Elevated plasma cortisol has been reported following caloric restriction, and may contribute to adverse effects including stress-induced overeating, but results from published studies are inconsistent. To clarify the effects of caloric restriction on plasma cortisol, and to assess cortisol as an indicator of stress during caloric restriction, we conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of published studies in which cortisol was measured following caloric restriction without other manipulations in humans. We further compared effects of fasting, very low calorie diet (VLCD), and other less intense low calorie diet (LCD), as well as the duration of caloric restriction by meta-regression. Overall, caloric restriction significantly increased serum cortisol level in 13 studies (357 total participants). Fasting showed a very strong effect in increasing serum cortisol, while VLCD and LCD did not show significant increases. The meta-regression analysis showed a negative association between the serum cortisol level and the duration of caloric restriction, indicating serum cortisol is increased in the initial period of caloric restriction but decreased to the baseline level after several weeks. These results suggest that severe caloric restriction causes activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which may be transient, but results in elevated cortisol which could mediate effects of starvation on brain and metabolic function as well as ameliorate weight loss.
Keywords: Caloric restriction; cortisol; diet; endocrinology; hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis; meta-analysis; stress; weight control.