How Stress Contributes to Belly Fat

How Stress Contributes to Belly Fat

(Last Updated On: April 20, 2019)

istock_000016754890xsmallMost 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.


Related Articles By Cathe:

Why Belly Fat is So Hard to Lose

4 Tips for Taming Menopausal Belly Fat

Why Belly Fat is So Hard to Get Rid Of

What Impact Does Exercise Intensity Have on Abdominal Fat Loss?

Does Stress Make It Harder to Lose Body Fat?

When Being Normal Weight is Unhealthy

5 Ways Psychological Stress Leads to Weight Gain

5 Common Myths About Belly Fat – Busted

Why You’re Lean but Still Have Too Much Belly Fat

6 thoughts on “How Stress Contributes to Belly Fat

  1. Great information and helpful advice! I have one concern. One of the tips given here are “Keep exercise sessions to less than 45 minutes at a time.” Cathe, many of your workouts go beyond 45 minutes, which is fine with me, because you make them so fun! But should your longer workouts be limited to fewer times per week?

  2. The 45 minute workout stuck out to me also. I never work out for 45 minutes. It’s usually an hour and a half, but this is 5 times a week. I do strength training for about an hour and then 30 minutes of cardio 3-4 times a wekk. One or 2 days are just cardio ???? 45!? Really?

  3. I also question the 45 minute limit per exercise session. Could someone please explain the reason for this? I am just getting started at 45 minutes!

  4. This part of article deals with research on keeping cortisol levels low only . There are disadvantages and advantages to just about every type of exercise program you could do. Cortisol levels are just one thing to consider when selecting an exercise program. There are benefits to working out longer, such as increased calorie burn, that are perhaps more important than cortisol levels. Also, 45 minutes does not include warm-up and cool down so this really translates into a 1hour workout like we typically do.

    Keep in mind too that research in the fitness industry often swings in one direction only to be reversed by further studies. Also, you really have to do some very long cardio sessions that deplete your carbs before before rising cortisol levels become an issue. 45 minutes is just what some studies recommend as a safe zone for most people to prevent cortisol levels from rising during exercise. You can certainly train longer than 45 minutes without any significant cortisol level increases, but at some duration point there will be a time where cortisol levels rise.

  5. SNM/Cathe,

    Quick question for you. The article states lifting heavier weights is helpful—would STS be okay even though the workouts are upwards to an hr or a little longer? Or would you suggest total body training or another workout from your series?


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