14—Cortisol & DHEA

(part 2)

In this three-part article, I’ll be taking you through five hormonal imbalances that could be contributing to your weight loss hell. In part one I discussed the effects of having high oestrogen and low progesterone. This week I’ll discuss the effects of having high cortisol (the stress hormone) and low DHEA (the ‘youth’ hormone)1.

Swings, roundabouts, and see-saws

Like oestrogen and progesterone, cortisol and DHEA work in tandem. However, when cortisol is consistently raised, DHEA levels decline. If the body fails to adapt to persistent stress, eventually cortisol levels run out.  When both hormones are depleted, you may experience health concerns such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), Depression, Fibromyalgia,  Impotence, Infertility, Menopause, Maintenance Insomnia (not being able to stay asleep), and PMS.

For simplicity, and ease of understanding, I’ll be primarily referring to these hormones as they relate to healthy weight maintenance.

Note: Many people believe you lose weight when under stress. Unfortunately, during short periods of stress you can actually put on weight. During this phase, the body stockpiles nutritional resources for fortification. This is of course, unless you don’t eat when you’re stressed2… You lose weight (or rather, condition) when you undergo long-term stress3.


Cortisol is released in the body in response to stress. The secretion of cortisol prepares an individual to physiologically cope with stressors and sustain survival. In addition to its role as a stress response hormone, cortisol plays many key roles in almost every physiological system.

How cortisol can get out of balance

Cortisol gets out of balance through continued, unregulated stress. For example:

  1. Emotional

    Worry, fear, anger, guilt, anxiety,and depression

  2. Environmental

    Exposure to industrial or other workplace toxins

  3. Physical

    Excessive exercise, chronic or severe allergies/illness/pain, overwork, surgery/trauma/injury, temperature extremes, stimulants i.e. tea, coffee, & alcohol

  4. Mental

    Overwork/late hours, insufficient sleep, and trauma

  5. Financial issues

Testing for cortisol

Having a blood test for cortisol is dubious – the mere act of inserting a needle into your arm causes your cortisol to shoot up.

A more accurate option is to take a 24 hour urine collection at your GPs, or to have salivary hormone testing via a Natural Health Practitioner (while very good, this latter form of testing is expensive).

What happens when cortisol is out of balance?

Potential manifestations are:

  1. Obesity/inability to lose weight

    Cortisol is anabolic; it promotes tissue growth

  2. Sex hormone imbalance

    See part one in this series

  3. Insulin resistance

    Disrupts carbohydrate metabolism which can lead to sugar cravings, weight gain, and other more serious health related issues

  4. Thyroid dysfunction

    Slows down metabolic activity leading to weight gain

What are you willing to change in your life to reduce your stress? A good answer to this is: your attitude toward the stress.


This hormone negates the unfavourable effects of stress. It speeds up recovery time and provides us with energy/vitality, mental clarity, and a good night’s sleep. While consistently high levels of cortisol (stress) speeds up the aging process, DHEA works hard to keep us young and vibrant!

What is DHEA responsible for?

DHEA is responsible for:

  1. Increasing muscle mass and decreasing percentage of body fat

    Muscle burns fat at rest

  2. Supporting the thyroid gland’s conversion of T4 to T3 (Thyroxine)

    Speeds up metabolic activity — aiding weight loss

How DHEA can get out of balance

Continued, unregulated stress

See ‘How cortisol can get out of balance’ (above)  for details

Note: Stress doesn’t just come from external factors, and how you interact with these stressful events. Your body also considers it stressful if you are not eating well, or regularly, or if you’re not eating enough, or too much  etc. It also considers it stressful when it is not functioning as it should be i.e hormonal imbalance…

When happens when DHEA is out of balance?

Obesity/inability to lose weight

Note: This can also be due to the effects of unopposed cortisol.

Lisa says:

Weigh in on yourself

When you have something that is really concerning you — like your weight — you tend not to associate this with other issues that are going on with you e.g. mood swings, no libido, insomnia, depression, poor immunity etc. You get too focused on one thing, and you’re not able to connect the dots to discover the bigger picture.

You may have a fundamental hormonal problem that is the actual cause of your inability to lose weight.

You don’t need hormone medication or diet pills

You need a Naturopath! Naturopaths prescribe natural health measures to correct high cortisol or low DHEA and thus promote weight loss.

We can use blood work, and in some cases salivary hormone testing, to establish what your hormones are ‘up to’. We also take a case history, and may ask you to complete an Adrenal Fatigue questionaire to provide us with more information about your particular hormonal imbalance.

From here, it may be necessary to work on a number of different levels, using a small selection of specifically targeted supplements and/or herbs to help you achieve your health objectives.

Make an appointment with Lisa

Lisa Fitzgibbon is a degree qualified (2006), experienced and registered Naturopath & Medical Herbalist. She runs her own private practice – OOMPH in Grey Lynn, Auckland, New Zealand.

Lisa has been involved in the Natural Health industry for 16 years. She draws on her professional training and experience, as well as her own personal experience to bring you realistic, holistic health advice.

Book online