High levels of cortisol lead to weight gain, so it makes sense to assume a supplemental cortisol blocker might lead to weight loss. While a few of the cortisol-blocking ingredients may help you lose a few pounds — and some products also contain fat burners to boost the effect — don't expect huge results with supplements alone.
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A better way to lower cortisol levels and lose weight is through a combination of diet, exercise and stress reduction. Herbal ingredients may interact with medications, so talk with your healthcare provider before taking supplements.
A Closer Look at Cortisol
The best way to understand supplemental cortisol blockers is to get more familiar with cortisol. Dubbed the “stress hormone,” cortisol is released from the adrenal glands when you feel anxious or face any type of physical or mental stress. It’s also released during activities you might not think of as stressful, such as when you wake up in the morning and during exercise.
Cortisol boosts energy by increasing the amount of glucose in the bloodstream. Its primary job is to give your body enough fuel to face the situation and relieve the stress — whether that means you stay to fight or decide to hightail it out of there. Cortisol’s influence doesn’t stop with glucose synthesis. Nearly every cell in the body responds to this hormone, and it has a strong anti-inflammatory impact, notes Colorado State University.
Your body has a system that automatically turns off cortisol secretion when stress goes down. However, things go wrong when never-ending stress keeps the hormone elevated. Chronically high cortisol can lead to weight gain, interfere with sleep and cause digestive problems. It also may make you more anxious, increase the risk of heart disease and suppress the immune system.
Proprietary Cortisol Blocker and Weight Loss
You may see an ingredient called Relora in different brands of cortisol blockers. Relora is a patented blend of extracts from two plants known to reduce anxiety — Magnolia officinalis and Phellodendron amurense. The manufacturer sponsored several studies to determine its effectiveness.
A pilot study published in 2006 used a small group of premenopausal women who ate when stressed out. After six weeks, the group taking a placebo had gained 3 pounds, while women taking Relora didn’t gain any weight. The authors noted a trend toward lower cortisol in the Relora group, but not large enough to be significant.
An international team of researchers conducted a study to see whether one of Relora’s ingredients — Magnolia officinalis — might lead to weight loss. Several groups of laboratory mice were put on a high-fat diet.
Then one group received a placebo, the second group got an extract of Magnolia officinalis that contained multiple ingredients, and a third group consumed an extract made from one of the plant’s active ingredients known as honokiol. Both of the extracts inhibited weight gain slightly compared to the placebo group, but the results weren’t huge, according to the results, which were published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity in May 2014.
These studies fall short of proving that Relora or any of its active ingredients support weight loss. More research is needed in people to verify its effectiveness and safety.
Herbal Ingredients in Cortisol Blockers
Like other types of dietary supplements, you’ll find many different brands of cortisol blockers, and each one contains its own mix of herbs and nutrients. Individual herbs that you’ll commonly find listed in the ingredients include Ashwagandha, Siberian ginseng or Eleuthero senticosus, Rhodiola rosea, Holy Basil, Cordyceps and Schisandra. Even though they’re all associated with lowering stress, relieving anxiety and reducing fatigue, some have a bigger impact on cortisol than others.
Ashwagandha and Rhodiola do the best job of lowering cortisol, although Ashwagandha may be the top choice overall. In addition to having a notable impact on stress and cortisol, in one study, people being treated with Ashwagandha for anxiety lost about 4 pounds over eight weeks, according to a study published in PLoS One in August 2009. More research is needed to learn whether weight will go down in people who take the herb but aren’t anxious.
Reduce Stress and Weight With Lifestyle Changes
If you often feel anxious or stressed, and you worry about high cortisol levels, it’s time to make some lifestyle changes. Supplements may support your health, but you’ll get better results by combining them with balanced nutrition and lifestyle changes.
Pay extra attention to your intake of vitamin C and the B vitamins, especially niacin and pantothenic acid. Stress tends to deplete them, and they’re essential for healthy adrenal glands, which are responsible for cortisol. If your diet doesn’t contain a good balance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein, consider taking supplemental vitamins.
Keeping stress under control helps lessen the release of too much cortisol. Exercise helps on many levels. In addition to aiding weight loss, it lowers levels of cortisol, boosts metabolism and improves your mood by triggering the release of chemicals called endorphins.
The Harvard Medical School recommends deep breathing, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation to relieve stress and promote relaxation. These techniques may also help you get the restorative sleep you need to prevent an increase in cortisol caused by sleep deficiencies.
Anti-Inflammatory Diet for Weight Loss
Cortisol has another job in the body — it helps fight inflammation. While that’s normally a good role, it becomes a problem when levels of cortisol stay elevated because its drive to keep inflammation down suppresses the immune system.
If you throw a poor diet and constant stress into the mix, you magnify the problem. The unbalanced diet and chronic stress cause inflammation, which keeps cortisol high, which weakens the immune system. You can break the cycle by following a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet.
The first step is to reduce or eliminate inflammation-causing foods. Stay away from high-glycemic foods that spike blood sugar, which includes sweets, candy, baked goods, sweetened beverages and anything else with added sugar. Processed white flour and white rice also boost blood sugar.
Trans fats foster inflammation, so avoid them completely by cutting out stick margarine, fast foods and anything with hydrogenated oil in the ingredients list. Limit red meat, whole milk, cheese and other whole-milk products to cut down on saturated fats, too.
The second step is to eat plenty of whole plant foods — vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains — because they're packed with inflammation-preventing antioxidants and fiber. Don't forget the top inflammation fighter in your diet — omega-3 fatty acids. The best sources of omega-3s include fish such as salmon, trout and tuna, flaxseed, canola oil, walnuts and walnut oil.