Do Cortisol Blockers Actually Work for Weight Loss? What to Use Instead
You can tell by the title of the article that cortisol blockers may actually not be as effective as you would hope...
We all know that excess cortisol can lead to weight gain so the idea of "blocking" cortisol may sound enticing as a potential weight loss treatment.
But does it actually work?
Well, not necessarily, at least not how you might imagine.
This article is for you if you want to learn why excess cortisol leads to weight gain, how to manage your stress and cortisol and how to use certain supplements to help block the effects of cortisol on the body...
Cortisol is Essential to Life but How much is Too Much?
So what is cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone that is generally secreted when your body is under stress from 2 hormonal glands known as the 'adrenal glands' which sit on top of your kidneys.
This powerful hormone activates cellular mechanisms which help the body tolerate or manage the stress that you are putting it under.
And some stress is perfectly fine, but when you start to tip the balance in favor of excess stress then you start getting into trouble.
But back to the basics for a minute:
When your body is under stress (and stress can mean exercise, not eating enough, having trouble with your spouse, getting stuck in traffic, etc.) it secretes this hormone to "help" your body handle the stress.
And this is a good thing:
Cortisol helps your body liberate or free up excess glucose or sugar for immediate use by your muscles (1), it helps promote adrenaline use and it revs up your entire system and gets you ready for "action".
But this can be a double-edged sword.
High blood sugar is great if you are under stress because it provides your body with instant energy and mental focus - both of which are required if let's say you need to finish a paper or a project at work.
But what if that stress is constant, never dies down and there is no end in sight?
You probably know that high blood sugar may result in the condition of type II diabetes mellitus.
You probably also know excess blood sugar can lead to weight gain and obesity.
And this is potentially a big problem - especially if your goal is weight loss.
Excess cortisol secretion, from extremely stressful situations, can therefore potentially cause an increase in serum blood sugar and ultimately lead to weight gain (3).
This sounds good in theory but the picture isn't that clear.
You would think that stress might cause a total increase in serum cortisol level, but studies don't necessarily confirm this response by the body.
Short term studies do show that serum cortisol levels spike (4) after a very stressful situation such as acute lack of sleep, but then they tend to go back to normal after the stimulus is removed.
You would also think that people who are under constant stress would show either high or low cortisol levels but this isn't necessarily true either.
What we see instead is a change to the receptor sensitivity to cortisol in the body (5).
So what may be happening in some individuals (and this may explain why many doctors don't recognize cortisol issues as a problem) is that they develop a cortisol cellular resistance which can be difficult to identify with standard blood tests.
The main problem here is that you may present with all of the symptoms of excess cortisol but still maintain relatively "normal" serum cortisol levels!
We'll discuss how to handle this situation but for now, let's talk about impacting your weight by managing cortisol:
Does Blocking Cortisol Help with Weight Loss?
When we talk about cortisol blockers it's important to exactly define what we mean by the word "cortisol blocker".
Certain supplements are marketed in such a way to make you believe that they actually block the release of cortisol - these are NOT the kind of supplements you want to take.
You would never want to completely "block" the release of cortisol from your body.
The complete blocking of cortisol may lead to serious life-threatening conditions such as an Addisonian crisis (6).
Another set of supplements (the good kind of cortisol supplements) would be better defined as supplements that modulate your response to stress.
I call these type of supplements "cortisol enhancing" supplements, which may be a better name than "cortisol blockers" and these type of supplements actually work.
These supplements have been shown to influence what is known as your "resilience" to stress and may influence serum cortisol in the process (8).
And this is exactly what you want to have happened:
Instead of blocking the release of cortisol from your body doesn't it make more sense to help your body respond to the stressful stimulus?
It's a safer and more natural approach.
They are NOT a magic weight loss pill, however, and you shouldn't consider them as such.
No matter how badly you want to believe that your weight problem can be solved with a simple supplement it's almost never true.
Cortisol enhancers can absolutely HELP with weight loss but they should ALWAYS be combined with other treatments and therapies (more on that below).
Checking your Cortisol Levels
First, it's worth discussing how to test for cortisol issues in the body.
Remember when I mentioned that some people don't have issues with their total cortisol level and instead have issues with cellular resistance?
Well, that problem makes testing for cortisol quite difficult and is one of the reasons that there are so many cortisol tests available.
You can test cortisol through the saliva (11), through the urine, and through the blood.
Which begs the question: is one test better than the other?
I've outlined what I consider to be the "best cortisol test" in another post but for the purpose of weight loss there turns out to be a different and better way to approach cortisol:
Instead of focusing on the more expensive and time-consuming salivary and urinary tests you can always start with the cheaper and fairly effective serum cortisol test.
To do this test you simply need to wake up at 8 am in the morning (when cortisol should be at its highest) and get your blood drawn.
From there you can look at your results and determine if there is a problem.
When evaluating serum cortisol you want to look for "optimal ranges" instead of the traditional and conventional reference range provided by the labs.
See the optimal ranges below:
- Sub-optimal "low" cortisol range: serum cortisol levels < 10 ug/dL
- Optimal serum cortisol range: serum cortisol between 14-16 ug/dL
- Sub-optimal "high" cortisol range: serum cortisol levels > 20 ug/dL
You can see an example of sub-optimal levels below:
Remember these ranges are what is considered to be "optimal" and they may not be flagged by the laboratory as abnormal.
This has to do with the incredibly large "normal" range provided by most labs which extends from 4 to 26 or so ug/dL.
Another tactic for evaluating cortisol is to look at the distribution of body fat on your body.
Studies have shown that women under stress tend to gain weight in certain areas on their bodies, predominately the belly, and the hips/thighs (12).
