • Have meaning conversations eg book club
  • Create strong social networks.


  • Low carbohydrate, low sugar. Cortisol and insulin levels are linked. By keeping insulin levels low can help keep cortisol levels low. Avoid sugar and sugar containing foods. Eat like a Hunter Gatherer. Lots of fresh veggies, salads, fruits and proteins.
  • Don’t skip meals especially breakfast.


  • Vitamin B and C
  • Magnesium
  • Fish oil
  • Herbs (Rhodiola, Ginsengs, Brahmi etc)

If you are struggling to slim down, please seriously rethink how stressed you feel. If you have made the correct dietary changes and are not seeing results, this is your most likely culprit. If you need help taming your stress hormones please book an appointment and let me help you. Stress is one of the most common concerns I work with in my clinic.