Most people realize that eating too many chocolate cookies and spending too much time on the couch can make you fat. Fewer people understand the connection between stress and body, especially belly fat. One explanation for how stress boosts increases belly fat is by increasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. But cortisol isn’t the only hormone involved in obesity and belly fat.
Stress and Belly Fat: The Role of Cortisol and Other Hormones
Cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenal gland during times of stress in response to emotional stress, sleep deprivation or starvation. Cortisol causes the breakdown of muscle tissue and increases belly fat. Obviously, you don’t want high levels of cortisol circulating in your blood if you want to look buff in a swimsuit.
But cortisol isn’t the hormone that contributes to obesity and belly fat. Several respectable studies published in major medical journals show that women who are obese have lower rather than higher levels of cortisol. How can you explain that?
It’s the Relative Amount of Cortisol That Matters
To better understand belly fat, you have to look at cortisol in the context of the other hormones it interacts with. What’s more significant than the absolute amount of cortisol is the amount of cortisol relative to other hormones such as human growth hormone and testosterone that burn fat and preserve lean body mass.
If cortisol levels are high relative to growth hormone and testosterone, you’ll see the effects of too much cortisol like increased belly fat and muscle breakdown. If enough growth hormone or testosterone is present to balance out the cortisol, it puts a brake on muscle breakdown and belly fat deposition.
To make matters more complicated, insulin is released along with cortisol during periods of stress. Insulin and cortisol both alter the action of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase, which contributes to fat storage around the tummy This causes a plumper belly and waistline and skinnier arms and legs due to muscle breakdown from the excess cortisol.
You can see the effects of unopposed insulin and cortisol in women who are past the age of menopause. Many carry their weight around their waistline and tummy and have thin, underdeveloped legs and arms. This comes from higher levels of insulin and cortisol combined with lower levels of growth hormone, estrogen, and testosterone.
Ward Off Belly Fat by Boosting Growth Hormone Levels
To keep belly fat at bay, it’s important to keep cortisol levels low while boosting growth hormone levels. Here are some ways to reduce cortisol levels:
Learn techniques for managing stress such as meditation or yoga.
Get at least 7 hours of sleep a night.
Keep exercise sessions to less than 45 minutes at a time.
Don’t deprive yourself of healthy carbs. Cortisol release is triggered by low glycogen stores.
Eat a clean diet that contains an appropriate number of calories. No starvation diets.
To maximize your growth hormone levels:
Increase the intensity of your workouts. Short, intense workouts boost growth hormone.
Get at least 7 hours of quality sleep. Don’t eat before bedtime.
Eat 5 or 6 smaller meals through the day with each containing a lean source of protein.
Don’t neglect strength training. Lifting heavier weights boosts growth hormone release.