Do I Have Cushing’s or Am I Just Fat (Symptoms, Diagnosis & Solution)

Weight Loss & Diets | Written by Nathan Petitpas | Updated on 20 April 2023

A four-panel photo series showing a woman's transformation before, during, and after Cushing's Syndrome and surgery where the first before picture depicts the woman in a healthy body shape and facial features while in the second and third panel, the woman appears significantly different, with a round face and prominent cheeks so she begins wondering "do I have Cushing's or am I just fat", then the fourth panel shows the woman with a healthy appearance and weight after surgery.

As the obesity epidemic continues to take over the United States, and more people are educated on Cushing’s disease, many may find themselves wondering, “do I have Cushing’s or am I just fat?”23

Symptoms of Crushing’s disease oftentimes include weight gain and if you experience any of the symptoms below or have a cause for concern, it’s crucial to seek a medical evaluation rather than self diagnosing. Overall, Crushing’s is fairly rare and jumping to conclusions can cause undue stress and worry.

With that being said, continue reading to learn more about how obesity vs Crushing’s compares, factors that contribute to Crushing’s and who’s at risk, how it’s diagnosed, and since weight loss solutions differ between diagnosis, weight loss solutions for those with and without Crushing’s syndrome. 

What Is Cushing’s Disease or Crushing’s Syndrome?

The fluctuation of cortisol levels in the body plays a significant role in causing a disease like Cushing’s. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone and helps the body automatically respond appropriately to stressors, both internal and external, which is known as a fight or flight response.1 

Quick releases of cortisol are crucial for reacting to dangerous situations, but having high levels of cortisol frequently can lead to a plethora of health issues like diabetes, heart disease, weight gain, high blood pressure, insomnia, and irregular mood.2

Further, increases in hormone levels of cortisol also causes Cushing’s disease as tumors form inside the pituitary gland, resulting in excessive release of the cortisol-producing hormone adrenocorticotropic hormone.3 This disease is part of a larger hormonal disorder called Cushing’s syndrome, which is caused by long-term exposure of excessive cortisol. 

As far as what causes the disease, Cushing’s is typically not passed down genetically but can occur while taking prescription drugs that increase cortisol levels, such as treating an inflammatory disease with synthetic hormone medicine.4 Additionally, Cushing’s can be brought on simply by being under too much stress for long periods of time, which can result in the growth of tumors.  

Exhaustive List of Cushing’s Syndrome Symptoms

While there are plenty of distinctive symptoms to tell whether someone truly has Cushing’s, some people may get no symptoms at all. This makes it extremely hard to detect since most healthcare providers look for those symptoms before going on to screen patients for this rare disease. 

Close-up of a white woman's face with visible acne blemishes on her skin.

Source: Alexander Grey via Pixabay18

A full list of Cushing’s symptoms ranges from distinctive outward appearance to internal physical changes and even mental handicaps.5 

A full list of symptoms include:

  • Excess fat around and above the waist, called “truncal obesity”
  • Thin arms and legs
  • Round, moon face
  • Acne
  • Buffalo hump fat pocket between shoulders
  • Supraclavicular fat pad around the neck
  • Osteoporosis and bone fractures
  • Skin infections and ulcers
  • Red and purple striae or stretch marks
  • Skin that bruises easily and doesn’t heal quickly
  • Changes in mood or depression and anxiety
  • Feeling extremely tired 
  • Increase thirst and urination
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Muscle loss
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Heart attack and stroke
  • Headaches
  • Trouble concentrating and remembering information
  • Stunted growth despite obesity in children
  • Excessive hair growth in women
  • Irregular or no menstruation in women
  • Difficulty becoming pregnant in women
  • Low sex drive and infertility in men
  • Erectile dysfunction in men

Who Is Most at Risk for Cushing’s?

Again, people who also frequently take cortisol-like medicine such as glucocorticoids are also at high risk for developing Cushing’s. While less common, cases have been seen where children have been affected as well.

Even in its rare occurrence of affecting roughly 40-70 people per million, Cushing’s syndrome tends to be more prevalent in women by almost three times the amount and typically is found between the ages of 30-50.6 Studies have shown that women are at higher risk for experiencing stress because of their bodily makeup and are even more likely to experience depression and anxiety from stress.7 

Regular exercise plays a key role in reducing mental stress by producing mood-elevating chemicals called endorphins.8 This makes it crucial for women especially to combat life stressors by incorporating an exercise routine like a beginner guide to strength training to keep cortisol levels controlled and prevent Cushing’s from happening. 

Obesity vs Cushing’s Syndrome: Do I Have Cushing’s or Am I Just Fat?

Obesity and excessive weight gain has been a pressing topic over the last two decades in the United States, sparking the question “do I have Cushing’s or am I just fat” in many groups of people. The CDC reported a drastic increase in obesity prevalence, going from just 30.5% of the population between the years of 1999 and 2000 and shooting up to 41.9% between the years of 2017 and March 2020 — data accounted for stopping just before the pandemic.9 

The concern for whether someone battling obesity might also suffer from Cushing’s is completely valid, but luckily, the disease and syndrome come with very distinct symptoms. Not to mention with a diagnosis being very rare, most people will not be affected by the specific negative aspects that come with having Cushing’s. 

