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How to Stop Cortisol Weight Gain? Science-Backed Methods

Lower cortisol, and stop its related weight gain, by reducing stress, lowering sleep debt, and working with your circadian rhythm.
Published
2022-10-19
Updated
15 MINS
Man winding down before bed to prevent weight gain from stress

Cortisol is known as the stress hormone, and for a good reason. When we experience high levels of stress, our cortisol levels skyrocket, helping us stay alert for an attack or run away from a threat. 

But, it’s not just short-term stressors that cause high cortisol levels. Constant work deadlines, family obligations, or financial worries leave us feeling frazzled and in a state of fight or flight all the time — and this is when it’s a problem. Sleep deprivation and living out of sync with your body clock also hike up levels of the stress hormone. And when cortisol is often high, you can start gaining weight.

Below, we’ll dive into how too much cortisol in your system leads to weight gain and what you can do to stop that from happening. 

What is Cortisol?

The hormone cortisol is made in the adrenal glands, which are found at the top of your kidneys, and regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), which is made up of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands. Despite being known as your body’s stress response, it has a few other functions. 

Cortisol’s main roles include: 

  • Making you feel alert when your fight-or-flight response is activated. 
  • Waking you up in the morning when levels are high. 
  • Regulating metabolism and controlling how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and protein for energy.
  • Regulating your immune system and fighting inflammation. 

So, cortisol is needed to function day-to-day, it’s not the enemy. It runs on a circadian rhythm, a roughly 24-hour cycle. Cortisol rises in the early morning, helping you wake up. It then slowly declines as the day goes on, hitting its lowest around midnight, before slowly starting to rise again. It peaks again in the early morning — and the cycle continues.

When things are working correctly, this cortisol rhythm ensures your body makes the right amounts of cortisol and at the right times throughout the day. 

The timings of this cortisol rhythm are dependent on your chronotype, the natural tendency to go to sleep and wake up earlier or later. If you’re a night owl, for example, your cortisol peak will be later in the morning. You’ll also have lower cortisol levels overall. 

Beyond the morning cortisol peak, the hormone rises when we’re in fight-or-flight mode. But, usually, it goes back down again once whatever stressed you out has passed. However, when you’re always in fight-or-flight mode and chronically stressed, cortisol levels remain elevated.

Too much cortisol can lead to everything from sleep deprivation to mood swings, weight gain to heart disease. 

Heads-up: Cushing’s syndrome is a condition where the body makes too much cortisol. It can be caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland, a tumor on the adrenal glands, or it can be a side effect of taking steroid medications. 

Most of us experience high cortisol levels from things like stressful lifestyles, sleep deprivation, and being out of sync with our circadian rhythms. We’ll explain these in more detail soon. 

You can learn more about what causes high cortisol levels here. 

How Does Cortisol Cause Weight Gain?

High cortisol is linked to weight gain and obesity, especially around the belly. One study found participants with more weight around their belly area secreted significantly more cortisol when exposed to stressful situations.  

But what exactly is going on behind the scenes? Here’s how the hormone is wreaking havoc with your waistline. 

High Cortisol Can Lead to Overeating 

We’re probably all familiar with the feeling of stress eating. We’re slammed at work and get the urge to reach for a bag of chips or a bar (or two) of chocolate to help us through our growing to-do list. Part of this stress-eating urge can come from your cortisol levels. 

One study found when participants were exposed to stressful situations, those who had high cortisol reactions ate more calories than those who had lower cortisol reactions. What’s more, those with high cortisol reactions also ate significantly more sweet foods across the day. So, just by being stressed, you may be craving unhealthy foods and more food in general. 

Researchers are still finding out how exactly cortisol causes overeating, but it’s thought it may impact the hormones that control your appetite, such as leptin, the hormone responsible for making you feel full. 

High Cortisol Can Lead to High Blood Sugar Levels, Which Can Cause Weight Gain   

When your cortisol levels are high, your body is triggered into releasing glucose that’s stored in the liver, raising your blood sugar levels. This is useful when you need a burst of energy to run for the bus, for example. 

But when blood sugar levels are chronically high, you’re at risk of developing insulin resistance, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. What’s more, excess glucose the body can’t use for energy can be stored as fat, especially belly fat, causing you to gain weight.

High Cortisol Causes Sleep Problems, Which Can Cause Weight Gain

When you have chronically high cortisol levels it’s harder to get enough sleep, and this, too, can lead to weight gain. 

High cortisol levels make it harder to fall asleep, cause you to wake up more often during the night, and reduce your total time asleep. 

This makes it much harder to meet your sleep need, the genetically determined amount of sleep you need. When you don’t get enough sleep, your hunger hormones are thrown out of whack (which can lead to overeating), you have less energy to work out, and less self-control to stick to a diet. 

You can learn more about the connection between sleep and weight loss here. 

You can also turn to the RISE app to find out what your individual sleep need is. 

