“Cortisol belly” may be caused by stress

May 1, 2024, 3:00 PM

a person's belly is shown, cortisol belly is stress caused...

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced by our adrenal glands. It wakes us up in dangerous situations.(Canva)


SALT LAKE CITY — Not to stress you out, but that stubborn belly fat may be caused by . . . stress.

“We think of a beer belly where you have a protruding belly in the front,” explained Dr. Jake Veigel, lifestyle and sports physician with Intermountain Health.

Cortisol belly, which is visceral fat, is not quite the same thing. It’s fat in and around the intestines and guts. Another term for it is mesenteric fat,” Veigel said.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced by our adrenal glands. It wakes us up in dangerous situations.

Fight or flight

“We think of fight or flight,” Veigel explained. “They teach you in elementary school. If you’re walking in the woods and you see a bear, you feel your heart racing. How many of us have come across a bear in the wild? Not very many, but it’s like we have that intensity with our jobs and lifetstyle all the time. That feeling is not good for you. It’s a big part of a many-piece puzzle that can contribute to poor health.”

When we have a flight or fight response, it’s good to have that stress and be alert.

Related: Women on birth control and weight-loss meds are becoming pregnant

“It’s not good to have that stress going on all the time as if we’re having some stressful encounter 24/7,” Veigel said. “Our bodies are not shaped to deal with that.”

The doctor explained that an increase in visceral fat is also associated with poor cardiovascular outcomes and poor health in general.

“The important questions are – are you feeling stressed out a lot?” Veigel spelled out. “Are you having poor sleep? Are you not exercising well or you can’t exercise because you don’t have time? That will help get to the heart of the matter – people’s lifestyle.”

Rather than focus on the unwanted fat around the middle, Veigel said it’s important to ask what’s going on in your life. Is there a practice or something you can change that enables you to deal with stress more effectively?

Cortisol belly is hard to treat

“It’s hard to treat, too, because sometimes we work really hard and feel the stress, but we get paid a lot of money for it,” Veigel explained. “So it’s like – I have this lifetstyle. I can’t give it up. It gives us other rewards, but maybe it isn’t really great for our health.”

Related: Take a hike, it’s good for your health

There are medical conditions we should be aware of.

One is called Cushing’s Syndrome. With this disease, the body produces too much cortisol over a long period of time, but it’s not necessarily related to stress.

Why is belly fat so stubborn?

Everyone is a little different when they lose or gain weight, but belly fat is a tough one for many people.

“When we lose or gain weight, it goes in order,” Veigel explained. “You’ll see it in people that lose weight. They’ll lose it in the hands and feet first. The last bit of fat to leave is the fat in the middle of our bodies.”

Visceral fat can be in both men and women.

“The more external belly fat is more common in men,” Veigel said. “Where women tend to carry it more around the hips and thighs. Although, women can carry it in the front as well. If a woman is carrying it in the front, it’s more a sign of a cortisol issue.”

“Cortisol belly” is a stress-induced response.

Think of it this way:

“People are busy and stressed, so they don’t eat well,” Veigel laid out. “They don’t eat well because they’re busy and stressed. They don’t exercise because they’re busy and stressed. They don’t sleep well because they’re busy and stressed. All of these things add up to poor outcomes in health.”

Related: Here’s what you can do if stress is hurting your sleep

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“Cortisol belly” may be caused by stress