Stress, cortisol, and other appetite-related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6-month changes in food cravings and weight

Obesity (Silver Spring). 2017 Apr;25(4):713-720. doi: 10.1002/oby.21790.


Objective: To examine whether baseline chronic stress, morning cortisol, and other appetite-related hormones (leptin, ghrelin, and insulin) predict future weight gain and food cravings in a naturalistic, longitudinal, 6-month follow-up study.

Methods: A prospective community cohort of 339 adults (age 29.1 ± 9.0 years; BMI = 26.7 ± 5.4 kg/m2 ; 56.9% female; 70.2% white) completed assessments at baseline and 6-month follow-up. Fasting blood draws were used to assess cortisol and other appetite-related hormone levels at baseline. At baseline and follow-up, body weight was measured, and the Cumulative Adversity Interview and Food Craving Inventory were administered. Data were analyzed using linear mixed models adjusting for demographic and clinical covariates.

Results: Over the 6-month period, 49.9% of the sample gained weight. Food cravings and chronic stress decreased over 6 months (Ps < 0.05). However, after adjusting for covariates, individuals with higher baseline total ghrelin had significantly higher food cravings at 6 months (P = 0.04). Furthermore, higher cortisol, insulin, and chronic stress were each predictive of greater future weight gain (Ps < 0.05).

Conclusions: These results suggest that ghrelin plays a role in increased food cravings and reward-driven eating behaviors. Studies are needed that examine the utility of stress reduction methods for normalizing disrupted cortisol responses and preventing future weight gain.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Appetite / physiology*
  • Body Mass Index
  • Body Weight / physiology*
  • Craving / physiology*
  • Fasting / blood
  • Feeding Behavior / physiology*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Ghrelin / blood
  • Heat-Shock Proteins / blood
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood*
  • Insulin / blood
  • Leptin / blood
  • Linear Models
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Prospective Studies
  • Weight Gain
  • Young Adult


  • Ghrelin
  • Heat-Shock Proteins
  • Insulin
  • Leptin
  • Hydrocortisone