How cortisol causes cravings

2021-10-28T15:16:04+00:00October 25th, 2021|Diet, How?, Lifestyle, Mental Health, Nutrition|2 Comments

A 2020 poll found that 27% of Canadians between the ages of 35 to 49 find most days to be “quite a bit or extremely stressful”. While a certain amount of stress is normal, too much of it can prolong the presence of cortisol in our bodies, adversely affecting a person’s well-being. Stress presents itself in many different forms, from insomnia and anxiety to fatigue and nausea. It can also be the culprit behind weight fluctuations, and understanding this multifaceted relationship between cortisol and cravings is key in effectively managing it.

How excess cortisol can impact your health

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is widely referred to as the stress hormone. It is a steroid that is produced in the adrenal glands. When released in the required amounts, it helps regulate a variety of important processes in the body. These include blood pressure, immune response, and metabolism. Stress causes chronically elevated levels of cortisol, which can lead to various health issues, including excessive amounts of visceral fat, the type of belly fat stored that is around organs. Visceral fat has been identified as a key player in a variety of health problems, including high cholesterol levels, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.

Cortisol and sugar cravings

Girl eating chips while workingAn increase in stress leads to an increase in cortisol. Studies have shown that during times of stress, there is an interesting “basis” for sugar cravings. Cortisol binds to receptors in the brain that manage hunger, stimulating appetite. Researchers note that this specifically leads to cravings of pleasurable “comfort foods” that are high in sugar and fat, which lead to instant gratification.

Elevated cortisol levels also cause insulin release from the liver as our bodies look for energy sources to deal with the perceived stress, raising our blood sugar. Chronic stress can lead to constant fluctuations in blood sugar, which also contribute to cravings.

Cortisol and metabolism

One of cortisol’s many functions in the body is regulating metabolism. In times of stress, cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism to increase energy, which in turn increases appetite. Additionally, since higher levels of cortisol can also result in a decrease in testosterone, this can eventually lead to less overall muscle mass, which slows down our metabolism.

Why does stress affect our appetite?

To effectively manage the relationship between stress and cravings, it’s important to take stress eating into account. As we know, a chronic state of stress results in elevated cortisol levels, which jumpstarts our appetite by burning fat and carbohydrates. Couple that increased appetite with our psychological basis for sugar cravings in times of stress, and suddenly overeating begins to make sense—which can in turn cause more stress, turning into a cycle. 

Stress can also cause weight loss

Stress-related weight fluctuations are not always about weight gain, as they can also lead to weight loss in many people. Stress can be overwhelming and all-encompassing, and when we look again at some of the many ways it manifests itself, weight loss is an understandable result.

When we feel irritable, nervous, anxious, and restless, eating enough calories or even just taking the time to sit and eat full meals may be the last thing on our minds. With insomnia and digestive upset being other common effects of stress, these two combined can make you feel too nauseated to consume a full meal. And while chronically high cortisol levels increase appetite, if you experience insomnia or digestive upset, it may override that appetite, resulting in skipped meals.

Prioritizing healthy habits

Knowledge is power, and understanding why we do something is the first step in changing those habits. By implementing some healthy practices into our life, we can better manage stress and stress-induced cravings.

Importance of regular exercise

Incorporating exercise into your daily routine is paramount when looking for holistic ways to counter stress. There is a scientific basis to the benefits that exercise has on stress levels, including:

  • Reducing stress hormones, such as cortisol
  • Increasing the production of endorphins, our body’s natural mood enhancers
  • Positively impacting self-perception, as strength and stamina increase

There are plenty of options to choose from, just make sure to begin gradually. Remember, it’s not a race; exercise should be a life-long habit as it positively impacts both physical and mental health.

Eating healthier comfort foods

Almond Chocolate CookiesBeing aware that we are psychologically drawn to sugary foods when we are stressed empowers us to do something about it. Following fad diets will only cause more stress in the long run as they have no proven long-term results (despite the “miraculous” promises often made), and their restrictive nature can actually lead to more health problems, including vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Instead, we can focus more on enjoying healthier versions of our favourite comfort foods when cravings strike. Love ice cream? Why not try a delicious, nutritious, and satisfying Acai Bowl instead? Or, blend up a creamy homemade Black Sesame Nice Cream. If crunchy baked goods are what you’re after, ditch the store-bought packages full of sugar, and bake your own Almond Chocolate Cookies! You can always keep some in the freezer when you want to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Managing stress

Stress will always be a part of our lives, so learning to manage it is key. There are additional lifestyle changes that can help alleviate some of the burden, including journaling, going for a walk, doing breathwork, getting massages, and meditating. Make necessary adjustments in your daily life to put yourself first and prioritize your health. You deserve it!





  1. BestPotDelivery February 2, 2022 at 8:29 pm - Reply

    Great tips, thanks. The modern world constantly provokes stress and anxiety, so an important goal in the life of every person is to seek peace, both outside and inside oneself.

  2. Mohana Murali Gurunathan May 2, 2022 at 4:49 pm - Reply

    Very good information.

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