What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the word cortisol? For most people, cortisol is simply, “the stress hormone.” But by the time you’re done reading this article, you’re going to think of cortisol as first and foremost, the belly-fat hormone. 

I’ll explain why in just a bit. 

First, let’s get the basics out of the way. Yes, cortisol is indeed the major stress hormone. When you have four kids running around the house like crazy (welcome to my world), cortisol courses through your veins. 

Cortisol helps you deal with any kind of stressor, be it unruly kids or being asked to extend your ER nurse practitioner shift after you’ve just put in 12 hours  (welcome to my world again).

When cortisol is released by the adrenal glands—triangular-shaped organs that rest on top of each kidney—here’s what happens:

Cortisol’s Effects On The Body

  • Blood sugar levels go up:
    This is to give you the physical strength necessary for fight or flight. (And for freezing up.)
  • Digestion slows:
    Burning up that chocolate almond croissant you ate an hour ago is not top priority. Dealing with the immediate stressor is.
  • Heart rate and blood pressure increases:
    Again, it’s all in the name of outwitting a perceived primordial threat. Running away from sabretooth tigers requires a burst of adrenaline!
  • Bodily systems chill out:
    Everything that’s not required for the immediate perceived threat takes a backseat. 

Like alcohol, sugar, sex, and pretty much all fun things in life, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. The same is true of cortisol. A surge of cortisol might not be necessary anymore for outwitting extinct apex predators. However, you do need some cortisol when your spouse is yelling at you or when someone swerves in your lane in traffic. In this instance, a shot of cortisol does a body good.

How Cortisol Production Leads To Dangerous Fat

A constant stream of cortisol caused by chronic stress, though, is bad. Especially for your waistline and your internal organs. Here’s why…

Lack of sleep is one of the biggest contributors to excess cortisol production. Even if you’re eating kale like tomorrow there’s no kale going to be left on God’s great green Earth, cortisol turns every morsel of food into the worst kind of fat: visceral fat. 

What’s visceral fat? It’s the fat that you can’t see, the kind that swells up the internal organs in your abdominal cavity. Visceral fat is a double whopper: it not only expands your waistline, it contributes to dangerous metabolic health issues. 

That’s why several hours of deep sleep is one of the best remedies for preventing visceral fat storage. 

Not Overweight With Excess Abdominal Fat

You don’t have to be overweight to put on excess visceral fat. A study from Yale published over 20 years ago proves this point. The research showed that highly-stressed non-overweight women are more likely to have excess abdominal fat. The correlation is that those non-overweight women with excess abdominal fat had higher levels of cortisol.

The 2000 study was the first to demonstrate that otherwise lean women with so-called “stress bellies” have an exaggerated response to cortisol. And if having a little excess flab isn’t terrible, wait until you hear the health risks of having a stress belly. 

It’s associated with having a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. 

What Can Be Done About Stress Belly?

You can try to lose weight by exercising and eating healthier. However, to reiterate, you can be at your ideal body weight but still have excess cortisol production. The opposite is also true. It’s possible that your adrenal glands have difficulty producing sufficient cortisol to deal with chronic stress. 

The answer to overcoming stress belly is to rebalance your hormone levels. 

How can that be done? 

Your first step is to schedule an appointment with me. We’ll have a no-obligation, no-cost chat to see how we can best work together. 

As a functional medicine practitioner I am trained in interpreting diagnostic tests to assess hormone levels. I’m also an expert in recommending the supplements and diet plan that will help you get back in balance and help you reduce your waistline and visceral fat. 

You’ll also learn, through DNA testing, which foods your body best responds to. How cool is that? No more guesswork!

Take the first step in reclaiming your health now!

Until next time, 

Jenna Witt, NP