A new paper published on Thursday, February 23rd, in the journal Obesity suggests that cortisol levels might influence weight gain over time. The researchers analyzed a sample of more than 2,500 men and women aged 54 and above. Looking at their weight and cortisol levels, the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing participants were discovered to be more predisposed to gaining weight under stress. To find evidence of how stress influences weight, the researchers gathered hair samples from the participants.
“We found levels of cortisol in the hair to be positively and significantly correlated to larger waist circumference and higher body mass index”, said a research associate at the University College London’s Institute of Epidemiology and Health and lead author of the study, Sarah Jackson.
The results, she added, are sufficient proof of the link between higher levels of obesity and chronic stress. Health experts say that cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, is produced in the adrenal glands and subsequently released into the bloodstream in times of distress. Inflammation-suppressing and blood pressure regulation aside, the hormone also boosts energy levels to handle emergencies and helps maintain steady supplies of blood sugar.
Hence, cortisol plays a crucial role in metabolism, accumulation of body fat, and body composition. Furthermore, it also provides glucose to the brain and keeps things under control during a stressful event, added Sarah Jackson.
The researchers said the release of the hormone in question is triggered by certain receptors located in the fat that surrounds vital organs. Hence its association with weight gain and loss. Testing for cortisol levels usually implies analyzing saliva, blood, or urine samples. However, these can hold clues relating to stress for only short periods of time. As a result, the researchers looked at cortisol levels in hair follicles. The locks gathered from the subjects correlated to two months of growth.
Scientists did find that obese individuals had higher levels of the stress hormone. However, because of certain limitations, some believe that stigma associated with being overweight actually led to increased levels of cortisol, rather than the hormone act as a trigger for weight gain. Furthermore, higher levels of the hormone could have been due to stress caused by medication or joint pain linked to obese people. Nevertheless, the researchers said that they are going to follow up on the participants for the next four years to determine the ways stress affects the body mass index over time. In the meantime, the researchers suggest overweight people take up yoga or other physically demanding hobbies and avoid using food as a crutch in times of distress.
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