How Stress Causes Belly Fat

We know that belly fat is bad for our health. Did you know that stress could add to belly fat just like food can.

Belly fat has become the hot health topic. It is dangerous to our health and with all the news about the increasing overweight and obesity problem, belly fat is the first place to look.

Belly fat used to be called a beer belly, yet many people who have a beer belly never drink beer. So where does a beer belly come from. Is it just eating too much food or is it eating too much of the wrong foods, too little activity in our busy yet sedentary lives or could it be more than just food and activity.

Stress and Cortisol

Stress can cause our body to store belly fat. Fat is stored for later use when needed in stressful situations. But stress has changed in the last several thousand years, but our body’s need to store fat for stressful situations doesn’t know that. Fat being stored for use in stressful situations used to mean in situations like going into battle, fighting off dangerous animals and famine. Today a stressful situation is a boss who gets on your nerves, not making the project deadline and how to pay the bills. Most of our stress today is long-lived stress, not the fight or flight stress of ancient times. Today’s stress can go on and on and on.

Cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands and regulated by the pituitary gland, is the culprit in gaining fat. If you don’t have enough cortisol you could feel fatigued or even have chronic fatigue syndrome. If you get too much cortisol, you can gain belly fat and have a reduced immune system. Some of the jobs of cortisol are to maintain proper levels of glucose (blood sugar) and also to regulate the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and protein.

When you are in a stressful situation, your body produces cortisol. Cortisol breaks down fats and carbohydrates in the body for a quick supply of energy for your battle. Your body readies for the battle, lungs taking in oxygen, pupils dilating, your digestive system shuts down and your brain is thinking. What usually causes these stressful situations? You might get a bank statement that is completely wrong, saying you owe thousands of dollars in fees. Your are in a stressful situation, but your body’s production of cortisol doesn’t know it isn’t a wild animal attacking or an ancient battle about to start. And all you can do is dial customer service and be told to calm down; they are only there to help, when you know they can’t.

You have just been through a cortisol producing stressful fight or flight situation without any fight or flight, no wild animals and the only battle was with some stranger on the telephone. If you actually got the problem resolved you feel it was worth it. More times than not, nothing was solved and you were told someone would get back to you in week. That only prolongs the stressful situation for a week or longer. Robert M. Sapolsky, Ph.D., a professor of biological sciences and neuroscience at Stanford University states that “If stress and cortisol levels stay high, so will insulin levels”. And a constantly high level of insulin can lead to insulin resistance and cause the body to store fat.

The constant levels of stress and high cortisol leads to excess glucose production in the body which then causes the excess glucose to be converted to fat and then to be stored as fat, in the belly or abdomen.

After the battle, cortisol promotes appetite. When the stress passes; cortisol promotes hunger so we can regain strength after the stressful fight against a wild animal or in battle. Now you feel hungry, yet you didn’t really use any of the fats or calories battling the person on the phone. When the stress continues and is ongoing, the hunger continues to refuel us from battles we never fight.

Self-Induced Stress

If our daily life and society in general isn’t stressful enough, we cause much of our own stress. Many people will overreact to a situation and all of us probably overreact sometimes.

We induce more stress ourselves by drinking cups and cups of coffee every day. We get super sized cups of coffee and when that isn’t enough we get the caffeinated energy drinks. So we are in a constant state of self-induced cortisol producing stress with no fight on our hands. In fact we are sitting down for most of our stressful lives.

According to Shawn Talbott, author of The Cortisol Connection, 200 mg of caffeine, about 2 cups of coffee, will increase cortisol levels by 30% [1]. It is not just coffee; herbal stimulants like yohimbine, yerba mate and guarana also increase cortisol. Cortisol and stress also causes aging, so the next time you feel burnt out, it is stress and cortisol that causes that feeling, and you are aging more from the stress.

How to Beat the Stress

Try not to overreact and learn to stay calm in what are usually minor stressful situations. Think that some if not most stressful situations can be a learning experience. Meditation can be very helpful and it does work in prolonged calming. Cut back on drinking coffee, energy drinks or caffeine drinks. Exercise is one of the best ways to beat stress. Walking, jogging, running, exercise bikes or treadmills are great ways to work out and at the same time burn the belly fat.

© 2010 Sam Montana


[1] Talbot S, Kramer W. The Cortisol Connection. 1st ed. Berkeley, CA: Publishers Group West, 2002

Psychosomatic Medicine 67:734-739 (2005)

Project Aware: Corisol and Weight

Why Belly Fat is Dangerous to our Health


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