Study: Chronic Stress Associated with Obesity Risk

A recent study linked elevated concentrations of “the stress hormone” cortisol in participants’ hair and the risk of obesity.

Previous studies have examined the role of cortisol levels in food intake and adiposity, but predominately relied on saliva, urine, and blood samples, which, while an accurate measure of momentary cortisol, fluctuate daily. Recently, more studies have begun to use hair to measure long-term exposure to cortisol and to assess its effects on adiposity and obesity risk.
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In their study, researchers collected data from 2527 men and women, aged 54 and older, who were participating in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Two-centimeter hair segments collected from near the scalp were used to measure cortisol concentrations (equivalent to 2 months), and height, weight, and waist circumference of the participants were measured.

Researchers found a positive correlation between weight, BMI, and waist circumference and hair cortisol concentration. Obesity was associated with significantly higher concentrations of hair cortisol levels compared to normal-weight or overweight participants. Likewise, participants with a high waist circumference had elevated cortisol levels compared to participants with a waist circumference in the healthy range.

“Hair cortisol offers a suitable and easily obtainable measure for assessing chronically elevated cortisol concentrations in obesity research and may therefore aid in further advancing understanding in this area.”

“While cross-sectional studies have provided a good starting point from which to explore the role of [hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal] axis dysregulation and chronic cortisol exposure in the development of obesity, longitudinal research is needed in order to clarify the direction of associations,” the researchers concluded.

—Melissa Weiss


Jackson SE, Kirschbaum C, and Steptoe A. Hair cortisol and adiposity in a population-based sample of 2,527 men and women aged 54 to 87 years [published online February 23, 2017]. Obesity. doi:10.1002/oby.21733.