A man wearing a turquoise shirt pinching his belly fat with both hands, possibly indicating body dissatisfaction or attempting to measure his body fat.

Source: Towfiqu barbhuiya via Unsplash19

For instance, an obese person not suffering from Cushing’s may wonder how to lose weight fast in 2 weeks and can actually go on to see results from a diet and exercise plan, whereas someone with Cushing’s will struggle more.

Weight gain from Cushing’s occurs in specific places, such as the upper body. Someone with Cushing’s may appear very top-heavy, having thin legs and arms with a protruding midsection and fat around the back of the neck, which is sometimes referred to as Cushing’s neck. 

Even more distinctive, the skin may easily bruise and appear discolored with red and purple colored stretch marks called striae.10 

Consequently from weight gain, moon face symptoms are other signs that someone suffers from Cushing’s, which gives someone the appearance of a round and red-colored face, along with the distinctive appearance of a “buffalo hump” fat deposition between the shoulders.11 Women with Cushing’s primarily have abnormal amounts of hair growth on the face as well as the entire body, while men typically find themselves with decreased fertility and sex drive.12 

Getting Diagnosed for Cushing’s Disease

Even with so many symptoms existing, doctors can still have trouble identifying a case of Cushing’s because several of them can be caused by other health issues. Without the most distinctive symptoms present, this dilemma can lead patients back to wondering, “do I have Cushing’s or am I just fat?” 

A woman wearing a lab gown focusing on the microscope, examining samples on the slide.

Source: Ernesto Eslava via Pixabay20

When approaching a crossroads like this one, doctors will probe further into a patient’s medical history, conduct a physical exam, and confirm a diagnosis with several lab tests.

Types of First-Line Screening Tests

In the first set of tests, doctors will want to check the patient’s cortisol levels through one of three tests: a urine cortisol test, a late-night salivary cortisol test, or a dexamethasone suppression test.13 The provider may then choose to conduct a second of these tests if negative results come back the first time.

In the first test, the patient will be asked to collect their urine during a 24-hour period before it is tested. If the cortisol levels come back higher than normal, this is usually a good indicator that Cushing’s syndrome is present.

For the late-night test, a sample of saliva is collected during the late evening time since cortisol levels usually drop when someone falls asleep. For someone with Cushing’s though, their cortisol levels will not drop.

In the last test, the patient is given a low dose of dexamethasone, which is a cortisol suppression drug or a type of glucocorticoid, in the late evening. The next morning, a doctor will test the blood to see if cortisol levels dropped appropriately. 

If the levels haven’t dropped, this usually indicates a case of Cushing’s syndrome.

A follow-up test to these three is the dexamethasone-suppressed corticotropin-releasing hormone or Dex-CRH. When a patient shows high levels of cortisol in the first round of tests, this next step will determine whether those levels are caused by Cushing’s or a type of pseudo-Cushing’s, which comes with similar symptoms. 

Once Cushing’s syndrome has been diagnosed, the healthcare provider will conduct either a blood test or imaging test to determine the root cause, which will impact recommended treatment. Some tests may not be fully administered properly if the patient is pregnant, suffers from epilepsy or renal failure, or if they display cyclic Cushing’s syndrome where their cortisol levels fluctuate from normal to high.

Weight Loss & Cushing’s Syndrome

Treatment for Cushing’s syndrome weight gain all depends on the cause of the syndrome since each will be handled differently. Unfortunately, just doing a 30 day weight loss challenge will not be effective for someone suffering from Cushing’s to lose weight.

Before and after photo of a woman with Cushing's Syndrome, the photo on the right shows the woman with a round face, full cheeks, in the photo on the left, the woman's face appears slimmer, with a more defined jawline and neck.

The transformation of a woman who underwent treatment for Cushing’s syndrome. From bloated and tired to healthy and vibrant, she fought a tough battle and emerged victorious. Source: Noura Costany on YouTube17

Why Diet and Exercise Alone May Not Work

Those who previously asked “do I have Cushing’s or am I just fat” may have found themselves trying new trending diets to no avail and wondering “can you be in ketosis and still not lose weight” when their keto diet failed to work after a Cushing’s diagnosis. That’s because diet and exercise alone cannot fix the bodily deficiencies keeping cortisol levels high in someone with Cushing’s syndrome. 

Further, for those wondering how to manifest your dream body, know that this will do nothing to get rid of the moon face Cushing’s disease induces until the root of the problem is addressed.

Surgical Procedures To Treat Cushing’s

For a patient with Cushing’s whose root cause stems from tumors, there are several treatment methods that can be taken to cure the syndrome and lose weight. The main two categories of tumors include pituitary and adrenal tumors.14 

For pituitary tumors, options include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and drug therapy. An incision during surgery may occur under the lip or nose most commonly, and if surgery fails to remove all the tumor cells, radiation therapy can be used to kill them with X-rays. 

A team of surgeons performing a surgery in an operating room, wearing surgical scrubs and using medical instruments while attending to the patient on the operating table.