​​RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep need.

How to Stop Cortisol Weight Gain?

Now you know how high cortisol levels can lead to weight gain, it’s time to do something about it. Here’s how to stop cortisol weight gain. 

1. Reduce Your Stress Levels

RISE app screenshot showing relaxation sessions and techniques
The RISE app can guide you through relaxation techniques.

The occasional stressful situation, and the surge of cortisol that comes with it, isn’t harmful. But chronic stress, and therefore having chronically high cortisol, is. 

Reduce your cortisol levels with stress reduction tactics like: 

  • Meditation or breathing exercises: Meditation has been shown to reduce stress and levels of cortisol, as has techniques like deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. Not sure what to do? RISE can guide you through relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing.
  • Spending time in nature: One study found spending at least 10 minutes in nature three times a week resulted in a 21.3% drop in cortisol levels. The best results came from 20 to 30 minutes in nature.
  • Setting up a relaxing evening routine: Set aside time at the end of the day for relaxing activities like reading, journaling, or yoga. A bedtime routine will help reduce stress and slow your brain and body down for sleep. Bonus: it’ll help you get enough sleep, which also helps keep cortisol in check. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to explore the app’s relaxation technique guides.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to schedule their nightly evening routine.

Sometimes stress management tips like those listed above aren’t enough and you need to make big changes in your life, these include: 

  • Making changes at work, such as reducing your workload or changing jobs.
  • Making changes at home, such as sharing more childcare responsibilities, cutting yourself off from social media, or investing time in friendships. 
  • Speaking to a therapist or healthcare professional about things like mental health, financial troubles, or caretaking pressures.

You can learn more about how to lower your cortisol here and how to lower anxiety and stress here. 

2. Exercise, But Not Too Much or Too Late 

Regular exercise is a great way to reduce stress and improve your overall well-being. It can also lower your cortisol response to stress and low-intensity workouts can actually decrease cortisol levels.

However, high-intensity workouts increase cortisol levels — you are putting your body under a type of stress, after all. While this is okay every now and again, if you’re over-exercising, you may suffer the consequences of high cortisol. So, be sure to throw some yoga or gentle swims into your week instead of back-to-back HIIT classes. 

As well as not over-exercising, be sure to get the timing of your exercise right. Avoid working out too close to bedtime or you run the risk of disturbing your sleep, which, of course, can lead to high cortisol and weight gain. 

You can learn more about exercise before bed here and the best time to work out here. 

3. Keep Sleep Debt Low

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app can work out how much sleep debt you have.

Sleep deprivation is one of the biggest stressors you can put on your body. It can hike up your evening cortisol levels by a whopping 37% to 45%, which can then lead to weight gain and even more sleep deprivation. And sleep deprivation itself has also been linked to weight gain, so it’s easy to fall into a vicious circle. 

Another vicious circle? Anxiety can cause insomnia, but insomnia can also cause anxiety. And both can cause weight gain. You can learn more about the cortisol and sleep loss trap here.

Keep all this at bay by finding out your sleep need and aiming for it each night. 

RISE can work out your individual sleep need and give you a number to aim for in hours and minutes. The app can also work out your sleep debt. This is the running total of how much sleep you owe your body. We measure it over the past 14 nights. 

We recommend keeping sleep debt below five hours to feel and perform your best — but low sleep debt will also help to keep cortisol levels, and therefore your weight, in check. 

You can lower sleep debt by: 

  • Going to bed a little earlier.
  • Sleeping in a little later: Keep lay ins to an hour to two maximum to avoid disrupting your circadian rhythm. 
  • Taking naps: Check RISE for the best time to do this so you don’t keep yourself up later that night. 
  • Improving your sleep hygiene: This will help you fall asleep faster and wake up less often during the night, so you get more sleep overall. More on how to do this soon. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep debt.

4. Live in Sync with Circadian Rhythm 

It’s not just sleep deprivation that causes high cortisol, not sleeping at the right times for your body clock does, too.

This all comes down to your circadian rhythm, or the roughly 24-hour cycle that controls your sleep-wake cycle, the production of certain hormones, and body temperature fluctuations, among other things. 

You can be out of sync with your circadian rhythm if: 

  • You’re a shift worker 
  • You’re ignoring your chronotype: Perhaps you’re a night owl forcing yourself to wake up early. 
  • You have social jetlag: Social jetlag is when your sleep schedule is different on certain days compared to others. For example, you might stay up later on the weekends than during the week, which about 87% of us do.

When you’re not living in sync with your circadian rhythm, your cortisol rhythm gets thrown out of whack and the hormone is no longer produced at the right times. Plus, you may find it harder to meet your sleep need, which causes higher cortisol levels.

Weight gain from circadian misalignment can also come from a decrease in leptin, meaning you have a bigger appetite, as well as your glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity being impaired, which can lead to weight gain, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. 

