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Cortisol and Weight Gain

By Jodi Cohen

Ever wonder how stress contributes to weight gain?

It has to do with the stress hormone cortisol, a naturally-occurring hormone that is released by your adrenal glands during times of stress.

Stress hormones, like Cortisol, slow down physiological processes that aren’t crucial to surviving an immediate threat, temporarily pausing regular bodily functions, like digesting food and burning calories — and speed up the ones you need to survive in the moment, thus slowing your metabolism and contributing to weight gain.

Cortisol triggers an energy boost, acting as an accelerator for blood sugar levels to help your body meet its physiological demands and better handle acutely stressful situations.  It fuels the production of glucose, or blood sugar, boosting energy to the large muscles.

Cortisol stimulates your fat and carbohydrate metabolism which naturally increases your appetite to signal that your body needs more fuel to keep up with the energy demand as it prepares to fight off a threat. For this reason, cortisol production may trigger cravings for foods that offer a quick energy source, such as simple carbohydrates, sugary and fatty foods, which enter the bloodstream quickly and spike blood glucose levels for a short burst of energy.

Cortisol acts to control both food intake and energy expenditure.  If the emergency is an emotional stress where physical energy is not exerted, this excess energy is stored as fat around your abdomen.


Cortisol Insulin Dynamic

Cortisol also causes your body to raise insulin levels.  Insulin is one of the most important hormones when it comes to weight loss and weight gain. Made by the pancreas, insulin is released when your blood sugar goes up to help transport sugar out of the blood and into your cells.

Insulin is responsible for storing blood sugar, or utilizing it, depending upon your body’s needs of the moment.

Another key function of this essential hormone is fat storage. Insulin decides how much fat to store, and how much fat tissue has to convert for energy expenditure. This increased insulin can lead to insulin resistance which can also contribute to weight gain, especially around the waist.  An excess of cortisol also can lead your body to produce less testosterone. This may cause a decrease in muscle mass, as well as slow down how many calories your body burns.


Research Correlating Cortisol and Weight Gain

Research has correlated chronic stress with higher levels of obesity.  For example, a study published in Obesity Research Journal showed that exposure to higher levels of cortisol over several months is associated with people being more heavily, and more persistently, overweight.  It also found that higher cortisol levels are associated with carrying that extra poundage in the waist — what we sometimes refer to as visceral fat.

A study on “Stress-induced cortisol response and fat distribution in women” found a correlation between high cortisol levels and abdominal fat distribution, noting that elevated cortisol levels tend to promote fat accumulation in the abdominal region.

Research not only helps identify the correlation between high cortisol levels and belly fat, it can also help you manage your cortisol response and reverse the belly fat. Research on stress, cortisol, and obesity: a role for cortisol responsiveness in identifying individuals prone to obesity found that cortisol responsiveness can vary with high-cortisol responders having a greater propensity to weight gain and obesity than low-cortisol responders.

Natural remedies like essential oils may help you balance both your cortisol levels and your body’s response to levels of cortisol and help reduce belly fat.


Essential Oils for Cortisol Balance

Essential oils may help lower and balance cortisol levels.

Research consistently finds that inhalation of essential oils, like the study which looks at Lavender and Rosemary, that essential oils decrease cortisol levels. A similar study found that participants who inhaled essential oils demonstrated considerably reduced salivary cortisol concentrations than those who did not.  More specifically, in the 4-week study, researchers found that anxious and stressed hypertensive patients who inhaled essential oil blends experienced “considerably reduced serum cortisol and anxiety levels compared to the control and placebo groups.”

Adaptogen herbs help naturally lower high cortisol levels in several key ways.  Similar to adaptogenic herbs, essential oils are also helpful for fighting stress and balancing hormones. Essential oils, including lavender, myrrh, frankincense and bergamot, contain potent, active ingredients that have been shown to naturally lower cortisol, reduce inflammation, improve immunity, and help with sleep and digestive functions.

Inhaling essential oils is thought to help improve your body’s stress response by toning down the activity of your sympathetic nervous system and increasing the activity of your parasympathetic nervous system. It is believed that the linalool and linalyl acetate naturally present in lavender may act as a mild sedative  and stimulate the participants’ parasympathetic nervous system.

How to Calm Cortisol with Essential Oils

Essential oils can be used to balance the various feedback loops to regulate the production of cortisol, including the hypothalamus and the adrenal glands – part of the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis – to ensure that they are not chronically activated or dysfunctioning which can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels.

In response to stress, your hypothalamus triggers your adrenal glands to release the stress hormone cortisol until your hormones reach the levels that your body needs, and then a series of chemical reactions known as the negative feedback loop begins to switch them off.  In other words, when the hypothalamus receives the signal that cortisol levels in the body are sufficient, it signals the adrenals to stop releasing cortisol.  So long as the hypothalamus is able to correctly send and receive signals, cortisol levels in the body should return to balance.

Adrenal® :  These small, triangular-shaped glands secrete cortisol to regulate energy production and storage, control blood sugar, immune function, heart rate, muscle tone, and other processes that enable you to rapidly respond to stress.  The health and resilience of the adrenals (along with the hypothalamus and hippocampus) help to determine our tolerance to stress.  To help keep your adrenals balanced and not over releasing cortisol, apply 1- 2 drops of the Adrenal®  on the adrenal glands (lower mid-back, one fist above the 12th rib on each side) upon waking, before bed and throughout the day as needed.  You can find more information on Adrenal® blend here.

Hypothalamus™:  This pearl size region of the brain located just above the brain stem serves as control center for neural and hormonal messages received from/sent to body, including signals to trigger the release of cortisol.  The ability of the hypothalamus to receive clear messages from the body is critical as all outgoing endocrine and neural signals are based on the clarity of these incoming signals, including the ability to put the brakes on cortisol release.  To optimize the ability of the hypothalamus to send and receive signals, apply 1 drop of Hypothalamus™ on forehead slightly above the third eye up to 6 times daily. You can find more information on Hypothalamus™ blend here.

Parasympathetic®: When your brain senses a threat, it triggers your vagus nerve to activate your nervous system’s “fight-or-flight” survival response triggering the release of cortisol.

Essential oils are natural, non-invasive, easy tools to use to activate your vagus nerve.  They possess both olfactory (smell) and transdermal (topical application) qualities, making them easy to inhale and apply on the skin to activate your vagus nerve. Research backs this up as inhaling essential oils such as lavender or bergamot has been shown to activate your vagus nerve as measured by improved heart rate variability. Inhaled essential oils travel directly to your brain (specifically to the prefrontal cortex behind your forehead) where they can immediately help calm the fear response in your brain.  In addition, topically applied essential oils can cross the blood-brain barrier to stimulate your vagus nerve within the brain.

Apply the Parasympathetic® blend behind your earlobe on your mastoid bone to help calm your nervous system.



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About The Author

Jodi Cohen

Jodi Sternoff Cohen is the founder of Vibrant Blue Oils. An author, speaker, nutritional therapist, and a leading international authority on essential oils, Jodi has helped over 50,000 individuals support their health with essential oils.