If you are struggling with stubborn belly fat, this article is for you. You’ll learn a new approach to getting rid of belly fat that has nothing to do with restricting food or exercising more. What I will share has everything to do with relaxation and self-nourishment. We’re talking about the link between belly fat and cortisol, our stress hormone. So take a deep breath, let’s begin.
The Link Between Belly Fat and Cortisol
Chronic stress means consistently high cortisol levels. A 2018 review study found that higher, long-term cortisol levels are strongly associated with abdominal obesity. Beyond belly fat, chronic stress can also lead to belly issues like poor digestion, IBS, constipation, skin issues, bloating, adrenal fatigue, and more.
Belly Fat Types
We can have two types of fats around our abdomen area.
1 – Subcutaneous Fat: this is the fat under the skin and above the muscles, which you can pinch.
2 – Visceral Fat: this is the deeper fat in the abdomen near the organs under the muscle—sometimes referred to as “beer belly” or “pot belly.”
Our visceral fat cells are susceptible to cortisol and estrogen, and are also impacted by signals of danger or safety.
Visceral fat cells can expand to up to 10x their size to store fuel when the body is under stress.This means that when stress is high, cortisol levels are high, and fat cells grow and expand!
I want you to take a new approach and understanding of belly fat. Love on it! Instead of stressing about it (which will just make it worse) and hating your body for it, love it. Thank it for protecting and fueling you! It’s safety for the body.
So what’s the deal with cortisol?
Well, high cortisol levels tell our body that we are unsafe and often that we are hungry! Our satiety hormone, leptin, is easily manipulated by cortisol. When we are under stress, it’s very common to be hungrier, making it harder to lose that stubborn belly fat.
Even more, when women are under stress, it’s easy to become estrogen dominant, halting proper detoxification and progesterone production. This leads to dysbiosis in the gut and liver, leading to worse stress and higher abdominal fat. Stress also depletes DHEA and growth hormone. DHEA is a precursor to sex hormones, so when levels are depleted there can be a lot of hormonal imbalance. Talk about major hormonal imbalances!
And probably one of the most important points is that the fat cells in our belly have 4x the number of cortisol receptors than any other area of the body. Yup, it’s that serious. (I did a whole podcast episode on that here).
What causes an increase in visceral belly fat in women?
- NUMBER 1: Chronically elevated cortisol levels and stress (which is at the root of all of the following)
- Estrogen dominance
- Consistent poor sleep
- Excessive exercise
- Exposure to estrogen-mimicking compounds
- Heavy alcohol consumption/smoking
- Heavy consumption of processed sugars and flour
The key here is to regulate the nervous system and come up with stress management plans to properly nourish the body and have a better stress response.
10 Ways to Reduce Belly Fat by Balancing the Stress Response
1 – Eat Enough
Whether you’re skipping breakfast, lunch, or dinner—or refusing to have a snack when your body is asking—under eating is a major cause of stress throughout the day. Creating balanced hormone levels requires a ton of minerals and nutrients. When you don’t give your body the fuel it requires, blood sugar levels and hormone production gets thrown out of whack. The body thinks it is being starved and holds onto fat for energy later on.
2 – Eat Balanced Meals
A balanced meal consists of high-quality protein, healthy fat, complex carbohydrates, and fiber. When your plate contains all of these, you’ll keep blood sugar levels and hormone production stable. I can’t stress enough how important it is to eat balanced meals to help keep cortisol production and blood sugar spikes down for less belly fat.
3 – Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Research shows that people ages 18 to 65 who get less than 6 hours or more than 9 hours of sleep develop more visceral fat. It is so important to get good quality sleep, too—not just quantity. Getting good sleep hygiene requires a solid nighttime routine that you can be consistent with. I always recommend to my clients to get in bed by 9 or 10 (This is crucial because our body naturally gets a second wind or cortisol spike around 11, making it harder to get to sleep past then! ) and wind down from there with a massage, candle lit meditation, or light stretching. Another personal favorite is taking a warm bath with lavender essential oil. All of these things will help calm the monkey mind and relax the body for a solid night’s sleep. Check out these podcast episodes to learn more about getting a good night’s sleep. They will be a complete game changer for losing belly fat.
- 5 Signs of a Good Sleep
- What to Do if You Can’t Sleep
- Why Am I Still Tired After a Full Night’s Sleep
- 6 Stimulants Robbing You of Your Energy & Sleep
4 – Check your exercise habits
Daily exercise can help to reduce visceral fat, but thanks to its mood-boosting effects. If you think that doing HIIT exercises that you hate everyday for an hour or two will help you lose belly fat, listen up! It won’t, especially because you hate it.
We need to focus on exercise as medicine for our mental health more than our physical health. The mental health benefits will ripple off physically.
Try to exercise for 30 minutes a day. This can be as simple as a neighborhood walk or doing weights in your bedroom. I love to go for bike rides with my family and the occasional gentle hike! It doesn’t need to be complicated or stress you out. Remember: chronic stress is the reason for stubborn belly fat!
5 – Eat Breakfast
Skipping breakfast, or just having black coffee in the morning, spikes cortisol and blood sugar levels—making them unstable for the rest of the day. Eating breakfast first thing in the morning will help stabilize blood sugar and cortisol levels, amping up metabolism for better use of energy.
6 – Hydrate!
Our entire body requires water to function! When we are dehydrated, everything is sluggish, and our nervous system is put in fight or flight mode. Properly mineralized water can help flush the body with necessary minerals for proper cortisol production and other hormones. Because it is getting harder and harder to find pure, good-quality water, I recommend our Hydration Superfood powder, that is packed with B vitamins, electrolytes, and antioxidants to reduce oxidative stress and promote health hormones. Plus, drinking water will help tamp down cravings.
7 – Deep Breathing
Deep breathing practices can help ground and calm the nervous system, reducing stress and high cortisol production. I recommend ratio breathing to clients, which means inhale for a count of 5 and exhale for a count of 5. Repeat for 3-5 minutes. You’ll be amazed at how wonderful you feel after. You don’t need to do 5 seconds, it can be 4 or even 8 or 10. Pick a number that works for you and pay attention to where the breath goes in the body, and on the exhale release what is no longer serving you.
8 – Time in Nature
Research shows that spending time in nature reduces anxiety and stress, both things that wreak havoc on digestion and belly fat content. This is your sign to get outside ASAP and take in nature. Breath deeply, walk long and barefoot, and look at far away spaces. We spend most of our days now only looking right in front of us at a computer screen. Looking at further distances is amazing for stress and outlook.
9 – Journaling
Research has demonstrated that daily journaling has a positive effect on mental wellness and coping and management skills. Instead of keeping all of your stress inside, try putting it all out on paper. You may find that soon you will be energetically and physically lighter.
10 – Eliminate Conventional Cosmetics and Reduce Conventional Foods
As we talked about, endocrine disrupting chemicals are major contributors to estrogen dominance and high cortisol levels that lead to higher levels of visceral fat. Eliminating conventional cosmetics and reducing conventional foods is the low-hanging fruit in improving belly fat content. In fact, you may be surprised at how quickly you see results after replacing these with organic and safe products. Check out these articles for more information:
- The Truth About Xenoestrogens and Estrogen Dominance
- Do I Have High Estrogen? Here’s Why & How to Fix It
I hope this article has helped you understand the link between belly fat and cortisol. Remember to be kind with yourself in this journey of healing. The key here is to come up with stress management practices that work for you. What practice are you most excited to implement? Let me know in the comments below. Follow me on instagram for daily hormonal balance tips!