Is Cortisol making you fat and sick?

Posted by Marjolein Brugman on Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Are you experiencing weight gain, fatigue, memory loss, and problems with word retrieval, insomnia, depression and loss of libido?  Do you wake up tired and have brain fog, drink coffee all day, crave sugar?  Is this you? What does this have to do with Cortisol?  And, what the heck is Cortisol?  I need to know NOW; it's stressing me out!

You are driving to the supermarket. The ambulance siren screams behind you, warning you to get over. You are stuck in traffic; horns of the cars around you are honking, urging everyone to start moving. You can't! The traffic is at a standstill as far as the eye can see. There must be an accident up ahead. People are leaning on their horns and the noise of those horns mixed with the urgency of the siren is creating a rush of hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, creating a state of "Red Alert!" in your body. 

Your heart and head starts to pound, you start to sweat, your blood pressure rises, your pulse quickens as well as your breath. Your body quickly runs through a series of neurological, biochemical, hormonal and physiological actions, each designed to help you spring into action...but, you can't, you are stuck. Your body is in "Red Alert!", "lets get out of here!" mode, survival mode.

This state of "Red Alert!" is called the "Fight or Flight Response". This critical component for survival and is useful for saving your life, i.e. when having to run from a charging tiger! From the small stuff to battling traffic, watching the news, paying bills, dealing with family issues, co-works, bosses, improper nutrition, unresolved emotional stress or health issues, many of us are in "Red Alert!" all day every day. These daily stressors are called the allostatic load, or the total strain of all the daily stressors on the organs and tissues. 


After you have finally moved out of the way of the screaming ambulance your body goes into ADAPTION stage, maybe, it depends on your ability to control your stress response. You many perceive that there is no longer urgency or danger and cortisol recedes like the tide, from your body. You feel better, no longer shaky and are able to move forward from the incident. have a high stress response to your daily allostatic loads.


If you continue to remain in "Red Alert!" from the allostatic load, the total of all your daily stressors, you will move into the EXHAUSTION phase. 

The adrenal glands get tired of pumping out adrenaline and cortisol to deal with perceived stressors and this leads to symptoms of adrenal fatigue or total burn out.   

Do you wake up tired?  Do you drink a coffee all day?  Crave sugar?  Can't shut down? 

Cortisol normally fluctuates in a rhythmic fashion during the day and helps convert proteins into energy, and fights inflammation.  But at chronic high levels, cortisol gradually tears your body down all day. Feel like you are running on empty? You probably have adrenal fatigue.  


  • Fatigue and Malaise
  • Feeling tired despite sufficient hours of sleep
  • Insomnia
  • Weight gain
  • Depression
  • Hair loss
  • Acne
  • Reliance on stimulants like caffeine
  • Cravings for carbohydrates or sugars
  • Poor immune function
  • Intolerance to cold
  • Racing heart
  • Loss of libido
  • Bowel problems

WHAT IS CORTISOL? Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, is produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. As the brain perceives stress, it responds by telling the hypothalamus, which is located in the brain to start a chemical cascade of events.  The hypothalamus is responsible for keeping the body's nervous system stable and sends a message to the adrenal glands (which are on top of the Kidneys) that says "Red Alert" or "All is well". The adrenal glands first flood the body with adrenaline if it is "Red Alert" getting the body ready to run from the perceived threat and then floods your system with cortisol. 

Steroid medications are the synthetic form of cortisol. Prednisone and dexamethasone (which I was on for a long time in very large doses, read My Story) have great anti-inflammatory and immune-suppressing properties. Cortisol can bring great relief to people, but only at certain dosage levels and for a period of time. People who have lost function of their adrenal gland and have Addison's disease do well on low dose replacement therapy with synthetic cortisol.


  • Fibromyalgia
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Arthritis
  • Premature menopause


I am sure you all measured your Waist to Hip Ratio. If you have not, you may want to before you read this section.

  • Women's ratio should be below 0.8
  • Men's ratio should be below 1.0

Intra-cellular body fat especially abdominal fat creates pressure on all your internal organs. For normal function these organs need room to breathe and expand. This deep, hard type of body fat squishes your organs and they start to produce inflammatory toxins that will make you sick.

There is an enzyme in most cells called HSD (11 beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase-1). HSD suctions cortisol into cells that are found in belly fat, (obesity), the liver, (diabetes) and brain tissue (memory). 

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Institute of Diabetes report that HSD is significantly higher in obese people, those with a high waist to hip ratio and people with pre-diabetes and diabetes.

This suctioning of cortisol into the cells causes an increase in fat cells and results in fat cells getting bigger, plumper, and fatter. The process tends to increase with age. The more stress, the more cortisol HSD can vacuum up increasing intra-cellular and belly fat.  (This is not a simple equation, there are thin people with a lot of stress, but in general cortisol causes weight gain and inflammation in most people).

A study done by the British Heart Foundation shows women between the ages of 53-57 may have higher HSD activity then men in the same age range. This research showed that men and women of the same age gain abdominal body fat from accelerated HSD activity, but women are more prone to gaining more weight. This may be due to the onset of menopause and hormonal changes.

Now back to your waist to hip ratio. Participants in the Dallas Heart Study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, studied 6000 people, a multiethnic population of patients. They underwent Electron-beam computed tomography (EBT scan) to detect coronary artery calcium and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to detect aortic plaque. 

