Dr Ashwin Sharma

Article by Dr Ashwin Sharma

How To Reduce Cortisol To Help Manage Your Weight

High levels of cortisol, your body’s stress hormone, are often linked to your ability to lose weight. But does cortisol actually affect your weight, and how can you reduce it? Our experts explore what cortisol is, how it impacts weight loss and provide simple tips for reducing your cortisol levels.  

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands, which sit just above your kidneys. It helps your body respond to stress, which is why it’s known as the ‘stress hormone’. It also helps regulate your metabolism and increase your blood sugar levels.

Keeping your cortisol levels balanced is important for your health. High levels of cortisol can lead to health issues, including: obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease. 

What causes high cortisol levels?

Your cortisol levels naturally fluctuate throughout the day. Generally, morning cortisol levels are higher, and they lower throughout the day. However, chronic stress can make your body produce high levels of cortisol over a prolonged period. This can be brought on by stressful events, or mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. 

Cushing’s syndrome is a condition where the levels of cortisol in your body are higher than normal. This can be due to several factors, including taking steroid medications for a prolonged period or, very rarely, due to tumours on the pituitary or adrenal glands.

Symptoms of high cortisol

So, how do you know if you have high cortisol levels? Here are some signs you may notice [1]: 

  • Weight gain, especially around your face or stomach
  • High blood pressure
  • Bruising easily
  • Muscle weakness
  • Low concentration or memory issues

How does cortisol affect weight?

Your body’s hormone levels are closely linked to your weight. It’s believed that when you’re under stress and your cortisol levels are high, this increases your appetite and hunger cravings, which can lead to weight gain. Elevated cortisol levels also slow down your metabolism and promote the storage of fat in your body, making it harder to lose weight. [2]

How can I reduce cortisol?

Lower your stress levels

Since elevated cortisol can be a result of prolonged stress, managing your stress levels is a great place to start. Prioritise looking after your mental health, and seek extra support from your GP with that if needed. Self-help relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness and meditation can all help bring down your stress levels, too. 

Eat a balanced diet

Research suggests that your diet can help reduce your cortisol levels. A Mediterranean diet [3] has been linked with low cortisol levels, along with whole grain carbohydrates [4] and omega-3s. [5] Studies also suggest your gut microbiome may be linked to stress. [6] To diversify your gut bacteria, try including prebiotic foods — like mushrooms, online, garlic and asparagus — and probiotic foods — like live yoghurt, kefir, kimchi or other fermented foods — in your diet. 

Get plenty of sleep

Cortisol is linked to your body’s circadian rhythm, or natural internal clock. It’s supposed to peak in the morning, then lower throughout the day. [7] So, sleep deprivation can lead to elevated cortisol levels. Get into a consistent sleep schedule, aiming for roughly the same 7 to 9 hours every night. Improving your sleep quality can also lower your cortisol levels, so try and create a relaxing routine and avoid screens, caffeine and alcohol before bed. 

Exercise regularly

Regular exercise helps manage stress and may reduce your cortisol levels [8]. Intense physical activity can temporarily increase cortisol before reducing it. We recommend 150 to 200 minutes of low to moderate intensity exercise every week, with plenty of rest between. And make sure you don’t overdo it — this could put your body under even more stress. 

Have fun

Spending time doing things you enjoy — alone, or with friends and family — can also naturally reduce stress, which can bring down your cortisol levels. Small studies have also shown that spontaneous laughter can reduce cortisol levels, but more research is needed to tell us exactly how. [9]

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If you’re struggling to reach your weight goals, a clinically proven treatment could help increase your results. Injectable GLP-1 medications can help you lose up to 20% of your body weight.

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  1. Thau L, Gandhi J, Sharma S. Physiology, cortisol [Internet]. National Library of Medicine. StatPearls Publishing; 2023. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538239/
  2. Epel E, Lapidus R, McEwen B, Brownell K. Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2001 Jan;26(1):37–49.
  3. Carvalho K, Ronca D, Michels N, Huybrechts I, Cuenca-Garcia M, Marcos A, et al. Does the Mediterranean Diet Protect against Stress-Induced Inflammatory Activation in European Adolescents? The HELENA Study. Nutrients. 2018 Nov 15;10(11):1770.
  4. ‌Soltani H, Keim NL, Laugero KD. Increasing Dietary Carbohydrate as Part of a Healthy Whole Food Diet Intervention Dampens Eight Week Changes in Salivary Cortisol and Cortisol Responsiveness. Nutrients. 2019 Oct 24;11(11):2563.
  5. ‌Thesing CS, Bot M, Milaneschi Y, Giltay EJ, Penninx BWJH. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid levels and dysregulations in biological stress systems. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2018 Nov;97:206–15.
  6. ‌Madison A, Kiecolt-Glaser JK. Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: human–bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences [Internet]. 2019 Aug;28(3):105–10. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352154618301608 
  7. ‌Hirotsu C, Tufik S, Andersen ML. Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions. Sleep Science [Internet]. 2015 Nov;8(3):143–52. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4688585/ 
  8. Wood CJ, Clow A, Hucklebridge F, Law R, Smyth N. Physical fitness and prior physical activity are both associated with less cortisol secretion during psychosocial stress. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping. 2017 Oct 16;31(2):135–45.
  9. ‌Kramer CK, Cristiane Bauermann Leitao. Laughter as medicine: A systematic review and meta-analysis of interventional studies evaluating the impact of spontaneous laughter on cortisol levels. PLoS One. 2023 May 23;18(5):e0286260–0.
Dr Ashwin Sharma
Dr Ashwin Sharma
Dr Ashwin Sharma is a medical doctor and writer with a particular interest in health technology, artificial intelligence and medical weight loss. He completed his training at the University of Leicester and Imperial College London, and has since been exploring the intersections of medicine, technology, and communication.
Originally published July 10 2024, updated July 10 2024