Effect of obesity and starvation on thyroid hormone, growth hormone, and cortisol secretion

Endocrinol Metab Clin North Am. 2002 Mar;31(1):173-89. doi: 10.1016/s0889-8529(01)00023-8.


Obesity and starvation have opposing affects on normal physiology and are associated with adaptive changes in hormone secretion. The effects of obesity and starvation on thyroid hormone, GH, and cortisol secretion are summarized in Table 1. Although hypothyroidism is associated with some weight gain, surveys of obese individuals show that less than 10% are hypothyroid. Discrepancies have been reported in some studies, but in untreated obesity, total and free T4, total and free T3, TSH levels, and the TSH response to TRH are normal. Some reports suggest an increase in total T3 and decrease in rT3 induced by overfeeding. Treatment of obesity with hypocaloric diets causes changes in thyroid function that resemble sick euthyroid syndrome. Changes consist of a decrease in total T4 and total and free T3 with a corresponding increase in rT3. untreated obesity is also associated with low GH levels; however, levels of IGF-1 are normal. GH-binding protein levels are increased and the GH response to GHRH is decreased. These changes are reversed by drastic weight reduction. Cortisol levels are abnormal in people with abdominal obesity who exhibit an increase in urinary free cortisol but exhibit normal or decreased serum cortisol and normal ACTH levels. These changes are explained by an increase in cortisol clearance. There is also an increased response to CRH. Treatment of obesity with very low calorie diets causes a decrease in serum cortisol explained by a decrease in cortisol-binding proteins. The increase in cortisol secretion seen in patients with abdominal obesity may contribute to the metabolic syndrome (insulin resistance, glucose intolerance, dyslipidemia, and hypertension). States of chronic starvation such as seen in anorexia nervosa are also associated with changes in thyroid hormone, GH, and cortisol secretion. There is a decrease in total and free T4 and T3, and an increase in rT3 similar to findings in sick euthyroid syndrome. The TSH response to TRH is diminished and, in severe cases, thyroid-binding protein levels are decreased. In regards to GH, there is an increase in GH secretion with a decrease in IGF-1 levels. GH responses to GHRH are increased. The [table: see text] changes in cortisol secretion in patients with anorexia nervosa resemble depression. They present with increased urinary free cortisol and serum cortisol levels but without changes in ACTH levels. In contrast to the findings observed in obesity, the ACTH response to CRH is suppressed, suggesting an increased secretion of CRH. The endocrine changes observed in obesity and starvation may complicate the diagnosis of primary endocrine diseases. The increase in cortisol secretion in obesity needs to be distinguished from Cushing's syndrome, the decrease in thyroid hormone levels in anorexia nervosa needs to be distinguished from secondary hypothyroidism, and the increase in cortisol secretion observed in anorexia nervosa requires a differential diagnosis with primary depressive disorder.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Glands / physiopathology
  • Anorexia Nervosa / physiopathology
  • Cushing Syndrome / diagnosis
  • Cushing Syndrome / etiology
  • Human Growth Hormone / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Hypothalamus / physiopathology
  • Obesity / complications
  • Obesity / physiopathology*
  • Obesity / therapy
  • Pituitary Gland / physiopathology
  • Starvation / physiopathology*
  • Thyroid Gland / physiopathology
  • Thyroid Hormones / metabolism*
  • Weight Loss


  • Thyroid Hormones
  • Human Growth Hormone
  • Hydrocortisone