How Cortisol Impacts Weight Gain

Something I recommend that everybody gets checked is their cortisol. It’s something that is so often underlooked, yet plays a significant role in weight and overall health. In this post, I’m going to go into the role cortisol plays in weight loss and some things that you can do to make sure that your cortisol is staying within a healthy range all day long.

What is Cortisol?

Let's start with what cortisol is. Cortisol is basically the body's main stress hormone. In times of crisis, your adrenal gland releases cortisol, which increases your heart rate, blood sugar levels, blood pressure, breathing, and muscle tension. At the same time, it also shuts down systems that aren't necessary in times of crisis - such as digestive and reproductive systems. Cortisol comes into play in times of fight or flight, which we aren’t meant to be in all the time. Being stuck in fight or flight with your cortisol chronically high is really hard on your health, which I’ll go into a bit more later.

As I mentioned, cortisol has the power to shut down your digestive system and reproductive system. However, it also regulates blood sugar and reduces inflammation. And if your cortisol can't work effectively, then your blood sugar will go up and inflammation will increase.

Cortisol levels run on a 24-hour cycle. Naturally, it’s high in the morning and then tapers off throughout the day. The higher levels in the morning help you get up and ready for the day. In the evening, cortisol levels decrease so you can calm down and prepare for bed.

The Impact of Prolonged Periods of High Cortisol

Cortisol is not bad, in fact it’s essential for daily life. However, prolonged periods of high cortisol can have detrimental effects on our health.

Some of the side effects of prolonged periods of high cortisol include:

  • high blood pressure

  • blood sugar imbalances

  • reduced immune function

  • suppressed thyroid function

  • reduced muscle tissue

  • sleep issues.

Sadly, only 12% of the population is metabolically healthy. Which goes to show that it's really important to work on our metabolic health. With that being said, I'm going to dive into the six areas of metabolic health to help you determine your metabolic health.

6 Metabolic Drivers

1. Cortisol

As I previously mentioned, it’s so important to get your cortisol tested. But what’s the best test? The best test out there is the saliva test. Often when you go to an endocrinologist to get tested, you just get an AM cortisol test. However, it’s best to test your cortisol throughout the day because your cortisol is different depending on what time it is. I recommend the Everlywell test that you can do at home. For this test, you spit into a tube four times throughout the day to get an accurate reading. I’ve been tested through my doctor and Everlywell, but the Everlywell test was pretty accurate.

If you’re not familiar with Everlywell, it's an online testing company that has a variety of at-home tests. For the cortisol test, they'll send you saliva tubes that you spit into at specific times throughout the day to see how your curve is so cortisol ranges.

When I had my cortisol checked, it was normal except for an evening spike at 11:00 at night. I asked my endocrinologist and she told me my morning cortisol was actually low. I was shocked because I thought my cortisol was “within range.” However, the ranges for cortisol are based on the average cortisol of 95% of the population, but only 12% of the population is metabolically healthy, meaning the averages are not very good as far as the ranges go for cortisol. When you get your test results back, you actually want to be in the upper two thirds range. That's the more optimal cortisol. So that's why when my doctor saw that my morning cortisol was in the lower half instead of the upper half she viewed that as actually low.

Something else you can get tested is DHEA, which is the backup hormone to cortisol. Getting it tested can give you a lot of information as to maybe why your cortisol isn't functioning normally, if it isn't.

How can you tell if cortisol is preventing weight loss? So often when you’re trying to lose weight you hit a point where you feel like you’re not doing enough (with exercise and diet). So often diet and exercise get way too much attention in the weight loss space, and what could be causing the plateau is hormone imbalance. If you are eating a healthy diet in a deficit and exercising consistently, yet you're not losing weight, it’s often a sign of hormone imbalance.

All our hormones work together like a symphony. Meaning if you have a problem with one hormone, you likely have another problem with another hormone. So if you notice that you do have some hormone issues with insulin resistance, there's likely other issues there.

2. Thyroid

Your thyroid is the rate at which your body burns food for fuel. It's key for metabolic health.

This is one I can relate to. My mom has hypothyroidism and my brother just started medication for hypothyroidism, so I know that thyroid issues run in my family. But when I got my thyroid levels checked, they were normal. However, just like with cortisol, the “normal” ranges are a little bit off. So, this is something that I'm going to look at again and make sure that even though my lab ranges were technically normal, if on another scale I'm coming up on the low side.

Some ways to know that your thyroid levels are off are: feeling cold all the time, constipation, dry hair, insomnia, and dry hands. If you struggle with these or suspect you have thyroid issues, you always want to ask yourself why your thyroid isn’t functioning normally. There are essential minerals that support the thyroid, which you may be deficient in. Perhaps you’re not getting enough selenium or iodine. Take a look at your supplements or daily diet to make sure that you're getting enough nutrients to actually support your thyroid.

