Chronic stress and high levels of stress hormones can lead to accumulated fat

Cortisol Belly: Is Stress Making Your Tummy Stick Out?

Pooch. Paunch. Padding. Fluff. Whatever you call that extra abdominal fat, you're probably not a fan. The obvious culprits for belly fat are the same ones that apply to all body fat: a less-than-healthy diet paired with not enough exercise. Some have suggested that stress particularly contributes to weight around your middle; they've named this phenomenon "cortisol belly."

Let's talk about the possible connection between stress, cortisol and belly fat, and what you can do to better manage your stress—and, potentially, your waistline as well.

What is cortisol?

Some people call cortisol the "stress hormone." While this doesn't sound like a good thing, in the right circumstances, cortisol can be key to your survival—literally. Speaking in evolutionary terms, this and other stress hormones, like adrenaline, were life-saving adaptations for enduring hostile environments or fleeing predators (after all, a rush of cortisol and adrenaline sure comes in handy when you need to outrun a tiger!).

The days of fleeing predators or chasing down our own prey may be far behind us, but that inner alarm bell, cortisol, continues to ring at full force in these hectic modern times. That's because physically, we may respond to stressful life events—whether it's the uncertainty of paying rent or meeting a deadline, a major global catastrophe, or figuring out dinner for hungry teenagers—the same way we'd react to flash fires, growling animals and other external threats. Any perceived danger can trigger a fight-or-flight response, increasing cortisol and blood sugar levels, so we're ready to, well, fight or take flight (or sometimes freeze).

When we're constantly bombarded with life stressors and the accompanying rising cortisol levels, it turns into chronic stress, and it causes the body to always be on high alert for danger, wreaking havoc on our mental health and well-being.

And as if you don't have enough stress with family life, health problems, finances and work (and the list goes on), you may notice that the waistband of your pants is getting tighter, too! So what is the connection between stress and belly fat? Let's get acquainted with the "cortisol belly."

What is cortisol belly?

A cortisol belly, also known as a stress belly, is a term that's been used to describe weight gain specific to the abdominal region that's caused by stress. Research suggests that chronic stress may contribute to excess weight and belly fat—but the jury's still out on the exact connection between cortisol levels and belly fat. Ultimately, weight gain around the middle has been associated with unmanaged stress, leading to high blood sugar and cortisol levels constantly circulating throughout your body.

Hate it if you will, but also consider that perhaps there is some use to it: consider that tummy as your body's way of letting you know you may be dealing with too many stressful events!

So why might stress make its presence known around your middle, as opposed to your thighs, arms, legs or any other body part? Quite simply, your abdomen is the most accessible place for your body to deposit fat, and it's also the most challenging place to lose it.

Let's also be clear that there is also a link between what you eat when you're stressed and the increased body fat. During the stress response, your brain and body crave sugar for the quick energy that it gives. Excess sugar turns into excess energy, which was useful back in the days when escaping a predator was a daily occurrence. But since you're not actually running for your life, your body stores this sugar as fat in preparation for the next stressful event, which probably will not require you to run as fast as you can or wrestle with an alligator. And that's when you get stuck with extra belly fat (the kind you can pinch with your fingers)—not to be confused with visceral fat, which is fat deep in the abdomen that surrounds your organs, and is associated with a host of health concerns (you can't pinch this fat with your fingers).

This is troubling: Visceral fat that increases your waist circumference is aptly nicknamed "toxic fat" because it's associated with several health complications, including disrupted sleep, inflammation, high blood pressure and more.

How could cortisol increase belly fat?

More clinical research is needed to understand the relationship between weight gain around the abdomen and a spike in cortisol levels. But we do know that your pituitary gland signals your adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline, triggering a three-step process that likely plays a role in fat gain:

  1. Slows down metabolism. It suppresses non-essential functions such as digestion and reproduction and slows down your metabolism.
  2. Glucose release. Cortisol triggers fat stores, muscles and cells in your liver to release energy in the form of sugar.
  3. Unused energy converts to fat. The increased glucose levels and subsequent energy surge cause an increase in brain and skeletal muscle blood flow, heart rate, blood pressure and heat production, priming your fight-or-flight response—and when we don't use all that extra energy, there's an increase in fat distribution.

After your body recovers from a stress response, it replaces all the sugar it uses. First, your body replaces the sugar stored in your liver and muscles. Once these levels reach capacity, it stores any excess sugar from your blood as body fat, which can translate into weight gain and a larger waist circumference.

This entire process, ultimately, amounts to an imbalance in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (this axis is what regulates your stress response), which over time can cause a malfunction in how your body uses and stores sugar.

How Does Cortisol Work in My Body?

