Dr. Pamela Frank, BSc (Hons), ND

How would you rate your stress level, is it Low, Medium or High? If you answered Medium or High, stress may be contributing to your weight problems. Our bodies have systems designed to help us deal with stress. The type of stress that would be natural for us would be short bouts of intense stress when escaping occasional danger, followed by extended periods of low stress. This is not modern lifestyles. Most people endure long periods of stress day in and day out. That takes a toll on our overall health and also our weight, here’s how:

When you experience stress, your body’s first response is to secrete some adrenaline to increase your heart rate and direct blood flow to the “fight or flight” muscles. If stress continues your adrenal glands will produce cortisol, a hormone that helps with longer term stress. Cortisol’s job is to increase glucose in the blood so that those fight or flight muscles have fuel to help you fight or run. The problem is that most of us aren’t under the kind of stress that involves either fighting or running. So, when cortisol goes up and stays up because of ongoing stress, there is extra sugar floating around that was intended to get used for fuel, but doesn’t. Insulin levels will go up to deal with the sugar, but cortisol also creates an insulin resistance. So extra insulin will be required, this, if you read my previous article, is a bad scene where weight loss is concerned. Cortisol will also stimulate break down of muscle tissue to turn the amino acids into glucose (more sugar!). Muscle tissue helps burn more calories even while you are sleeping. Breaking down muscle tissue is going to be counterproductive where weight loss is concerned. An extreme example of the effects of high cortisol is Cushing’s Disease, where the pituitary is provoking excessively high cortisol production from the adrenal glands resulting in rapid weight gain, particularly in the face and trunk and muscle wasting in the arms and legs.


Spikes in stress hormones like cortisol can also cause blood sugar spikes that provoke insulin, and contribute to poor eating habits, weight gain and obesity.1   Are you an emotional eater? If so, cortisol may be at least partially to blame.

Steroid hormones like cortisol have been found to suppress thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) and free T3. T3 helps increase your metabolism so for weight purposes, we want to keep T3 levels healthy. Excessive cortisol can lead to weight gain through not only higher blood sugar but by negatively impacting thyroid hormone levels, thereby slowing metabolism.2,3

How can you lower excessive cortisol?

The most obvious answer is to reduce your stress level. That’s easier said than done, I know. If you can’t reduce the stress you are under, you will deal with stress more easily if you are exercising than if you aren’t. If stress is high, exercise has to become part of your daily routine to offset the damage from stress and to moderate cortisol. Otherwise, there is a little gland that sits atop your kidneys called your adrenal glands. Adrenals are your stress gland. They’re what help your body deal with stress. Keeping your adrenal glands healthy and balanced means healthy cortisol production and the ability to cope with stress more easily.

There are a number of herbs, vitamins and minerals that help the adrenal glands to work better.

Adaptogenic herbs like Rhodiola rosea, Schisandra chinensis, and Eleutherococcus senticosus have demonstrated the ability to moderate cortisol levels, improve mental performance, and increase endurance.4

With any of these herbs or any other natural medicine, see a licensed naturopathic doctor first to ensure that they are right for you, to be prescribed the correct dose for you and to be recommended a high quality product that will be effective. Many herbs are contraindicated in pregnancy and breastfeeding. Never self-prescribe!

Rhodiola rosea

One of the more popular adaptogens, rhodiola has been found through research to reduce physical and mental exhaustion due to stress5. One of the more common reasons people cite for not exercising, despite the fact that they know they should, is being too tired. While Rhodiola has not been shown to cause weight loss specifically, if it increases your ability to exercise regularly, weight loss should follow. The usual adult dosage of a 2:1 liquid extract is 20 to 40 mL per week. Extracts providing standardized levels of the active constituents of rhodiola (rosavins and salidroside) are recommended.

Schisandra chinesis

Schisandra is a vine that produces a red spherical fruit. The whole fruit is used and is considered an adaptogen. On the basis of uncontrolled trials it was said to increase endurance, increase physical efficiency in humans. It has also been shown to help lower blood lipid levels and aid non-alcoholic fatty liver6,7. One study has shown Schisandra to lower cortisol and blood glucose level in stressed rats8. A typical dose with Schisandra would be 500 mg three times per day. Schisandra is contraindicated in epilepsy, GERD and peptic ulcers.

Eleuthrococcus senticosus (Siberian ginseng)

Good scientific evidence has been documented in trails in which Schisandra chinensis and Eleutherococcus senticosus increased endurance and mental performance in patients with mild fatigue and weakness9,10. Again, increased ability to exercise will help with weight loss and moderate the effects of stress. Siberian ginseng can be taken 600-1200 mg three times per day. Alcohol, lithium, digoxin, blood thinners and diabetes medications may all interact with Siberian ginseng, professional naturopathic doctor advice is recommended for this or any other herb.

Withania somnifera

Withania, also called Ashwagandha, has been shown to significantly lower cortisol levels, safely and effectively improve resistance to stress and improve quality of life11. Dosing with Withania would be 500 mg once or twice per day.

Avoid using Withania with sedative medications and immunosuppressants.

Adrenal Supporting Vitamins and Minerals

Adrenal support with vitamin C, vitamin B5, vitamin B6, magnesium, zinc and adaptogenic herbs like those listed above may improve how well you handle stress and reduce emotional eating and any excessive cortisol output.

A typical adrenal support vitamin and mineral regimen would look like this:

Vitamin C – 1000 mg 3-6 times per day

Vitamin B5 – 200 mg twice per day with food

Vitamin B6 – 25-100 mg once or twice per day with food of pyridoxine hydrochloride, or preferably in the active form of pyridoxal-5-phosphate (P5P) – 15 mg per day with food.

Magnesium – preferably magnesium bisglycinate, 150-300 mg per day with food.

Zinc – Zinc citrate or zinc chelate, 25 mg per day with food.

Vital to cortisol lowering for weight loss are stress reduction techniques, such as yoga12,13; tai chi14, breathing exercises, meditation15,16,17; massage therapy18,19 , adequate sleep and relaxation time, regular physical activity20, social support, and psychotherapy21.

Pamela-2013-retouched_resizedPamela Frank, BSc(Hons), ND has been in practice as an ND since 1999 and previously worked for 20 years as a
medical laboratory technologist. She is Clinic Director of Forces of Nature Wellness in Toronto and was twice voted “Best Naturopath in Toronto”. Pamela maintains a busy, diverse practice with particular expertise in naturopathic treatment of PCOS, PMS, menopause, acne, infertility, uterine fibroids and endometriosis. Pamela’s interests include fitness, triathlons, yoga, healthy cooking, tennis and volleyball.


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