The Biggest Reason You Aren't Losing Weight

Reviewed by Carolyn Nicholas, FDNP Written by Our Editorial Team
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Are you feeling chronically stressed, fatigued, or unwell, and can't figure out the root cause? It might be time to consider your cortisol and DHEA levels. As a functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner, it's important for everyone to appreciate the delicate balance between these two hormones and the many factors that influence them as they will not only control how you feel, but your weight and your health. 

Cortisol and DHEA, two potent hormones produced by your adrenal glands, have a critical task in regulating numerous bodily functions. More often than not, an imbalance can lead to a host of unpleasant symptoms. Remember that symptoms are not the problem, they are the result of the problem! 

Let's delve deep into the understanding of high and low cortisol levels, DHEA's balancing role, and why maintaining this equilibrium is essential for your health.

The Highs and Lows of Cortisol 

Symptoms of High Cortisol

High cortisol levels, often dubbed as 'hypercortisolism', can lead to a plethora of concerns. High cortisol can be responsible for suppressing the immune system, slowing down healing of wounds, increases infections, impairing learning, and inhibiting memory. The most common symptoms can include insulin resistance, cravings for carbs, tired but wired feeling, anxiety, depression, decreased muscle mass, ongoing, high-stress levels, impaired cognitive performance, weight gain (especially around your abdomen), poor sleep quality as it conteracts melatonin, and increased blood pressure. High cortisol also suppresses stomach acid which can, in turn, create digestive issues and malabsorption. 

Symptoms of Low Cortisol 

Low cortisol levels, also known as 'hypocortisolism' or 'adrenal insufficiency,' present another array of symptoms. These can include chronic fatigue, low blood sugar, low blood pressure, lightheadedness upon rising from a sitting/laying position, muscle weakness, pain/inflammation, allergies, mood disturbances, inability to cope with stress, anxiety, depression, brain fog, low thyroid function, low libido, insomnia, or a craving for salty foods. 

The Balancing Act of DHEA

DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone), one of the most abundant circulating steroid hormones in the body, is often considered cortisol's counterpart. It shares many responsibilities, including supporting immune health, bone density, mood regulation and cognitive function, apart from being a precursor for sex hormones.

While cortisol deals with stress response, DHEA helps balance this response, mitigating the potential negative impacts of excessive cortisol. DHEA essentially safeguards your body against the harmful effects of stress which is why we always need to compare your cortisol levels with your DHEA levels - there needs to be a balance here. 

Why Balancing Cortisol and DHEA Matters

But why is the cortisol-DHEA balance so essential, you may ask? An adequate balance ensures optimal bodily function. High cortisol levels may suppress DHEA production, while low cortisol may reflect the body's inability to respond to stress adequately.

Maintaining this delicate hormonal dance means preserving your overall health. An imbalance can put you at risk for many conditions, from metabolic issues, autoimmune diseases, mental health concerns, heart diseases to aging prematurely. 

What Could be Causing Your Chronic Stress Response

Stressors come in many different forms and you may not have thought about any or all of these. This is where knowledge is power! Let’s look at where stress can come from in our everyday lives:

  • Mental/Emotional/Spiritual - fear, worry, anxiety, relationship, lack of purpose, negativity
  • Physical - trauma, fractures, injuries, nerve compression, overexercise, accidents, poor posture
  • Chemical/Biochemical/Environmental - inflammatory foods (food sensitivities), pesticides, alcohol, caffeine, heavy metals, NSAIDs/OTC drugs, medications, antibiotics, radiation (airplane travel), EMFs, BPAs/Parabens/Plastics, birth control pills, parasites/pathogens/mold/viruses/infections, sleep deprivation (less than 6-7hrs/night)

Remember that the stress can also be perceived and not real to have the same effect! 


Recognizing the symptoms of high or low cortisol levels is the first step in rectifying any imbalance. As a functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner, I advocate for comprehensive testing to evaluate your cortisol and DHEA levels accurately. It’s also essential to adopt lifestyle modifications like a balanced diet, regular exercise, and stress management techniques that can naturally help maintain your cortisol and DHEA balance. Remember, when it comes to these critical hormones, harmony is truly the name of the game. 

In the world of health and wellness, knowledge is power. By remaining in tune with your body and understanding these key hormonal players, you can take meaningful steps towards your optimal health.

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