Your body releases cortisol every day, coinciding with your circadian rhythm. This hormone spikes when you wake up and gradually drops off throughout the day. Its release helps give you the morning energy surge you need to get up and go!

Cortisol is also involved in regulating blood sugar levels and metabolism, and it even has anti-inflammatory properties (this is why an imbalance in cortisol levels can lead to widespread inflammation).

During stress, cortisol secretion is regulated by your pituitary gland and hypothalamus, and it is released into your bloodstream along with adrenaline, which results in the release of sugar as a quick source of energy.

The issue isn't cortisol itself, but how much and how often your adrenal glands are producing it. A healthy body (the endocrine system to be exact) usually keeps a very tight range of cortisol; it's only harmful in excessive amounts.

Does stress affect cortisol levels?

Yes. Your body's stress response is an adaptive and complex interplay of nervous, endocrine, and immune mechanisms. In stressful situations, there is high demand on your cortisol levels. There is also strain on your adrenal glands.

Then it becomes a vicious cycle. We could say that stress makes you more likely to eat easily accessible foods such as fast foods (you know, comfort foods), exercise less, skip meals and sleep less. Soon, all that stress coupled with these unhealthy behaviors cause more stress to the body, which releases more cortisol…and hit the repeat button.

It's like "Groundhog Day!" You're stressed out, so your body releases cortisol, and then you gain weight. You crave sugar due to stress, and gain more weight—much of it showing up in your belly, because the cortisol-induced weight gain typically appears around the midsection.

How to support healthy cortisol levels?

The most important thing you can do to support healthy cortisol levels is to use stress management techniques. Studies have shown a link between chronic stress, cortisol levels and weight gain. Fortunately, these nine tips will help you keep an even keel—and some of them also will make it easier to manage your weight and promote a healthy body composition.

1. Prioritize regular exercise

This helps with stress-related weight gain by burning calories and maintaining a healthy body mass index. Exercise also releases endorphins, some of your body's feel-good hormones, which help to promote happiness and manage stress. Pro tip: Add resistance training such as weightlifting two to three times a week to tone and maintain lean muscle mass.

2. Practice mindful eating

Mindful eating prevents that mind-less binge eating! Make a point of eating regularly planned meals. In other words, by being fully aware of your eating experience, you'll start noticing your body's way of telling you when you're hungry and when you're full. Do away with distractions such as TV when you are eating. Take some time to understand your eating habits (maybe keep a food journal). If you notice you're eating due to stressful situations, it can help you to make better choices.

3. Eat balanced meals

Think the Mediterranean diet, and focus on eating mostly nutrient-rich foods. Whole grains, fish, legumes, grass-fed beef, colorful vegetables, fruits and even dark chocolate have been shown to help fight belly fat and balance your metamolism. Pro tip: Limit the consumption of highly processed, packaged foods and baked goods.

4. Practice healthy sleeping habits

Research has shown a clear link between chronically high cortisol levels and poor sleep. A broken sleep-wake cycle can increase cortisol levels, which can mean a vicious cycle of insomnia. Sleep deprivation can raise ghrelin levels, a hormone responsible for increasing appetite, making you eat like a gremilin. It also lowers leptin levels, the fullness hormone.

5. Manage your stress

Relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga or deep breathing help bring cortisol production back to normal levels.

6. Regular lab tests

Lab tests let you identify any imbalances in the inner workings of your biology, allowing you to address any health concerns by making lifestyle changes. Pro tip: You can check if there are any imbalances impacting your ability to maintain a healthy weight.

7. Stay hydrated

Drinking water or green tea throughout the day is an excellent way to ensure your body has enough water to thrive—we are rougly 60% water, after all! But minding your water intake may also help combat belly fat. Why? Often, we confuse hunger for thirst. If you are tempted to grab comfort foods, try drinking a glass of water instead.

8. Take up a new hobby

You may be inclined to go for food if your hands are idle. You can channel that energy into gardening, knitting, dancing salsa or even joining a book club.

9. Talk to someone about it

Connecting with others can be a huge stress relief. Talking with a therapist, a friend or family member may help you improve your emotional well-being, and even find ways to build sustainable daily habits that support your healthiest self.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself, even when you don't meet your weight loss goals or relapse to stress eating. Avoid negative self-talk and focus on your well-being by prioritizing what is good for your physical, emotional and mental health.

About the Author: Krista Elkins has 20 years of experience in healthcare, both as a paramedic (NRP) and registered nurse (RN). She has worked on both ground and helicopter ambulances (CCP-C, CFRN), and in ER, ICU, primary care, psychiatric, and wilderness medicine. She practices and has a devoted life-long interest in preventative medicine. She is a conscientious, research-driven writer who cares about accuracy and ethics.