So even if your "cortisol" remains somewhat normal in the bloodstream you can also identify abnormalities based on how fat is stored and placed on your body.
So once you've identified that you have a problem what next?
How to Actually Influence Cortisol for Weight Loss
Instead of going to your local GNC store or searching for "cortisol blockers" on Amazon you will have much better luck by looking for supplements which contain ingredients known as adrenal adaptogens or adrenal glandulars.
These supplements have scientific studies (13) (hundreds actually) showing that they are not only effective but that they are safe to use as well (provided you use them correctly).
But as always, you'll get the best results if you use a combination of weight loss therapies.
What do I mean?
Combining supplements with lifestyle activities will help more than just taking one supplement and calling it a day.
Consider this example:
Let's say that you have elevated cortisol from the combination of stress at work and from sleeping only 5-6 hours each night.
You've noticed that you have slowly gained 5-10 pounds over the last 6 months or so and you believe that it's from cortisol.
You check your cortisol and find that it's elevated to around 20 ng/dL or so, you then conclude that you should take something to 'fix' your cortisol.
Would taking a supplement actually help you with weight loss in this case?
Probably NOT unless it's also accompanied by strategies designed to help reduce your stress and IMPROVE your sleep.
Because all of these conditions are contributing to cortisol dysregulation in your body.
So whenever you consider the use of cortisol supplements make sure you are also taking care of the obvious problems such as stress, sleep, and your diet.
Having said that supplements absolutely DO have a place in treatment but you need to make sure you are using the right ones:
Adrenal Glandulars Balance Cortisol & Increase Energy
Directly help to increase energy, concentration and treat adrenal fatigue.
Can be combined with adrenal adaptogens for increased benefit.
May also help with other condition such as hypothyroidism or thyroid disease.
Help provide your body with nutrients to improve cortisol and adrenal function.
One of the best and most effective ways to balance cortisol is by using adrenal glandulars.
If you haven't heard of adrenal glandular supplements then you aren't alone.
In a nutshell, these supplements are made by taking the adrenal gland of certain animals (usually bovine) and crushing it up into tiny particles which are then consumed by patients.
It may sound disgusting but they work quite well for many people.
But why do they work?
Well, we know that cortisol is an important part of adrenal function but you'd be crazy to think that cortisol is the ONLY important hormone or enzyme secreted by your adrenal glands.
It's possible that this ground-up adrenal gland may contain enzymes and other trace amounts of hormones that naturally provide your body with hormone precursors which help the adrenal glands function.
It's also felt that the use of these supplements may "lift" or "lighten" the burden placed on your adrenal glands from stress and give your body a break and time to recover.
The exact mechanism is not well understood but many patients agree that they work well.
My personal experience (both on myself and on patients) suggests that most people (around 70-80%) benefit from adrenal glandular use to manage cortisol and stress.
Adrenal glandulars can also safely be combined with adrenal adaptogens which we will discuss below.
How to use: Take up to 2 capsules of adrenal glandulars each day and combine with adaptogens or high doses of Vitamin B6. Be prepared to use this supplement for 3-6 months (depending on the severity of your symptoms).
Ashwagandha (and Adrenal Adaptogens) Increase Stress Resilience and Balance Serum Cortisol
May help promote weight loss more than other adaptogens.
Helps improve sleep, reduce anxiety and increase cognition.
Improves resilience to stress and increases exercise performance.
Often combined with adrenal glandulars for improved results.
Adrenal adaptogens have also been shown to help influence cortisol levels in many clinical studies.
The adaptogen ashwagandha has long been used in traditional medicine to treat the condition we now recognize as "burn out syndrome".
There are many different types of adaptogens ranging from Rhodiola (also found in my recommended adrenal glandular product), holy basil (14), ginseng (15), and eleuthero and while they all influence cortisol they also work in slightly different ways.
When it comes to balancing cortisol and managing weight I think that ashwagandha is probably the most powerful in this arena.
Another very important benefit is that ashwagandha also appears to have thyroid boosting properties which is very important for those interested in weight loss.
Your thyroid helps control your basal metabolic rate and resting energy expenditure which means that it's critical for determining how many calories you burn throughout the day.
Ashwagandha is great for people who suffer from excess weight gain secondary to high cortisol levels but also have issues with trouble sleeping, fatigue and increase anxiety.
It appears to have a calming effect and is particularly helpful for those with anxiety or people who suffer from a "racing mind".
Using ashwagandha is also quite simple:
It can be combined with adrenal glandulars, used by itself or combined with other adrenal adaptogens such as holy basil or Rhodiola.
I also find that those with thyroid issues do particularly well on this herb.
How to use: Start with 500-1000mg per day and use for 3 to 6 months. It takes a while to treat cortisol issues so be prepared for the long haul.
Manage your Stress More Effectively
When looking into weight loss you have to be cognizant that in most cases weight gain is not caused by any one single thing.
Instead weight gain is usually secondary to multiple issues that all compound on one another to create hormone imbalances that lead to weight gain.
This is especially true in the case of cortisol.
Highly stressful situations, over exercising, not sleeping enough, relying upon caffeine and refined sugars for energy sources, problems with siblings/parents/loved ones may all be contributing to your weight.
The solution is not a simple over the counter supplement but instead a plan of attack that includes managing these stressors, changing your diet AND taking the right supplements for your body.
The good news is that you can impact your weight, the bad news is that it may take some work!
But nothing good is never always that easy.
But now I want to hear from you:
Are you dealing with cortisol issues?
Have you taken any of the cortisol blocking supplements listed above?
Did they work for you?
Why or why not?
Leave your questions or comments below!
References (Click to Expand)