Elevated Hair Cortisol Concentration Associated with Adiposity, Obesity Persistence

New research suggested that long-term exposure to increased cortisol may be associated with increased adiposity levels.

New findings suggest that chronic elevated cortisol exposure, determined from hair sampling, was associated with adiposity markers and obesity persistence over time, according to the results of a large population-based study.

With chronic cortisol exposure posited to contribute to obesity, the researchers aimed to assess associations between hair cortisol concentrations, a novel indicator of long-term cortisol exposure, and adiposity. 

The study included 2527 men and women (age ≥54 years; 98% white; British) who participated in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Researchers evaluated hair cortisol concentrations via the 2-cm hair segment nearest the scalp, and objectively determined height, weight, and waist circumference.


According to study methodology, covariates included age, arthritis, diabetes, sex, smoking status, and socioeconomic status.

Data from cross-sectional analyses indicated positive correlations between hair cortisol concentrations and weight (r =0.102; P <.001), body-mass index (BMI) (r =0.101; P <.001), and waist circumference (r =0.082; P =.001).

In addition, hair cortisol concentrations were increased in patients with obesity (BMI ≥30 kg/m2; F =6.58; P =.001) and increased waist circumference (men, ≥102 cm; women, ≥88 cm; F =4.87; P =.027).

In retrospective longitudinal analyses, hair cortisol levels were significantly linked with obesity persistence over 4 years (F =12.70; P <.001).

“These results provide consistent evidence that long-term exposure to elevated levels of cortisol over several months is associated with higher levels of adiposity,” the researchers concluded.

“Hair cortisol offers a suitable and easily obtainable measure for assessing chronically elevated cortisol concentrations in obesity research and may therefore aid in further advancing understanding in this area. While cross-sectional studies have provided a good starting point from which to explore the role of [hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal] axis dysregulation and chronic cortisol exposure in the development of obesity, longitudinal research is needed in order to clarify the direction of associations.”

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Jackson SE, Kirschbaum C, Steptoe A. Hair cortisol and adiposity in a population‐based sample of 2,527 men and women aged 54 to 87 years. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2017;25(3):539-544. doi:10.1002/oby.21733.