How cortisol levels can affect weight loss

Stress hormone can make it harder to lose weight, especially for Black women

For some, it’s easy to lose weight, while others struggle, even when following the same plan. Now, a new study suggests that stress — especially chronic stress — can impact weight loss.

The reason may have to do with the body’s level of cortisol, a steroid hormone that’s also known as the “stress hormone.” It’s been linked to many health issues, including losing weight. The problem is particularly concerning for Black women, who tend to have higher cortisol levels than others.

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Exercise can increase pre-existing cortisol imbalances and may be a driving force behind the increased appetite — and a craving for salty and fatty foods — immediately after exercising. Cortisol can also lead the body to produce less testosterone, which can slow down the body’s ability to burn calories.

While cortisol is often known as the “stress hormone,” it’s also responsible for controlling blood sugar, regulating metabolism and blood pressure, and it can affect your sleep quality, sex life and memory.

Symptoms of high cortisol levels include:

  • Can’t fall asleep at night, feeling “tired but wired” at bedtime
  • Looking puffy, especially in the face
  • Waking up achy and stiff, with a low appetite in general — or craving carbs
  • Intolerance to exercise, difficulty recovering from workouts and healing from injuries
  • Difficulty losing body fat, particularly around the middle

While working out does increase cortisol levels, there are still ways to do it successfully and lose weight. Creating a customized workout plan based on your current health status and desired fitness goals is the first step.

Crafting cortisol- or hormone-aware workouts can help regulate stress levels and improve your fitness journey. Exercises that can reduce stress levels include yoga, walking, swimming and pilates.

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“For those of you with high cortisol, most definitely keep lifting. High cortisol can quickly erode muscle mass. It’s best to focus on using heavier weight with more rest for your strength training sessions, and reduce the overall intensity you feel during each session,” suggested Girls Gone Strong.

“It’s almost impossible to prescribe an exact workout regime that would reduce the risk of this because it’s so individual. What’s important is to tune into and then listen to your body,” explained Adam Splaver, M.D., cardiologist with The Doctor’s Dr to SHAPE.