Source: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash21

Chemotherapy does a similar action but is taken by mouth or injected, and drug therapy can be used at the end of everything to correct hormone imbalances.  

For adrenal or any other tumors, surgery is used to remove the gland and often a drug is prescribed to help produce cortisol in place of the missing gland until the other catches up. If both glands are removed, a patient will be on medication for the rest of their life in order to completely replace their function. 

Cortisol Regulating Medication

Sometimes tumors cannot be removed at all, which is when a doctor may prescribe medicine to block cortisol release instead. If someone with Cushing’s syndrome traces their root cause back to a certain medication rather than development of a tumor, a doctor may swap this medication out for a different one or slowly decrease its use.

Weight Loss Solutions for Those Who Don’t Have Cushing’s Syndrome 

Without having Cushing’s syndrome or disease, weight loss can occur for many reasons. Overeating tends to be one of the biggest factors for Americans, especially with big portion sizes and having food delivery available through just the click of a button. 

Not being active enough is also a growing factor as more Americans work longer hours and have distractions like choosing to binge Netflix over getting outside or going to the gym.

Bodybuilder performing an EZ bar curl exercise, holding the bar with an underhand grip and lifting it towards the chest while standing in a gym.

Source: Anastase Maragos from Unsplash22

Additionally, many people do battle other diseases or health complications that can lead to weight gain. Anything from a simple temporary injury to a long-term sickness like hypothyroidism can cause someone to face weight gain. 

Anyone facing a health issue should always refer to a doctor for diagnosis and medication that can help maintain symptoms. 

Luckily, those who aren’t diagnosed with Cushing’s syndrome, or other illnesses, have several options for healthy and natural weight loss solutions that don’t involve surgery or medication. While weight loss affirmations can positively contribute to a successful weight loss routine, they should not be solely relied on. 

Proper diet and exercise are the most effective ways to lose weight safely. 

Establishing a solid workout routine is key to losing weight, and one of the fastest ways involves combining both cardio and resistance training. Resistance training — such as powerlifting programs for beginners — has been proven to increase metabolism and reduce weight from fat.15 

That being said, muscle weighs much more than fat, which is why the scale doesn’t matter since a lifter may find themselves getting leaner while the number of pounds they weigh increases.

While cardio has a lot of great benefits, such as fat loss, doing it alone without any strength training reduces muscle; however, cycling has been shown to be a better cardio option than running because it prevents the loss of muscle.16 The best method of losing weight is also choosing a type of workout that is enjoyable to do consistently, which is why Peloton for overweight beginners is a great option with fun classes and coaches.

People struggling with obesity or being overweight should remember that it will not exactly be easy nor is it a process that should be rushed; rather the most effective way to view weight loss is maintaining a consistent, healthy, well-rounded lifestyle. So before giving up on weight loss, be sure to establish success habits such as:

  • Starting the day off with a healthy breakfast
  • Getting to bed earlier
  • Keeping snack wholesome and healthy, such as nuts and fruit
  • Keeping self-talk positive and motivating, even during slip-ups
  • Finding an alternative stress outlet instead of eating, such as working out  

People wondering, “do I have Cushing’s or am I just fat” should always be sure to review the specific symptoms and get properly diagnosed by a healthcare provider, which will determine the best treatment if needed and the proper way to lose weight in a safe manner. 

Frequently Asked Questions About “Do I Have Cushing’s or Am I Just Fat?”

How Much Weight Gain Can Cushing’s Cause?

The amount of weight a person gains with Cushing’s varies significantly. The most important factors to look for is rapidly gaining weight in the face to form what is called “Cushing’s face” and noticing the distinct truncal obesity Cushing’s syndrome causes while remaining thin in the arms and legs.

Can Someone Have Cushing’s Without Knowing?

It is possible to have Cushing’s without knowing because not everyone shows symptoms. It also helps to know which specific symptoms are solely related to this syndrome and not another illness, such as a buffalo hump between the shoulders or excessive facial hair in women.

What Are Some Diseases That Mimic Cushing’s Syndrome?

There are several diseases that mimic Cushing’s syndrome and its symptoms. Cushing’s has been shown to be a model of metabolic syndrome because high cortisol levels can lead to carbohydrate abnormalities and weight gain in the waist.

Similarly, Cushing’s also shows the same signs as polycystic ovary syndrome, where women develop the same high levels of male hormones and have irregular periods.

Do I Have Cushing’s or Am I Just Fat if Hunger Seems To Increase?

Excessive cortisol levels, which is seen in Cushing’s, can stimulate the appetite and cause overeating. This makes it difficult to tell apart someone who has Cushing’s and someone who does not, and therefore, should not be an indicator of whether someone has the syndrome.


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About the Author

Nathan Petitpas

Nathan has been a fitness enthusiast for the past 12 years and jumps between several types of training such as bodybuilding, powerlifting, cycling, gymnastics, and backcountry hiking. Due to the varying caloric needs of numerous sports, he has cycled between all types of diets and currently eats a whole food diet. In addition, Nathan lives with several injuries such as hip impingement, spondylolisthesis, and scoliosis, so he underwent self-rehabilitation and no longer lives with debilitating pain.