3. Fasting Insulin

A normal fasting insulin is up to 99. But when I was researching this, I found that fasting insulin should actually be less than eight, which seems very low compared to up to 99. Which to me shows how we need to redefine these actual ranges that are saying that things are normal because normal may not mean that you're diabetic, but you could be on the road to diabetes. Essentially, dig a bit deeper when you get your fasting insulin results back. They may be within “normal range,” but they could be an indicator of pre-diabetes.

4. Fasting Blood Glucose

You want your fasting blood glucose to be 85 or less. If you're over 85, then that can indicate that you have blood sugar regulation issues.

5. A1C

A1C, is your average blood sugar over a three month span and how well it’s regulated. Ideally, you want your A1C to be less than 5% for optimal blood sugar control. But your doctor may tell you that your A1C looks all good at 5.2% or 5.3% - and I’ve even heard that at 5.6% doctors are just sayin to keep an eye on it. So, again, this is where we need to redefine these ranges to start doing a lot more preventative work.

And side note here…I get it, sometimes doctors have a lot on their plate, and really they're trained to address the issue. I know it sounds silly, but so many people rely on their health insurance to provide you optimal health. But when you think about it, you wouldn't rely on your car insurance to prevent car accidents, or make sure that your car is washed and vacuumed. You rely on your car insurance to help you after you've smashed the car. Right? We can view health insurance the same way. But people are so often stuck in this mindset that if insurance doesn't cover it, it's not worth investing in or spending time on. In essence, it’s so important to be proactive with health and invest in things that you need, not just rely on insurance all the time. That might mean buying tests out of pocket, or if your doctor's not providing the tests that you want, get at-home test kits. Or you can find another doctor who will actually listen.

6. Sex Hormones

It’s also super helpful to get your sex hormones tested -namely testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen. Hormonal imbalances are directly linked to poor metabolic health.

How to Support your Hormones

If you do have hormonal imbalance, there are some things you can do to help. First is getting enough sleep. Sleep restores and nurtures cortisol. Make sure that you are getting optimal sleep every night, meaning deep sleep. And actually, if you are getting good, deep sleep you only need 6 hours of sleep a night!

Second, balance your blood sugar. To keep your cortisol out of excess fight or flight make sure that you are eating for balanced blood sugars. I view every single meal as an opportunity to balance my blood sugar because every time you eat, you impact your blood sugar and cortisol. To be a little bit easier on your morning cortisol is to have your coffee with a balanced breakfast or after breakfast. Eating a balanced breakfast with caffeine keeps your blood sugar a little bit more regulated and doesn't impact cortisol as much. So anytime you eat or drink, think about how it could affect your cortisol.

Third, improve gut health. The gut it's the center of your health. The surface area of your gut is the size of two tennis courts. And this is like a totally separate topic, but it relates to cortisol because your gut actually helps regulate cortisol. The protective cells for the immune system collect on the lining of your gut because that's the biggest surface area. So if your gut health is bad, your immunity will actually be low.

How do you strengthen your gut? First, make sure your vitamin D is optimal. When tested, you want it to be between 60 and 80. You can get your vitamin D tested at your doctor’s by getting a 25-hydroxy vitamin D test or you can do an at-home test through Everlywell.

Another essential vitamin is Vitamin C. Vitamin C is important for your adrenal and immune health. Your body actually doesn't store vitamin C, it dumps it, so make sure you're getting this daily through food or supplementation.

There are also a lot of herbs that can help support the immune system and minimize stress like ginseng and ashwagandha. I use ashwagandha pretty regularly for anxiety support, but it also helps boost your immune system. Cold showers are another way to boost your immune system and they actually increase your natural killer cells. Even 30 seconds of cold water at the end of your shower can help.

The next practice that can be hugely beneficial is breath work. I've been really dedicated to my meditation practice lately for focus and stress relief, and I’ve noticed a huge difference. Breathing deeply oxygenates all of your cells and helps the immune system function. And not only that, it helps with metabolism, restful sleep, stress relief, etc. A meditation practice doesn’t just have to be seated either. You can do walking meditation or yoga that focuses on deep breathing. Find what works for you.

Lastly, make sure you’re eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and if you eat animal proteins, make sure you're finding the best quality meats out there (pasture-raised, grass-fed, etc.).

I know managing stress can be overwhelming, but recognize that this is a journey. Maybe choose one thing to incorporate at a time and give yourself grace in this whole process. You've got this!


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