There’s a lot of information about how stress can cause weight gain. It’s true, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need the body’s stress hormone. Cortisol is essential for your body’s fight or flight response; however, it causes fat storage in your abdomen when it’s in excess.
The fatty adipose tissue, known as belly fat, accumulates and causes far more health issues such as type two diabetes and heart disease. Luckily, there are ways to get rid of this fat. Let’s see how!
Does Cortisol Cause Belly Fat?
Yes, cortisol can cause belly fat, but it’s not a direct reaction to its secretion.
Cortisol is the primary stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands located on top of the kidney. During stressful events, physiological or emotional, the hypothalamus located in the brain sends a message, via the pituitary glands, to the adrenal glands to secrete the hormone.
The hormone, along with adrenaline, then responds by increasing the body’s metabolic rate and energy production through glucose. This is to provide the body with extra fuel to get it through whatever the stressful event might be. When cortisol is chronically in excess, glucose/blood sugar that isn’t actually needed as fuel for the body is converted into fat stored in the abdomen; belly fat.
It’s also called abdominal obesity, central obesity, central adiposity, intra-abdominal fat, or visceral fat.
When stress is a prolonged physiological occurrence, the body continues to secrete cortisol above the required amount as it awaits use. The excess cortisol levels remain circulating the body for extended periods, which then causes the belly fat to develop and increase.
Unfortunately, cortisol weight gain belly is a different type of fat storage that isn’t converted to body fuel easily. If you’re under stress often, your body continues to build this fat reserve in your abdomen until your belly apple-shaped.
That’s not the only way cortisol causes belly fat. It can also induce the urge to eat often, which causes obesity (not necessarily in the abdomen). However, this is dependent on your body type, among other factors (13).
Before we look into the dangers, have a look at the image below. Spot the belly fat indicated as visceral fat? As you can see, the fat surrounds the body’s vital organs, such as the liver, intestines, and other internal organs. Meaning it can be pretty harmful to the functioning of these organs.
Excess visceral fat can cause severe health issues such as:
- Chronic heart disease
- Type two diabetes
- Gynecological problems
- Cancer – breast and colorectal
- Alzheimer’s disease
Furthermore, excess cortisol levels from glucocorticoid use or pituitary tumors can cause Cushing’s syndrome, which leads to more abdominal obesity as the fat gets firmer and thicker, covering the entire abdomen.
Stress-induced abdominal fat secretes large amounts of inflammatory molecules that contribute to insulin resistance, leading to glucose intolerance and type two diabetes (2) (9). Research suggests that visceral fat may secrete a protein called retinol-binding protein 4 (RBP4) that may increase insulin resistance (11).
According to Harvard Health, visceral fat may increase your risk for asthma, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and some cancers (14).
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Below are four ways you can use to get rid of cortisol belly fat. It’s not a fast solution; instead, the aim is to reduce cortisol, and lose belly fat. Once the level of cortisol in your bloodstream is moderated to safe levels, then you can begin to see the effects.
Reduce Psychological Stress
Visceral obesity might be the body’s way of adapting to stress (10). But it doesn’t have to remain that way. There are several ways you can try and manage stress. They include:
- Taking tea
- Socialize with friends
- Use relaxation techniques such as listening to music, laughing, and having fun
- Take on a new hobby
- Join a new class such as yoga
- Get a pet
Daily exercises can aid you in reducing visceral fat and boost your mood. Try out moderate-intensity exercises, strength training, resistance training, and endurance. Aim for at least 30 minutes of activity every day and one day for rest.
Examples of exercises you can do include cardio, running, cycling, swimming, aerobics, and circuit training. For strengthening exercises, you can do weights, push-ups, and squats. Sit-ups are counterintuitive and don’t necessarily work against visceral fat.
You could also try swapping your daily activities such as using the stair rather than the lift, taking brisk walks to your nearest store rather than using your car.
HIIT (high-intensity exercise) isn’t encouraged as it can trigger an increase in cortisol levels to build more glucose energy for your body. Then again, it depends on your physical fitness and how much cortisol your body needs.
Food has a significant impact on our bodies. Therefore, watching what we eat will give substantial results. Here are a few ways you can change up your diet:
- Include lots of vitamins – there are no specific vitamins that will cut down the visceral fat, but they have many other benefits. You can get vitamins and minerals from a variety of different foods.
