Can Stress Make You Fat?

By Michael A. Smith, MD

Could the stress in your life actually impact your waistline? Now, before some of you start thinking that we’re just finding another excuse for failing to eat right and exercise, let’s explore the possible physiologic connection between stress, cortisol, and body fat.

Cortisol Keeps You Alive

We all have a built-in stress response. It’s a complicated set of physiological reactions that ultimately keep you alive during a dangerous situation. Here’s how it’s supposed to work:

  1. You experience an acute stressor. Thousands of years ago, this could have been a tiger trying to eat you. Today, maybe it’s a child running in front of your car.
  2. In response to the stressor, the adrenal glands release cortisol into your bloodstream. Cortisol is the stress hormone that initiates several lifesaving metabolic changes in your body. One of them is an increase in blood sugar.
  3. This extra load of blood sugar is used by your brain, heart, and skeletal muscles for immediate energy so that you can fight or run or slam on your car brakes.
  4. Once the stressor is dealt with, cortisol quickly leaves your system and things return to their normal metabolic state.
But unfortunately, in today’s world, many of us are constantly stressed out. Instead of a stress response system that’s fined-tuned for acute events, many of us have systems that are always on. This causes significant derangements in metabolism.

Chronic Stress Keeps Cortisol Chronically High

From the time we wake-up in the morning to the time we finally get to bed at night, the average person has dealt with hundreds of low-grade stressful events. Maybe it’s the rush hour traffic or too many projects with impossible deadlines or kids or spouses or pets or… you get the picture.

We’re swimming in a constant stream of low- to moderate-grade stress. How is this affecting our stress response system, which is really there for quick, major stressors?

It’s chronically elevating cortisol levels, which means blood sugar is constantly being mobilized for energy. And when you don’t burn the sugar, it gets stored as — drum roll please — body fat! And this is just one of the metabolic derangements caused by too much cortisol. There are many other problems caused by chronic stress that pack on the fat.

So what can we do about this aside from stress reduction — which, by the way, we know is almost impossible in our 24-hour culture?

Adaptogenic Herbs like Rhodiola Can Lower Cortisol

Adaptogenic herbs have long been used for their mood balancing and stress reducing effects. First, let’s talk about rhodiola. A number of clinical trials demonstrate that repeated administration of rhodiola extract exerts energizing effects that increase mental focus. Encouraging results exist for the use of rhodiola in mild to moderate depression and generalized anxiety.

Several mechanisms of action have been identified for rhodiola extracts. The big one is its cortisol reducing properties, which could mean less sugar mobilization and less body fat in the long run.1 The only potential downside is the stimulating effect it has on some people. If that worries you, consider the next adaptogen we’re about to discuss: ashwagandha.

Ashwagandha Improves Energy, Sleep and Well-being

Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, is a plant of the nightshade family — plants that actually turn toward the sun throughout the day. It also has cortisol lowering effects but it’s not stimulating, making it a good alternative for those who don’t like rhodiola.

In a large clinical trial, ashwagandha reduced levels of the hormone cortisol by up to 26% while maintaining already normal blood sugar levels and lipid profiles. Subjects who took the standardized ashwagandha extract reported improvements in energy, sleep and well-being, as well as diminished fatigue.2

So Less Cortisol Means Less...Body?

Is it really that simple: Cortisol to sugar to fat? Well, yes and no. The development and growth of fat cells is a complex process and can’t be attributed to just one hormone. But too much cortisol can have a negative impact on fat cells and it’s certainly something to think about.

If you think excess cortisol is getting in your way, take steps to reduce your stress level and consider adding an adaptogen to your supplement regimen. Who knows? You might just lose some unwanted body fat and feel better at the same time!


  1. Phytomedicine. 2010 Jun;17(7):481-93.
  2. Unpublished study, 2005. NutraGenesis, LLC.


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