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Cortisol: The Belly Fat of the Beast

Does this stress make me look fat? Cortisol and belly fat are linked but what does that mean, and what does it mean to you?

Science has established that stress can lead to cardiovascular disease, but did you know that it also leads to weight gain? You’ve probably heard about the link between cortisol and belly fat—but what is cortisol, and how does it work? Cortisol is a critical stress hormone that performs many actions in the body, both good and bad.

Normally, cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands in a pattern called a diurnal variation, meaning that levels of cortisol in the bloodstream vary depending upon the time of day (normally, cortisol levels are highest in the early morning and lowest around midnight). Cortisol is important for the maintenance of blood pressure as well as regulating energy levels. Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy and stimulates insulin release and maintenance of blood sugar levels. The end result of these actions can be a marked increase in appetite.

Cortisol has been dubbed the “stress hormone” because excess cortisol is secreted during times of major physical or psychological stress, and the normal pattern of cortisol secretion can be drastically altered. A disruption of cortisol secretion may not only promote weight gain, but it can also affect where you put on the weight. Studies have shown that stress and elevated cortisol tend to cause fat deposition in the abdominal area. This belly fat has been referred to as toxic fat because it is strongly correlated with the development of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes.

But stress is not the only reason for weight gain. Weight gain or loss is dependent on a number of factors including resting metabolic rate, food intake, amount of exercise, and even the types of food consumed and the times of day when you eat. Genetic factors also likely influence our metabolism and may explain some people’s tendency to gain or lose weight more rapidly than others.

Whether or not your stress levels result in high cortisol levels and weight gain is not really a predictable thing. The amount of cortisol secreted in response to high stress can vary among individuals, with some people being innately more reactive and less able to cope with stressful events. Published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, a recent study by the Psychology Research Laboratory at San Guiseppe Hospital in Italy showed that women who reacted to stress with high levels of cortisol secretion also tended to eat more while stressed than women who secreted less cortisol. Another study by the Healthy Psychology Program at the University of California, San Francisco, demonstrated that women who stored excess fat in their abdominal area had higher cortisol levels and reported more lifestyle stress than women who stored fat primarily in the hips.

Knowing is half the battle. Stress levels can affect your eating habits and weight gain. So, now is the time to manage that stress! Not only can managing your stress reduce belly fat, but you'll also feel better!

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