You can live in sync with your circadian rhythm by: 

  • Keeping a consistent sleep schedule: Even on weekends. If you can’t resist a Sunday morning lay in, try to keep it short. 
  • Going to bed at the right time for you: Check the timing of your Melatonin Window in RISE. This roughly one-hour window is when your body’s rate of melatonin is at its highest. And as melatonin primes your body for sleep, you’ll have a much easier time falling asleep if you go to bed during this window. 
  • Avoid late-night and nighttime eating and keep meal times roughly the same each day: Also consider time-restricted eating, or eating within a 12-hour or smaller window of time each day. This has been shown to help regulate cortisol levels and boost weight loss. You can learn more about the best time to eat to keep your circadian rhythm in check here. 

The RISE app can predict your circadian rhythm each day, so you can see when your body naturally wants to wake up, wind down for bed, and go to sleep. You can then match up your daily schedule with these times. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up a reminder to check their Melatonin Window.

5. Improve Sleep Hygiene 

RISE app screenshot showing when to avoid bright light
The RISE app can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits.

Sleep hygiene is the name for a set of daily habits you can do to improve your sleep. They’ll help you fall asleep faster, wake up less often, and fall asleep at your desired bedtime. All this will help you keep your sleep debt low and stay in sync with your circadian rhythm, by falling asleep at the right time. 

Here’s what to do: 

  • Get natural light first thing: This resets your circadian rhythm for the day. Aim for 10 minutes of light, or 30 minutes if it’s cloudy or you’re getting light through a window. 
  • Avoid light before bed: Light suppresses melatonin, making it harder to fall asleep. Dim the lights and put on blue-light blocking glasses 90 minutes before bed. 
  • Avoid caffeine, large meals, exercise, and alcohol too close to bedtime: All four can keep you up or wake you up during the night. Check RISE for the exact time to stop these things each day.

You can learn more about sleep hygiene here. 

To really make these behaviors effective, time them to your circadian rhythm. By doing things such as having your last coffee or getting bright light at the right times for you, you’ll make the habits much more effective. The RISE app can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits and exactly when you should do them. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications. 

6. Drink Caffeine Responsibly 

Caffeine increases how much cortisol your body produces. This can be another vicious circle if you find yourself reaching for coffee more than usual to get you through stressful and busy times at work. 

One study looked at how participants reacted to caffeine, mental stress, and exercise. It found caffeine and stress together increased cortisol levels, as did caffeine taken before exercise. After a post-exercise meal, women had a greater cortisol response than men, especially if they’d had caffeine. And for both men and women, repeated caffeine doses increased cortisol levels across the day. 

So, keep your coffee habit in check, especially during times of stress. Consuming caffeine too late in the day can also keep you up at night, another trigger for high cortisol. 

You can learn more about how long caffeine lasts and when to stop drinking coffee each day here. 

RISE can tell you when to stop drinking coffee each day to make sure it doesn’t impact your sleep. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their limit caffeine reminder.

Stop Cortisol Weight Gain by Improving Your Sleep 

Stress leads to high cortisol, which leads to weight gain. But many of us overlook just how stressful high sleep debt and circadian misalignment are on the body. Even simple things like your daily coffee or workout may be impacting cortisol levels. 

To break the cycle of cortisol weight gain, take steps to reduce your stress, keep an eye on your caffeine and exercise levels, and make sure you’re meeting your sleep need and living in sync with your circadian rhythm.

The RISE app can help you make it happen. Use the app to find out your individual sleep need and how much sleep debt you have. Then, use the 20+ sleep hygiene habit reminders, at the ideal time for your biology, to get the sleep you need at the right times for you. 

Your sleep, cortisol, and weight loss questions answered:

Summary FAQs

Does cortisol fat go away?

Yes, cortisol fat can go away if you reduce your cortisol levels and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Reduce cortisol levels by reducing your stress, getting enough sleep, and living in sync with your circadian rhythm. Caffeine and high-intensity exercise can also contribute to high cortisol levels.

How to reduce cortisol belly fat?

You can reduce cortisol belly fat by reducing your cortisol levels. Do this by reducing your stress, getting enough sleep, and living in sync with your circadian rhythm. Caffeine and high-intensity exercise can also contribute to high cortisol levels.

How do I get rid of excess cortisol?

You can get rid of excess cortisol by reducing your stress levels, getting enough sleep each night, and living in sync with your circadian rhythm. Keep caffeine and high-intensity exercise in check, too.

High cortisol symptoms

High cortisol symptoms include weight gain, belly fat gain, irritability, headaches, fatigue, brain fog, acne, high blood pressure, muscle weakness, bruising easily, and slowed healing.

What foods reduce cortisol levels?

Foods that can reduce cortisol include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, green tea, legumes, sweet potatoes, lentils, and dark chocolate. Dehydration can cause high cortisol levels so remember to drink enough water, too.

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