The Ugly Truth Behind Stress and Cortisol Belly

The Ugly Truth Behind Stress and Cortisol Belly

Cortisol and Weight Gain

Everyone these days seems to have heard about stress causing increased cortisol and cortisol causing “body fat”.  We all just seem to accept that stress is inevitable, unavoidable, and a just part of life.  No one really knows what to do about stress, so they just don’t tackle the resulting consequence of excess cortisol that is released to balance out the stress. 


So what is cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone that the adrenal gland (little gland that sits on top of the kidneys) secretes in response to stress.

It is classified as a glucocorticoid, which is a hormone that increases your blood sugar. When faced with a highly stressful or even life-threatening situation, the body produces cortisol, which then readies the system to respond with a fight or flight response depending on the nature of the threat.

Types of stress can vary, however, and not all stressful situations require increased sugar for energy to FIGHT or FLIGHT. Physical, emotional, or mental stress, or even stress on the body caused by intensive exercise or an extremely low calorie diet (yes this is the reason you can’t starver yourself) can all trigger the release of cortisol.

We all experience stress from crazy bosses at work to un-fulfilled home lives and financial burdens and constant triggers for cortisol firing.  This constant anxiety level  never lets the body get a chance to really achieve balance with a relaxation response after the stressful event has passed, because another stressful event comes immediately afterward.

How Is Cortisol Related to Weight Gain?

It’s not what you think!  Cortisol and the stress response can actually make some people lose weight Cortisol can fire up the body to burn fat in an effort to make extra energy available for Fighting or Flighting.  So, it’s not the actual cortisol but there are two things that cause the weight gain

  1. Long term uncontrolled UNBALANCED cortisol levels
  1. Suppression of other hormones

This imbalance can eventually lead to elevated blood pressure, decreased immune response, blood sugar imbalance, and increased belly fat.

Some people react to stress and increased cortisol by eating more, and by eating food higher in carbohydrates. This does lead to weight gain, but cortisol itself is not the cause. Also, studies that showed that elevated cortisol levels are related to higher levels of abdominal fat did not provide any evidence to support the idea that suppressing cortisol would help the body get rid of that fat.

The connection, then, between stress, cortisol and body fat is that stress releases cortisol, which can cause some individuals to overeat in response to that stress. The way to break the chain, then, is not to suppress cortisol production, but to reduce the constant stress that keeps cortisol levels high in the first place.

Short-circuiting the stress reaction can be as simple as taking time out every day to relax. Letting the body move into a fully relaxed state through meditation, yoga, journaling or other techniques will reduce stress, reduce cortisol production and, in the long term, eliminate stress-related eating and the vicious circle that leads to weight gain.

Over time the adrenal glands get tired just like any other organ or system, become resistant and slow down or experience what we call “Adrenal Fatigue”.   Eventually this can lead to a fall in natural cortisol levels and result in the inability for the system to fight or flight or do much of anything else.

Signs of this adrenal fatigue or exhaustion, as a result in low cortisol response can be:

  • Suppression of the immune system
  • Muscle and bone loss
  • Moodiness or depression
  • Skin problems
  • Hair loss
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Insulin resistance
  • Thyroid imbalance
  • Weight gain
  • Insomnia
  • Aches and pains from inflammation
  • Lower sex drive

You can have a blood test that evaluates markers of stress, including cortisol and DHEA levels. Adrenal exhaustion therefore can be early with cortisol levels too high, just like insulin resistance starts out with high insulin and then crashes to absent levels leading to diabetes to levels that are too low.  It occurs when the adrenal glands are putting out the wrong levels of stress hormones, either too low or too high, in relation to the amount that’s needed. This mismatch often results in troubling symptoms.

If you’re like many women, you probably can’t imagine how it’s even possible for you to reduce stress and the negative effects it has on your body.  

Part of the problem is that like I said before, we STAY stressed out.  We focus on fear and negative emotions.  We allow ourselves to get stuck and stay in a cycle of terror and attract more negative emotion. Every challenge to the mind and body makes demands on the adrenal glands.  When the system is out of balance this can lead to more stress.  A vicious cycle of stress because of stress.  This can be started by lack of sleep, work stress, personality conflicts, yo-yo dieting and starvation, relationship turmoil, reliance on stimulants like caffeine and carbohydrates, not eating right, stressful or strenuous exercise, illness, and just being overwhelmed.

In its normal function, cortisol helps us meet these challenges by converting fats and proteins into energy, keeping us alert, balancing electrolytes, calibrating heart beat and pressure, and counteracting inflammation. In the short run, that’s great, protective and restorative.

However, problems can develop as today’s relentlessly busy lifestyle forces your adrenal glands to be on constant “high alert” resulting in sustained high levels of cortisol.  

When your adrenals are required to constantly respond to stress, they eventually have to struggle to produce cortisol, as well as other key hormones such as DHEA and the sex hormones estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. This difficulty in producing hormones becomes especially critical as a woman enters peri-menopause and menopause and needs the full support of her adrenals to prevent extreme sex hormone fluctuations.

Many women present with contrasting or conflicting complaints, “Feeling wired but tired” is a common complaint.  Can’t sleep but feel sleepy all the time.

Adrenal imbalance results in many dysfunctions that we label as other diagnoses very often including fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, arthritis, and more.

Patients with mild to moderate adrenal imbalance can have several options that can help them feel significantly better while keeping symptoms from becoming more severe.

Stress reduction is the key and what, when and how you eat are important too!

Cortisol naturally surges three times during the day.  First thing in the morning, later afternoon and mid evening. When you eat your meals is just as important as what you eat to rebalance your adrenal glands.



The goal is to achieve more stable energy levels throughout the day, which you can accomplish by eating three balanced meals with two snacks. What you eat does make a difference too! Try to reduce refined carbohydrates such as sugar, flour, potatoes, and white rice which cause stressful ups and downs in your blood sugar that can lead to adrenal imbalance.

There are many adrenal support vitamins such as the B-vitamins that help the adrenals function better.  High-quality vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids help support a healthy metabolism and hormonal balance, which contribute to adrenal health. Specific herbal supplements, such as astragalus root and Siberian ginseng, are effective at reducing the negative side effects of stress

We can’t always reduce stress, but we can take steps to reduce its effects on our lives. Take time to understand where your stress is coming from, and then think about how you’ll make changes that are right for you and your lifestyle. It’s helpful to make a list of stressors that interfere with your wellbeing, especially those that are ongoing or self-imposed. Never underestimate the power of perceived stress, guilt, lingering pain from past hurts, self-destructive habits, unresolved relationship problems — your past and present emotional experience may be functioning as an ever-present stressor in your life. Dealing directly with these problems will be far more beneficial to your health than spending a lifetime compensating for the stress they create.  Have all your hormone levels checked and see what imbalances may be causing your cortisol imbalance.

Understanding cortisol is vital to the journey to feeling better and achieving balance!


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