Diet & Nutrition

Are you a cortisol victim?

Beneath the weight gain: Yoga can help combat stress. Photo: K. Murali Kumar  

Have you been working out, “dieting” and still not losing any weight, or worse still, steadily gaining in girth? Are you anxious, annoyed and frustrated with your apparently pointless weight loss efforts? Well, you may very well be one of those people suffering from an overload of stress hormone Cortisol. It has been found that in certain people, Cortisol overload leads to weight gain, particularly around the abdomen.

I am often faced with clients who believe they are near starving themselves, working out like dogs and yet not losing any weight. Aside from the irony that most dogs rarely work, it is with some trepidation that I approach this situation. It has been found that on questioning, most individuals under-estimate what they eat and over-estimate how much they exercise.

What is Stress?

If, however, it is established that you honestly are unable to lose weight despite following the necessary precautions, it may be time to evaluate the rest of your life and take into consideration your stress levels as one of the causes for weight gain or failure to lose weight.

Emotional stress is defined as a person’s reaction to any situation that places special physical or psychological demands on the person so as to unbalance his/her equilibrium (Niemann 1998). Everyone from the corporate executive, housewife or student is under stress. How one’s body responds to stress may vary. Although the biochemical reaction to stress is similar for every human being, some individuals lose their appetite and weight during stressful times, while others gain steadily.

The Stress Response: According to Hans Selye M.D, the pioneer of Emotional stress, when the human body is faced with a stressor (or what it perceives as a stressor), the sympathetic and endocrine system of the body set in motion physiological responses that include the release of hormones Cortisol and Epinephrine from the adrenal glands. Once the stressful event has passed, the body reverts to its ‘normal homeostasis’. Most times however, when the stress is ongoing or the individual has a personality type that responds to most situations like they are disasters waiting to happen, the body remains in a ‘high alert’ situation with the continuous outpouring of stress hormones. These situations cause certain bodily changes that include weight gain! Research findings suggest that Cortisol is the offender.

In today’s fast paced society there is hardly an opportunity for the body to revert to normal homeostasis after a stressful event. Consider, deadlines at work, traffic jams, financial crisis, sick children, an unpleasant mother-in-law, school admissions, the list is endless. The stage is set for a body that is constantly on an over dose of Cortisol and other stress hormones.

The Food Connection: To make matters worse, food as we all know, is not used solely to alleviate hunger. It is also seen as a form of psychological fulfilment. Periods of stress in your life — whether a bereavement, loss of job, divorce, exams or even change of home — can be times when you reach for food as comfort leading to weight gain. This is called Emotional Eating and is a common coping strategy to soothe disturbed feelings. The weight gain and dieting itself can be a source of stress especially in today’s world where the pressure to look slim is foisted on most people (particularly women), by the media depiction of super slim models. This often-unrealistic image can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle for a lot of women.

Stress-related weight gain: Besides the regular exercise/ healthy diet combination, “lifestyle” changes and a holistic approach to fitness has to be observed if stress is to be effectively combated.

Exercise by itself is a great stress reliever, (Neimann, Kramer & Lee 1991, Blumenthal et al 1999). Conversely, it may serve as a source of stress for some people who approach it competitively or generate their own stress by setting unrealistic goals.

Mind-Body Fitness disciplines like Yoga, Tai Chi and Pilates, which are introspective and focus on the breath can be use for stress management. They are an ideal support system to a regular cardio and iron pumping routine.


The importance lies in the strategic combination of exercise modalities for each individual depending on his requirements. Some may need emotional assessment and counselling while others may require longer slower cardio sessions interspersed with high intensity weight training and/or Yoga. It is complete foolishness for instance for an obese individual to rely solely on a ‘stress relieving’, breathing and yoga routine paying no attention to his food or cardio in the hope of losing weight. He would also need to burn adequate calories to make a difference to his fat percentage.

Certain foods and herbs like ginseng, ashwaganda, amla are believed to be useful in combating stress and are called ‘adaptogens’. Inclusion of these foods may be beneficial for some individuals.

Other issues worth considering would be, is your workout too high in intensity? Are you providing your body with an opportunity to recover sufficiently between workouts to grow in strength and performance, or are you subjecting it to inappropriate, punishing, endless routines that are only serving to stress you further?

Sometimes weight is not all that meets the eye. What lies beneath may be the cause of the unmanageable cycle of weight-stress-and more weight. As trying to lose the weight in itself can be stressful, attention needs to be paid to the psyche of the individual. Careful adjustment of schedules, monitoring of stress levels and progress and a positive approach needs to be implemented to overcome this barrier of Cortisol over-load leading to weight gain.

Did you know?

The stress hormone Cortisol has been found to cause weight gain in some susceptible individuals.

Losing weight for such people involves a strategic combination of exercise modalities and lifestyle.

Food plays a major role in the weight gain, as Emotional Eating is a common coping strategy while some food items can aid in stress relief.

Exercise is a stress buster but can be counterproductive in some people. The key lies in planning the right amalgamation of routines for such susceptible individuals.

Dr Sheela Nambiar M.D, is a Obstetrician/Gynaecologist, Fitness and Lifestyle Consultant NAFC (USA) and Director, TFL Fitness Studio, Chennai. E-mail

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 10:33:16 AM |

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