Struggling With Stubborn Belly Fat? Here's How You Fix That!

November 25, 2023
5 min read

Unshiftable weight around the centre of the body is one of the most common complaints I see in clinic and it has a relatively easy explanation. 

Many will refer to this issue as ‘The Cortisol Creep’ or ‘The Cortisol Spare Tyre’ and that is basically a big clue as to what your answer is. Chronically elevated cortisol levels will make you hold fat around your middle, and often the harder you try to get rid of it the more tightly it’ll hang on or even increase.  

Other signs of elevated cortisol will include:

  • Sweet and carbohydrate cravings
  • Salt cravings
  • Changes in appetite - either lack of hunger or sudden and frequent hunger
  • Energy fluctuations
  • Feeling tired on waking
  • Poor immune function
  • Brain fog
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Hormonal problems - menopause symptoms, PMS, heavy or painful periods, loss of menstrual cycles

If these concerns are starting to sound very much like you, we have a number of plans designed to holistically resolve such situations. All of these will address cortisol levels from a weight management perspective whilst also remedying the other concerns you are individually experiencing. 

Metabolic Enhance is your route if you’re struggling with cravings and energy issues, Anxiety, Sleep and Stress is going to support those with energy, mood and sleep concerns, General Immunity will bolster your immune system or Immune Rescue is there if you are really struggling with repeated illness. For those with hormonal symptoms alongside any of the above you would want to look at Menopause Support, Premenstrual Support or Detox Enhance.

Before we paint a picture that cortisol is all bad we need to clarify that the issues here all relate to natural cortisol function being overused or disturbed. We produce some cortisol every day and it very much contributes to the optimal functioning of our body. It helps to control energy levels, blood pressure, metabolism, immune response and will also be produced to enhance performance when exercising. 

It’s the fact that its influence is so critical for our health that makes any changes to its natural levels a problem. If we have higher amounts of cortisol circulating then this will start to override the impacts of all other hormones in our body. Making them work harder, have to be produced in higher amounts, and over time this is then where we see problems such as weight gain arise.

So what is actually happening in the body when cortisol is causing us to hold belly fat?

There are 4 key mechanisms to consider here.

  1. Its influence on fat storage and distribution. 
  2. Its stimulation of appetite.
  3. Its interaction with insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels.
  4. Its prevention of stored fat for use as fuel.

Fat storage and distribution

Cortisol increases the storage of fat in visceral adipose tissue, which is the fat that surrounds organs in the abdominal cavity. Unlike the subcutaneous fat that we find just beneath the skin, visceral fat is metabolically active and has been linked to various health issues, including insulin resistance, cardiovascular diseases and inflammation.

Appetite stimulation

More cortisol will usually make us hungrier, particularly for high-calorie and sugary foods. This is because in times of stress the body craves quick sources of energy that it doesn’t need to spend much time or energy on accessing. Many individuals will also find solace in comfort foods that are rich in carbohydrates and fats. The combination of increased caloric intake and cortisol-induced fat storage sets the stage for the accumulation of abdominal fat.

The insulin link

When cortisol is present in large amounts we need to produce roughly 3 times more insulin to have the same balancing effects on our blood sugar levels compared to if that cortisol was only present at its natural level. This ongoing raised insulin level creates a situation called insulin resistance, which is where the body's cells become less responsive to insulin. 

As a result a cycle develops where more and more insulin is then released to keep blood sugar levels in check whilst our cells become less good at understanding its messages. The way insulin keeps our blood sugar in normal range is to shuttle circulating levels into storage, so if this is happening more and more we see increased fat storage, particularly in the abdominal region.

Inaccessible stores

Because cortisol’s fundamental action is as part of our survival stress response raised levels will always tell our brain that there is risk present in some form. And our brain is just a control centre in a black box, it cannot discern between famine and increased work pressure or poor sleep as the cause of that signal. 

One of the key ways the brain has to protect itself is to make sure there is ample energy stored as fat for a rainy day, and so in addition to increasing fat storage, raised cortisol will also prevent us from using that fat for fuel if we have another option such as the food we continue to consume. This combination of factors creates a perfect storm for the development and persistence of belly fat, especially when stress becomes a constant component in someone’s life as is so often the case now. 

So what’s the answer?

Addressing the issue of raised cortisol and its impact on belly fat requires a 360 degree approach as you’ve got numerous factors coming into play here. Dietary changes and regular but appropriate exercise play a crucial role, stress management strategies are equally important and re-sensitising your cells to the action of insulin is also critical. This is why within all of our plans you will see our Tips To Boost Results that cover all of these avenues alongside the therapeutic supplement dosages so you get an effective, long term solution. 

Phoebe Liebling

Nutritional Therapist BSc (Hons) DipNT

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