Those with the highest waist to hip ratio had more than 2 times the amount of calcium deposits, detected by EBT in their coronary arteries than those with normal waist to hip ratios.

Those with high waist to hip ratio who had the MRI scan showed that the risk of arterosclerotic plaque in the aorta (the major vessel leading to the heart) was three times as high as those who had normal waist to hip ratio.

This was also confirmed by a study published in the August 2007 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Nearly 3000 people between the ages of 18 and 65 participated in this study.  

The study states; "Fat that accumulates around your waist seems to be more biologically active as it secretes inflammatory proteins that contribute to atherosclerotic plaque buildup, whereas fat around your hips doesn't appear to increase risk for cardiovascular disease at all...the key message is to develop lifelong dietary and exercise habits (monitor stress response) that prevent the development of the 'pot belly.'"

Cardiovascular disease and diabetes are tied together by the bond of abdominal fat.

The inflammatory proteins that are secreted by your belly fat also affect every organ and function in your body.


Along with an accelerated release of cortisol at times of "Red Alert", the hormone glucose, which fuels your body for movement is rushed to your arms and legs. You are in survival mode, "let's get out of here!"  

Cortisol and glucose are diverted from your brain to your body creating dysfunction of neurotransmitters, the chemicals that brain cells need to communicate with each other. Cortisol overload turns your brain off. 

Have you ever experienced or known someone who has experienced a very traumatic event? The brain shuts down, the mind goes blank and memory of the experience is gone.

Think of your allostatic load. Are you having an accelerated release of cortisol all day every day? No wonder you have brain fog and memory problems.

Short-term memory is the first casualty of high cortisol levels and can lead to memory loss.  

Dr. Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University studied an aging population of 60 volunteers, between the age of 60 and 85. He found that high life time allostatic load accelerated the degeneration of the hippocampus which controls or stops cortisol production. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans confirmed that the hippocampus had shrunk in the majority of the participants. The small hippocampus group did the worst on a memory test. They could not remember pictures they'd seen 24 hours earlier.

The Mayo Clinic researchers found that specific changes in the hippocampus actually can be help to determine who may develop Alzheimer's disease in the future.


Remember that screaming ambulance siren? As cortisol is released, your blood pressure rises.  

In a Finnish study that followed 2,303 middle aged men, it was found that elevated blood pressure in response to stress and high cortisol increased the risk of having a stroke. Susan A. Everson, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study states, "This study provides more evidence of mind-body connections in disease development". 

This rise in blood pressure, pulse and respiration leads to an accelerated development of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) when the large carotid arteries in the neck are damaged by atherosclerosis, blood flow to the brain can be impaired. This can cause a stroke. 


Stress can increase the ability of chemicals and toxins to pass from the blood into the brain. Cortisol can damage the vessels that protect the brain from those circulating toxins

During the Gulf War, Israeli soldiers took a drug called pyridostigmine to protect themselves from chemical and biological weapons.  An Israeli biochemist thought that the stress of war might be creating symptoms of headaches, nausea and dizziness, which happen only when pyridostigmine reaches the brain. 

He took a group of mice, stressed them by dunking them in water and then injected them with dye. He found that the dye passed into the stressed mice and not into the control group of non-stressed mice. 

The fact that stress can increase the ability of chemical to pass through the blood-brain barrier has enormous implications in health.


When you are in constant "Red Alert!" with a high allostatic load the body is always in survival mode. Survival always comes before don't think about sex when that tiger is rushing at you. 

When the adrenal glands are on overload pushing out cortisol, it prevents your body from producing the building blocks needed to make estrogen and testosterone.

Erectile dysfunction may be due to several factors, excessive cortisol hormones, "Red Alert!" elevated insulin (abdominal fat), and declining testosterone do to adrenal fatigue.

It is also said that your brain is the most important sexual organ! So if your brain is affected by chronic cortisol exposure, there goes your sex life.


Stress is a sign that we need to look more closely at our lives. It is a warning sign that can lead to a whole host of physical and mental problems. There is a limit to how much our bodies can take before we break down.

  • Calculate your waist to hip ratio
  • Eat a large variety of colorful fruits and vegetables rich in flavonoids-a potent natural anti-oxidant that can protect the body from cortisol damage.
  • Exercise
  • See a therapist


Adrenal Stress Index testing-this is a salvia test that checks for your Cortisol, DHEA and insulin levels over a period of 12 hours.


Take a Multi Vitamin
Essential Fatty Acids EPA/DHA  
Probiotics like in VegeLight  
Phosphatidylserine - repairs cortisone receptors in the hypothalamus that are damaged by cortisol. It also regulates cortisol levels and is used in preventing short-term memory loss, and age related dementia, 100mg  1-3 capsules per day.


Blog Categories

Recent Blog Posts

Join for free
Already a member? Login:
E-mail address Password  
forgot your password?    Remember me

Community Benefits

  • Health and nutrition tips by Marjolein Brugman
  • Free Pilates training downloads
  • Share stories with other members
  • Messageboards for advice and support
  • A chance to win contests
  • Discounts on store items

Stories of Change

Read real stories by real people whose lives have been changed by lighterliving™.
View the stories and tell your own