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What is Cortisol Belly + How Do You Get Rid Of It?

Let’s face it, a lot of us struggle with weight. According to data, nearly 30 percent of adults in the United States are overweight, with about 10 percent of the population having severe obesity.

It’s no wonder that the weight loss industry is predicted to cross $90 billion dollars in 2024.

That being said, weight gain is complicated.

Extra weight (particularly around the midsection) may not just result from eating too much. Stress could be to blame, as high cortisol levels can cause you to pack on pounds regardless of your diet or how much you’re exercising.

If you’ve been trying to lose weight with no success, the problem could be “cortisol belly.” Let’s break down what this condition is, what causes it, and what you can do about it.

Close up of a soft, large belly due to increased cortisol levels
Understanding cortisol belly

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is your body’s “stress hormone.” While it’s an essential part of many bodily functions, it’s often triggered by stress to help you regulate your emotions and responses.

For example, cortisol may slow down non-essential functions so your brain and body can focus on a “fight or flight” response. The hormone also releases glucose to stimulate brain activity so you can adapt more quickly to the situation. 

Biologically speaking, cortisol is designed to help you respond to immediate dangers and threats, such as animal attacks or fights. But in the modern world, stress can come from multiple sources, such as work, family, finances, and more.

And even though these situations aren’t typically life or death, as is the case with running from a lion, biologically, our body can treat them that way.

This can lead to chronic stress, meaning your cortisol levels are always elevated. 

Other systems that cortisol helps regulate include blood pressure, blood sugar levels, inflammation, and how your body processes carbs, fats, and proteins.

These side effects are designed to help you recover from a stressful event faster but can also yield unwanted results, like stubborn belly fat.

What is Cortisol Belly?

Because cortisol helps regulate your body’s metabolism, having too much of it in your bloodstream can trigger weight gain and make it harder to lose weight once it has settled.

Several studies have shown a strong correlation between having excess abdominal fat and high cortisol levels. Typically, people with bigger stomachs produce more cortisol during stressful situations, or they may have elevated cortisol levels compared to those without extra fat. 

But how can you be sure that you have a cortisol belly and not something else?

Other signs of this condition include excess fat tissue between the shoulder blades, purple stretch marks (particularly around the stomach), severe fatigue, muscle weakness, and chronic high blood pressure or blood sugar levels. 

But the way to be most certain is to visit your doctor and get your cortisol levels checked.

Main Causes of Cortisol Belly

If you’re worried you might be struggling with cortisol belly, it’s worth reviewing your risk factors. Some of the most common triggers for cortisol belly include: 

  • Chronic Stress – Modern life is full of stressors, including conflicts with loved ones, pressure from work, and adverse financial situations. If you’re constantly worried about things in your life, you’re likely pumping more cortisol into your bloodstream. 
  • Poor Sleep – Stress isn’t just about mental pressure and fatigue. Physical stress can lead to higher cortisol production, and one of the most significant ways to add stress to your body is a lack of sleep. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 32 percent of Americans reported getting “excellent” sleep regularly. 
  • Unhealthy Diet – There are two ways your diet can increase cortisol levels. First, if you restrict calories (i.e., going on a strict diet), that can trigger a “fight or flight” response in your body. Second, studies have shown that diets high in sugar and complex carbs can lead to higher cortisol levels. 
  • Lack of Exercise – Exercise is crucially important because it helps regulate many bodily functions. It forces blood to pump through your body, allowing your organs to use it more effectively. Lack of exercise means elements like cortisol or fat sit in your bloodstream for longer, creating chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, and more. 

How to Get Rid of Cortisol Belly

Because cortisol is the main contributor to stubborn belly fat, you should focus on reducing your overall cortisol levels.

Fortunately, even if you have a stress-filled life, you can take action today to help yourself feel better tomorrow. Here are our top tips: 

1. Exercise More

Regular exercise offers a wide range of benefits and can help regulate many chronic conditions, such as fatigue, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and cortisol levels.

If you’re not exercising at all, you should start by incorporating at least a little bit every day. Even a 20-minute walk can yield noticeable results. 

Overall, the more you exercise, the better regulated your body becomes. Try to increase your heart rate regularly so more blood pumps through the system. 

2. Reduce Caffeine

The modern world practically runs on caffeine, as most adults drink coffee, tea, or energy drinks daily. Unfortunately, caffeine can trigger cortisol production because it stimulates adrenaline production and can add stress to the mind and body. So, if you’re drinking multiple cups of coffee every day, start cutting back and see how you feel. 

3. Eat Healthier Foods

While exercise can be fantastic for regulating your bodily systems, it also matters what you’re putting into your body.

Processed foods with high fat and sugar content can yield more cortisol. Even worse, they can exacerbate other chronic issues like blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. 

While you don’t have to overhaul your diet, start making small, smart choices about what you eat, like incorporating more fresh fruits and vegetables into your routine. 

4. Find Ways to De-Stress

Easier said than done, I know, but it’s important.

Because cortisol is mostly caused by emotional and mental stress, you should start working on a plan to reduce stress in your life. While you may not be able to quit your job or anything, you can find ways to relax and unwind, such as: 

  • Take up a hobby
  • Practice mindfulness meditation
  • Work with a counselor to unpack root causes and get personalized strategies for dealing with them
  • Start developing healthy coping strategies for stress and anger
  • Go for a rage walk when you’re feeling overwhelmed

This is a simplified list, but if you want to dive deeper and see what this looks like in practice, I recommend watching the following video:

Cortisol belly is not something you have to live with forever. You can take charge of your health and reduce your overall cortisol levels.

While it may seem impossible at first, start with small changes and be consistent.

Also, if you slip back into old habits, you can always try again. There are no limits to how many “do-overs” you get in life, and it’s never too late to improve your health. 

Best of all, as you reduce stress, you may notice other improvements in your life, such as a better sense of self, more energy, and a positive outlook on the future. 

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