Cortisol: What is the 'stress hormone' TikTok users are obsessed with reducing?

stressed woman with high cortisol levels
The hashtag for cortisol levels has over 200 million views on TikTok. (Getty Images)

It is very likely that you’ve heard of TikTok’s latest buzzword. Cortisol is the stress hormone that can wreak havoc in your body when heightened, but did you know it can also halt your weight loss attempts?

The hashtag, #howtoreducecortisol, currently has 4.8 million video views on the platform, while #cortisollevels has over 212 million views as nutritionists and hormone specialists alike attempt to show users how they can reduce their cortisol levels.

Some users claim that high cortisol levels can lead to ‘cortisol belly’ a phenomenon that makes it impossible to shift weight from your stomach area, while others say high levels can be responsible for brain fog and anxiety, among other things.

What is cortisol?

"Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands which plays a vital role in various functions, such as regulating metabolism and reducing inflammation," nutritionist Sophie Trotman says.

"It's often referred to as the 'stress hormone' because it is released in response to stress and low levels of blood glucose."

Sad and depressed woman sitting on sofa at home.
Cortisol is also known as the stress hormone. (Getty Images)

Trotman explains that cortisol can help to maintain blood pressure, regulate the immune system, and keep the heart and blood vessels working optimally.

"It also aids in the breakdown of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, meaning that it contributes to the body's energy production," she adds. "However, when cortisol levels are consistently high, it can lead to various health issues, including weight gain."

Signs of high cortisol levels

Trotman explains that some signs you may have high cortisol levels include:

  • Unexpected weight gain

  • Constant fatigue

  • Difficulty falling asleep

  • Restless nights

  • Increased thirst

  • Frequent urination

  • Higher blood pressure

  • Anxiety

  • Irritability

  • Depression

The link between high cortisol levels and weight

The reason why high cortisol levels can slow down or affect weight loss is because cortisol promotes fat storage, especially around the middle area. So, the more stressed you and your body are, the harder it is to lose weight.

"When the body is under stress, cortisol stimulates the release of glucose, leading to increased appetite and cravings for sugary or fatty foods," Trotman explains.

"Prolonged elevated levels of cortisol can lead to insulin resistance, making it more difficult for the body to metabolise sugar and thus promoting weight gain."

Vertical shot, size plus woman in casual clothes or pyjamas staring in full length mirror at home, looking, check body condition feels frustrated and dissatisfied by overweight, touch fat accumulations frowning. Diet oneself concept
High cortisol levels can lead to stubborn belly fat. (Getty Images)

She adds that high cortisol levels can also affect other hormones, such as the ones that regulate your metabolism which can further implicate any efforts you are making to lose weight.

"Additionally, some individuals may find it challenging to engage in regular exercise due to stress, further contributing to weight gain," she says.

"Addressing and managing stress can therefore be a crucial part of a weight loss plan, as it helps in regulating cortisol levels."

How to regulate cortisol levels

The good news is that all is not lost. It is possible to lower and regulate your cortisol levels. Trotman says that some of the best things you can do is to exercise regularly and eat a balanced diet.

"Engaging in regular exercise and physical activity, like yoga or walking, can significantly reduce cortisol levels by promoting relaxation," she says. "However, be careful with high intensity, demanding classes as these can, in some instances, do the opposite.

"Maintaining a balanced and nutritious diet, rich in wholefoods and low in ultra-processed foods helps to support hormonal balance, including cortisol. Drinking plenty of water, so the body can efficiently excrete cortisol."

She also recommends using mindfulness techniques such as meditating or deep breathing, and eliminating caffeine where possible.

Hispanic man sitting in lotus pose in yoga class. Bald man wearing nose and ear piercing meditating in fitness studio.
Meditating can help to relieve stress and lower cortisol levels. (Getty Images)

"Adequate sleep is extremely important in cortisol management, so it's essential to focus on both the quality and quantity of sleep," she explains.

"Avoid eating two hours before bed, wear blue light blocking glasses when looking at screens three hours before bed, dim the lights, get outside first thing in the morning, read before bed, and consider magnesium supplementation.

"Reducing or eliminating caffeine and alcohol, which may stimulate cortisol production, can further support a healthy balance."