What is the Connection Between Belly Fat and Cortisol?

B. Miller

Cortisol is a hormone that is released by the brain when one is in a stressful situation, helping to encourage the fight-or-flight response. Unfortunately, cortisol also encourages the cells in the body to store more fat, particularly in the midsection area, and often increases hunger as well. As such, the connection between belly fat and cortisol is that stress increases the production of cortisol, which therefore leads to increased belly fat; storing extra fat in the midsection has also been linked to increased risk of heart disease and cancer.

A person with a small amount of belly fat.
A person with a small amount of belly fat.

The connection between belly fat and cortisol is well established. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to break, because many people experience prolonged stress due to an unpleasant working environment or home life. This causes cortisol to constantly flood the brain, which can make it more difficult to sleep at night and can also lead to mood changes, anxiety or depression, and increased probability of additional weight gain. Many people find that the connection between belly fat and cortisol makes it virtually impossible to lose the extra midsection weight, no matter how much aerobic exercise or targeted abdominal exercises they do.

A woman with a toned belly.
A woman with a toned belly.

In order to sever the negative connection between belly fat and cortisol, it will be necessary to reduce stress in one's life, as well as make dietary changes. This might mean making changes at work or home, if possible, or practicing stress-reduction techniques such as yoga, meditation, or even simple aerobic exercise such as going for a walk during the day. Reducing stress is the first step to reducing belly fat and cortisol; then, sustained aerobic activity is one of the best ways to lose weight over the entire body, as well as reduce fat in the midsection. Abdominal exercises will strengthen the abdominal muscles, but will typically not do anything to reduce fat.

High cortisol levels often lead to weight gain.
High cortisol levels often lead to weight gain.

Making dietary changes can help as well. Eat a nutritious diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and protein; depriving the body with a severe diet will often have the opposite of the desired effect, and will often cause the body to attempt to store even more fat in the cells. Avoiding sugary, greasy foods high in saturated fat, however, will be helpful in eliminating belly fat. It is important to do so not just for one's appearance, but to prevent increasing the risk for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer that often appears with increased belly fat and cortisol in the body.

Cortisol levels in the bloodstream spike when a person is under stress.
Cortisol levels in the bloodstream spike when a person is under stress.

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Discussion Comments


@fBoyle-- I'm not a doctor but I don't think that's the best solution. The best solution is reducing the amount of cortisol our body produces by staying away from stress. Cortisol in a way, builds up in our body because it enters fat cells and encourages them to grow. If you reduce cortisol over the long term, you will be more likely to lose weight and avoid weight gain around the waist.

Cortisol causes fat storage because it increases blood sugar. When blood sugar goes up, the body produces more and more insulin. When there is plenty of sugar and insulin in the blood, insulin uses sugar for energy instead of fat. This is what causes weight gain and prevents weight loss. Cortisol is the problem, not eating per se .


If cortisol causes belly fat, can we avoid this by not eating when we're stressed?


I was very thin and fit two years ago and then I experienced some major changes in my life and gained weight due to stress and anxiety. I gained a lot of fat around my belly which contributed to my genetic inclination for insulin resistance. Both my parents are type two diabetics and everyone knows that belly fat contributes to it.

I was diagnosed with type two diabetes recently and I haven't been able to lose weight despite dieting and exercise. I feel like I'm caught up in a vicious circle. Excess cortisol is terrible.

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