Cortisol Belly


The Role of Cortisol in the Body’s Stress Response

Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone,” plays a crucial role in the body’s response to stress. It’s a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands, located on top of each kidney. Cortisol is part of the body’s endocrine system and is involved in a wide range of vital processes, including metabolism, immune response, and the regulation of stress.

When regulating stress, cortisol mobilizes glucose reserves for immediate energy, enhances the brain’s use of glucose, and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. It also curtails functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation, including the digestive system, reproductive system, and growth processes.

What is Cortisol Belly?

Cortisol belly refers to the accumulation of excess fat around the midsection when it is caused by prolonged exposure to the hormone cortisol. When cortisol levels remain elevated for extended periods, often due to chronic stress, it can lead to several metabolic disturbances that contribute to increased abdominal fat.

Unfortunately, cortisol belly isn’t caused by harmless deposits of subcutaneous fat beneath the skin. Instead it creates deposits of visceral fat, which is the fat that surrounds your organs and can cause health problems. Equally unfortunate is the fact that cortisol belly doesn’t have a specific appearance, despite what countless infographics on the internet will tell you. Cortisol belly simply looks like abdominal fat, and there is no way to identify it by appearance.

More important than its appearance is what cortisol belly can do to your health. Visceral fat is considered particularly dangerous because of its location near vital organs and its metabolic activity. It secretes hormones that can disrupt the body’s normal hormonal balance, leading to increased risks of:

  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Certain types of cancer

How Cortisol Affects Your Metabolism

Cortisol plays a significant role in your metabolism, specifically affecting how your body deals with glucose. In the short term, cortisol makes more glucose available for energy to help your body with the fight or flight response, both of which require energy. When cortisol levels stay high for a prolonged period of time, however, it can lead to increased blood sugar levels. Over time, this can contribute to insulin resistance, where the body’s cells become less responsive to insulin. Insulin resistance often leads to weight gain, particularly around the abdomen.

Chronic stress and high cortisol levels can also lead to a decrease in muscle mass. Muscle tissue is metabolically active and helps maintain a higher resting metabolic rate. A reduction in muscle mass can slow down your metabolism, making it easier to gain weight and harder to lose it.

How Cortisol Affects Fat Storage

Research suggests that high cortisol levels promote visceral fat deposits, which means fat deposits around the internal organs in the abdominal area. We’ve already mentioned that excess cortisol can raise blood sugar levels. Unfortunately, the body tends to store excess glucose as fat.

Fat storage due to cortisol becomes part of a vicious cycle. Cortisol tells your body to metabolize fat quickly and increase the amount of glucose in your blood so that you have the energy to flee or fight in a dangerous situation. But when your stress level stays high, the extra glucose body becomes fat. As such your body is constantly trying to both generate and store excess glucose, which becomes fat.

Cortisol also slows your metabolism. Remember that cortisol slows body functions that aren’t crucial to your survival in a fight or flight situation. This includes slowing your metabolic processes. While meant as a temporary measure, constant exposure to high cortisol levels can slow your metabolism on an ongoing basis, leading to an increase in fat.

What Causes Cortisol Belly?

Cortisol belly is a result of two processes we’ve already discussed: increased glucose and insulin resistance along with a tendency to create excess visceral fat deposits. Cortisol is also known to influence appetite. People with elevated cortisol levels may experience increased hunger and cravings for high-calorie, high-fat, and high-sugar foods. Consuming these types of foods more frequently can contribute to weight gain, especially around the abdominal area.

So far we’ve discussed the general traits of cortisol, but here are some of the specific factors that cause increased and sustained cortisol levels, which can lead to cortisol belly.

Chronic Stress

Cortisol is meant to help your body deal with acute stress. This means stress that is sudden and temporary. This is where the fight or flight response kicks in. In man’s early days, this was a useful mechanism. If a man suddenly found himself face-to-face with a saber-toothed tiger, he needed to decide whether to fight it or run like the wind away from it, both of which required a sudden increase in energy.

Unfortunately, this stress mechanism never evolved. Your body responds the same way to an email from your boss as it would to the saber-toothed tiger. It just can’t distinguish between the two. So when the stress level in your life goes high and stays there, you may find yourself exposed to high levels of cortisol on an ongoing basis.

Certain Medications

Certain prescription medications are known to cause an increase in cortisol levels, especially corticosteroids. These include prednisone, prednisolone, methylprednisone, and dexamethasone. If you believe that a medication you are taking is causing you to develop cortisol belly, talk to your healthcare provider. They may be able to alter your dosage or give you another medication.

Certain Medical Conditions

Some medical conditions can raise your cortisol levels as well. These include Cushing’s syndrome, adrenal gland tumors, pituitary gland tumors, and congenital adrenal hyperplasia. Due to the wide range of medical conditions that may raise your cortisol level, it’s imperative that you seek medical advice if you suspect that your cortisol levels are elevated.

Prolonged Poor Sleep Habits

Poor sleep habits can significantly impact cortisol levels. Sleep and circadian rhythms play a crucial role in regulating cortisol production. The body’s normal cycle dictates a decrease in cortisol levels early in sleep, with levels gradually rising towards morning to promote wakefulness. Cortisol levels then gradually fall throughout the day. Disrupted sleep can interfere with this cycle, leading to sustained high levels of cortisol.

Signs and Symptoms of Cortisol Belly

Because you can’t diagnose a cortisol belly simply by looking at it, it’s helpful to know what other signs and symptoms you should be aware of.

Buildup of Abdominal Fat

Of course, the most common symptom of cortisol belly is a belly. If you’re experiencing an increase in belly fat, it could be cortisol belly. This new abdominal fat may develop quickly and will likely be difficult to get rid of, even if you change your diet and start exercising.


The relationship between cortisol levels and fatigue is complex and multifaceted. High cortisol levels can disrupt normal sleep patterns, leading to difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep. Poor sleep quality and sleep deprivation can, in turn, lead to significant fatigue during the day.

Elevated cortisol levels can also create a constant state of physiological arousal, making it hard for the body and mind to relax and recover. This can lead to a sense of being physically and mentally drained, despite having done no strenuous activity. High cortisol levels also tend to coincide with high blood sugar, sometimes causing energy spikes followed by crashes, contributing to feelings of fatigue.

If you have feelings of exhaustion that seem to be growing along with your belly, you could be experiencing cortisol belly.

Difficulty Sleeping

Because cortisol belly causes fatigue, it would seem that sleep should come easily. But excess cortisol often leads to insomnia because it alters the body’s normal sleeping and waking patterns. As mentioned above, sleep becomes difficult when cortisol levels remain high at night rather than decreasing as they normally do.

High Blood Pressure

Cortisol significantly influences cardiovascular functions, including blood pressure regulation. The hormone increases blood pressure during times of stress, thus ensuring that blood is efficiently distributed to essential organs, like the brain and muscles, during stress. During chronic stress and cortisol exposure, however, the blood pressure is raised and remains high.

Increase in Food Cravings

Among its other tricks, cortisol can influence the levels of hormones that regulate appetite. It can increase ghrelin, the hunger hormone, which stimulates appetite. Simultaneously, cortisol may decrease levels of leptin, the hormone that signals satiety or fullness to the brain, making it difficult to feel satisfied and leading to increased food intake.

This increased food intake rarely comes in the form of more fruits and vegetables. Instead, an increase in cortisol levels corresponds to an increase in cravings for foods that are high in sugar and fat. These comfort foods can temporarily reduce stress and create a sense of emotional relief. The body’s natural response to stress can thus lead to an increased intake of calories, contributing to weight gain.

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