Cortisol and Belly Fat: How Stress is Making You Fat
Cortisol – What You Can do About It
Cortisol has gained a bad rap. Commonly known as the ‘stress hormone’, cortisol is a steroid hormone that is often blamed for causing insomnia, acne, irritability, headaches, high blood pressure, and various other ailments–including stubborn fat!
Why You Want Cortisol
Cortisol has some important functions. Besides helping us to get out of bed in the morning, cortisol suppresses inflammation and helps to regulate our blood pressure and our blood sugar. Cortisol affects nearly every organ in our body, and it is essential that our cortisol be balanced and regulated. We don’t want too much and not too little! Loss of regulation can lead to cortisol excess disorders, such as Cushing syndrome, or cortical insufficiency, such as Addison disease.
Does Stress Make You Fat?
One claim that has been circulating on the internet is that stress (and consequently, cortisol that has been elevated for a long time) can make us fat, especially around the midsection. But is it true?
In a word, yes.
Scientific studies have largely recognized the relationship between abdominal obesity and elevated cortisol levels. How does this happen? Well, the answer is multifold: high cortisol levels can make some people eat more sugary, calorie-dense foods; one study found an association between elevated cortisol levels and an increase in appetite, which could promote weight gain.
Another study found a relationship between waking cortisol and cholesterol levels, which is known to be related to body fat percentage. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, as in times of stress, your body will require more energy. Then, cortisol can also inhibit muscular thermogenesis, and thus metabolism, and decrease insulin secretion.
Furthermore, high cortisol can inhibit testosterone, especially in men; and what do we need testosterone for? Building muscle! So, if your cortisol is too high, it’ll be harder for you to maintain and grow healthy lean muscle tissue, which will also affect your metabolism, and potentially increase your fat percentage. In women, elevated cortisol can affect estrogen and progesterone, which can similarly lead to fat gain.
If you suspect you might have high cortisol, please speak to your doctor! You won’t know for sure if you have high circulating cortisol levels until your saliva is tested by a medical professional. That being said, there are actions you can take to reduce your stress and help to re-regulate your cortisol. Bonus: even if high cortisol isn’t causing your stubborn belly fat, these tips are still helpful!
Stress Reduction and Fitness: Exercise for a Happier, Healthier You
Steps You Can Take (hint: it involves exercise!)
When you’re stressed out, often the last thing you want to do is exercise. I get it! But studies have shown that exercise may be an effective way to manage one’s cortisol and hormone levels. Studies have shown that low intensity exercise (or at about 40% of your V02 max) can reduce circulating cortisol levels. Furthermore, exercise has been shown to reduce occurrences of stress-induced emotional eating.
The intensity, volume, and type of exercise matter when it comes to managing your cortisol. Over-exercising/over-training, or putting your body under a large amount of stress for a long period of time, can also increase cortisol levels (to learn more about over-training, please read our article here). Examples of low-intensity exercise might be going for a walk, a bike ride, or a relaxing yoga class.
The Mindfulness Connection
You’re probably tired of hearing this, but…have you tried mindfulness? This completely free and low-commitment practice has been shown to decrease cortisol levels–and in some cases, long after the meditation or mindfulness practice is over. Another article found that one’s coping mechanisms play a role in fat distribution; so, if you can’t change a stressful situation, changing how you react may be key to influencing your nervous system and subsequently, your body fat percentage and distribution.
Take a Look at Your Life
If you’re living with circumstances that create chronic stress and tension in your life, it might be time to make some adjustments. If you can’t immediately change your situation, make sure to prioritize activities that relax your nervous system, such as going for a long walk, talking to a friend, petting a dog, reading a book, and watching a funny movie. While these interventions may seem unproductive or trivial at the moment, remember that you are taking care of your health and wellbeing. And these two things form the foundation for a long, strong, and joyful life (with minimal belly fat)!
Wishing you all the best on your journey to optimum health!
Written by Theresa Faulder, Master’s in English, Certified Personal Trainer and Infofit fitness blog writer.