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Cortisol, yo-yo diets and belly fat

Updated on March 11, 2010

Understanding the hormone cortisol

For your body to get the best out of dieting and exercise when trying to lose weight it is advisable for you to try and understand the role of the natural hormone cortisol.

Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands. This hormone is a glucocorticoid and is partly responsible for increasing blood glucose levels. The reason for the production of the hormone cortisol is stress.

Cortisol is a stress hormone and when you become stressed either physically, mentally or emotionally your body reacts in a way that makes your body want to produce more of this hormone. It is preparing your body for the well known “ Fight or flight reaction”

Now many of these stress situations are situations that we are not always aware of. Lets say that you are on an extremely strict diet where the calorie intake is very low and you have cut out well needed proteins, carbohydrates and even in some cases fats. Your body will be stressed. It is searching for what it needs and it just can’t find it. You will recognise the feeling, hungry, shaking and moody, but your diet and losing weight means more to you so you put up with this.

The resulting starvation causes huge amounts of stress and cortisol is produced  for a reason it will be there to try and aid the problem.

Lets look at another thing, lets say you are hungry when you go to bed.

You dream of cupcakes and cookies, you can taste the big tasty beefburger……………….yep! Your body is going into stress and even though you are sleeping you are stressing.  Your body reads this as a stress situation and releases Cortisol .

If that is not bad enough the lack of good sleep puts your body into an extra state of stress in it’s own right and even more cortisol will be produced. Now all of this is taking a toll on your personality and the arguments with the spouse or parents begin and guess what this also causes stress. Yes you have guessed it ! Cortisol to the rescue.

By this time you are so exhausted that you are becoming confused and the lack of blood sugar is making you feel really miserable. What happens? You break your diet, you eat everything in sight and the blood sugar is raised in a frantic fury. Now the blood sugar is too high and what happens? You guessed right again your body has to deal with the stress.

Belly fat and cortisol are they related?

Scientific evidence has shown that there is a link to high cortisol levels and abdominal obesity. Cortisol is connected to the bodies ability to store fat. The logic is that this fat will be readily available for energy when you are stressed for whatever reason. Belly fat which is also known as visceral fat /intra abdominal fat. If the belly becomes too big the fat is also distributed around near lying internal organs. Although this is the easiest fat for the body to use the continual stress will also demand that more fat is stored in the belly area for quick access. This gives you that ever continual circle of not losing the fat completely in this area. Most dieters heartache wouldn’t you say? Unfortunately, it is now known that belly fat is associated with risk of diabetes and other illnesses like heart disease. Although by this time I may have convinced you that cortisol is what makes you fat, but sorry, it is not the reason. Cortisol does actually have the job of breaking down stored fatty tissue into glycerol and fatty acids so that it can enter the bloodstream for use as energy in your fight or flight reaction. However, it does have the added job of contributing to the storage of abdominal fat for easy access when needed. So therefore the more you stress the more likely you are to have this extra storage around your middle.

Now this all sounds stupid most people you know who stress are thin!

Yes, this is true a natural born stressor is thin, this person is often so anxious that they forget to eat. Now I apologise in advance if that insults anyone that is not my intention.

What I want you to understand is that if you are continually putting yourself on yo-yo diets then you are putting your body into unnecessary stress.

My point is that if you are used to over eating then this stress will very often lead you to eating more and the storage will go to the abdominal sites for storage. My point is that the yo-yo dieter is more likey to end up with central fat storage which we know is a huge problem for many.

Therefore if stress stimulates your appetite and leads to overeating this can be the reason for you gaining more fat after your diet has ended.

Hormones are a natural part of functioning.

Cortisol should not be misunderstood, it is not bad for you it is there for a reason.

This hormone is actually essential for our well being. Hormones produced in the proper amount keep us healthy and functioning. Most of us know that an unbalance will cause different types of problems. What about the old joke “ It’s the time of the month, her hormones are all upside down” This is so true and can also be applied to the production of other hormones. Too much is just as bad as too little.

What I am trying to say here, is that we too are responsible sometimes and we can actually contribute to the production of too much cortisol, basically by unnecessary stress.

Therefore, think twice before you send your body into starvation mode the next time you diet.

There are some diseases which are caused by malfunction of cortisol. For example Cushings syndrome or Addisons disease. These diseases are not brought on by dieting, sometimes we just do not have that ability to control our destiny. In this hub we are just trying to point out that we need to be aware of the effects we can inflict on ourselves.

Constant high cortisol levels

Is this bad for you?

With continual high cortisol levels you will more than likely experience some negative effects.

Cortisol in chronic mode in the blood has also been connected to reduction in insulin sensitivity which then also registers as insulin resistance.

Other problems associated with too much cortisol over time to name a few are,   kidney malfunction, suppressed immune systems making you more susceptible to colds and flu’s.

Too much stress has also been seen to reduce muscle strength in athletes leaving them tired and over trained with worse performance.

Well, my intention here was not to lead into stress and associated illnesses so I will stop here and hope that this gives you a little thought on why belly fat and yo-yo dieting go hand in hand.

The main thing I want to point out is that quite often we get over weight because we simply eat too much. It takes weeks to gain significant amounts of weight and therefore we really should expect the weight loss to take just as long. By doing things slowly you will regain your shape, you will become happier and you will remain healthy.

You will also have a better chance at losing the inches around the middle and they will stay away if you see this as a lifestyle change and not just a quick fix.

Training and cortisol

If you are training quite hard and your body needs to have some energy afterwards it is important to top up within half an hour of the coompleted training session.

It is said that both carbohydrates and lean proteins have a suppressing effect on the release of cortisol.

So called high glycemic index carbohydrates are also good as they cause insulin release and they help to restore muscle glycogen. These in addition also help to reduce the high levels of cortisol released during intensive training.

How do you lower cortisol levels?

You should avoid diets that are too low in calories and carbohydrates.

You should try to stress less, avoid anger and take time out for yourself.

Although exercise is very good for you over training is not get advice from a personal trainer.

You should be aware of your sleep pattern and get enough good relaxing deep sleep.

You should avoid all stimulants that you know make you quicken up!

Above all you should make sure that you are properly hydrated. When the blood is thick it does not carry nutrients around as quickly as it should. Water to life is essential.

Losing weight is big business for many but if you keep it your business you will do well.

Good luck with any diet you choose to follow.


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    • Aisla profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Norway

      Thank you

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Thank U 4 the information very in formative answers a lot of my ????

    • Aisla profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Norway

      Thank you for taking the time to tell me this it gives me great inspiration.

    • Flint54 profile image


      8 years ago

      A great article, so informative and interesting points to take care of. I've learned quite a bit just by reading this one.

    • joecseko profile image

      Joe Cseko jr 

      10 years ago from New York, USA, Earth

      This is the second article of yours that I'm reading tonight. I appreciate the fact that you speak of many subjects that others do, but you supply good facts, not just hearsay. Very well done...


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