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Cortisol is a steroid hormone, known as a glucocorticoid, made in the cortex of the adrenal glands and then released into the blood which transports it all around the body. Almost every cell contains receptors for cortisol, so it can have a lot of different actions depending on which sort of cells it is acting upon. These effects include:

  • raising blood sugar

  • making you hungry and crave sugar

  • reducing your ability to burn fat

  • suppressing the HPA-axis, which exists between your brain and your adrenal glands, and contributes to many hormonal imbalances

  • interfering with the levels of hormones like DHEA, testosterone, progesterone, growth hormone and thyroid hormones

  • making your cells less sensitive to insulin

  • increasing your belly fat and increasing infiltration of fat into your liver

  • increasing the rate at which you store fat

  • raising the level of fatty acids and triglycerides in your blood

There are studies that show stress causes abdominal fat – even in people who are otherwise thin. Researchers at Yale University, for example, found slender women who had high cortisol levels also had more abdominal fat. More results published in the journal of Psychosomatic Medicine in 2000 established a link between cortisol and increased storage of abdominal fat. Furthermore, animal and human studies have demonstrated that cortisol injections are associated with increased appetite, cravings for sugar, and weight gain. It has been thought that cortisol directly influences food consumption by binding to receptors in the brain (specifically, the hypothalamus). This can stimulate an individual to eat food that is high in fat and/or sugar or go back and forth between very sweet and very salty junk foods.

More of the research suggesting links between high cortisol and appetite and abdominal weight gain are offered here:

Epel, E.S., B. McEwen, T. Seeman, et al. Stress and body shape: stress-induced cortisol secretion is consistently greater among women with central fat. Psychosomatic Medicine 62:623-632, 2000.

(Epel, E., R. Lapidus, B. McEwen, et al. Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior.Psychoneuroendocrinology 26: 37-49, 2001)

Wallerius, S., R. Rosmond, T. Ljung, et al. Rise in morning saliva cortisol is associated with abdominal obesity in men: a preliminary report. Journal of Endocrinology Investigation 26: 616-619, 2003

Fortunately, one of the signature programs Dr. Valcarcel has created addresses stress, cortisol and weight gain. Simple and conventional blood tests along with a saliva test called the Adrenocortex Stress Profile provide information about your cortisol levels and its effects on your body's sugar levels, thyroid function, tendency to store energy as fat rather than burn it as sugar, DHEA, and hormones like testosterone, progesterone and estrogen. Each of these has its own effects on weight gain, fat deposition, muscle mass or muscle lack, mood, appetite, cravings, water retention, blood fats, and stress resilience. Functional Medicine provides your doctors with non-pharmaceutical, non-invasive options to help your body's metabolic processes repair and improve.

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