- Eat well-balanced meals.
- Add dark green and leafy vegetables.
- Add lean sources of protein such as seafood and poultry.
- Eat complex carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes, beans, and whole grains.
- Take plenty of dark chocolate, as it’s said to reduce your cortisol levels.
- Take tea – unsweetened black or green tea are excellent choices.
- Reduce added sugar intake.
- Take lots of bananas, avocados, and pears.
- Take yogurt.
- Avoid hydrogenated vegetable oils (trans fats) and high-calorie or high-carbohydrate foods.
- Avoid coffee – not only does it interfere with your sleep, but caffeine cortisol belly fat is encouraged as the stimulant in coffee shoots up your stress hormones.
More ways to reduce belly fat are:
- Minimize use of alcohol.
- Avoid smoking.
- Get a good night’s sleep of about six to nine hours each night – sleep deprivation increases cortisol in the bloodstream.
- Avoid situations that trigger stress.
- Stay hydrated.
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Which Vitamins Help Lose Cortisol Belly Fat?
The cortisol belly fat myth is that specific vitamins such as B, C, and D can help you lose belly fat. Unfortunately, there are no direct links as to how these vitamins will help you lose fat. Supplements as well are unreliable as they mostly aren’t regulated by the FDA.
Many companies advertise their products(supplements), claiming they can aid with losing weight or control of cortisol in the body. You should know that they were warned by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against such claims (6).
A good example is CortiSlim which was offered a warning letter by the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The manufacturer was warned against selling and advertising products without substantiated evidence/ proof of their benefits (5).
The letter indicated that if the supplement worked, it ought to be regulated as a drug. Since the drug didn’t work, the manufacturers had to restructure their products, eventually pushing them off the market.
As with dietary supplements, they aren’t regulated by the FDA, and they aren’t required to undergo testing or research. Which means you can’t be sure about their authenticity. They’re just weight loss products citing a cortisol-blocking effect that may come and go in the market (4).
These supplements, such as phosphatidylserine that claim to reduce the brain’s reaction to stress, thus reducing cortisol and assisting in weight loss, are only available in the market but are not regulated hence unreliable.
Still, there are herbs and natural supplements that claim to lower stress and cortisol levels, such as Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Lemon balm, and Chamomile. Again, there isn’t substantial evidence to show that they do work and are safe for consumers.
The best thing would be to stick to the natural solutions explained in the previous section. These are eating well, avoiding and managing stress, exercising, sleeping, and enjoying nature, among other methods.
Belly fat is a common problem for many. What you don’t know is that cortisol is one of the leading causes of abdominal obesity. And even though it seems to affect men more than women, belly fat causes chronic health issues in both sexes which may be harder to manage.
If you suspect you have belly fat, follow those simple remedies like exercising and eating a well-balanced diet filled with lean protein, vegetables, fruits, and carbohydrates. Manage your stress levels and ensure you get a good night’s sleep. That should help you prevent and get rid of cortisol belly fat.
If you want your weight loss plan to be efficient, don’t forget to do some exercise on the regular basis.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- American Institute of Stress (stress.org)
- Body fat distribution and insulin resistance (2013, ncbi.nih.gov)
- Cushing’s syndrome (2018, niddk.nih.gov)
- Dietary supplements (2011, consumer.ftc.gov)
- FDA warning letter to CortiSlim (2004, quackwatch.org)
- Federal Trade Commission ( 2004, ftc.gov)
- Hormones – cortisol and corticosteroids (betterhealth.vic.gov.au)
- How to remove cortisol from the body (2020, medicalnewstoday.com)
- Insulin resistance and diabetes (2019,cdc.gov)
- Is visceral obesity a physiological adaptation to stress? (2003, ncbi.nih.gov)
- Serum retinol-binding protein 4 is associated with visceral fat in human (2015, ncbi.nih.go)
- Stress May Cause Excess Abdominal Fat In Otherwise Slender Women (2000, sciencedaily.com)
- Stress and obesity (2018, link.springer.com)
- Taking aim at belly fat (2010, health.harvard.edu)
- Visceral fat (2018, medicalnewstoday.com)