Recently I attended some lectures on fat loss, and in every single lecture one particular form of fat and hormone was singled out — belly fat and the stress hormone cortisol.
The two are closely linked as cortisol feeds the fat and the body directs it to abdomen.
Why and how does this happen? Well, first a little back story on fat.
Abdomen fat, or visceral fat, is the most dangerous fat. It’s the fat that is deep within the body, surrounding our internal organs, and it’s this fat that will increase our chances of developing heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, sleep apnea, various forms of cancer and other degenerative diseases.
The main reason this fat gets packed on around our internal organs is because of the stress hormone cortisol, which is released from our adrenal glands and is part of our fight-or-flight response.
It helps mobilize the body and get it ready for action when danger presents itself.
Then, once we have faced the danger, cortisol levels return back to normal and the adrenal glands slow their production.
This is not the case for the 21st century though, is it? We are a population of heightened emotions and distressed and anxious persons.
Every day we are stressing a little bit more, getting upset and angry about the big things, and unfortunately the little things, and living in this perpetual cesspool of cortisol.
If the stress never leaves us then neither does the cortisol.
When this happens, the brain keeps telling the ol’ adrenal glands to keep on pumping more cortisol and we keep on stressing.
This is called a “cortisol cascade” and with this constant stream of cortisol the brain is left with no choice but to think the body is in constant trouble. So, the brain does what the brain is meant to do, protect the body.
How does it protect us?
By building a fortress around our most important bodily parts, our internal organs.
The fortress it uses: fat.
To add insult to injury, increased levels of cortisol also decrease our immune system and increase our food cravings, and not for broccoli and spinach. Cortisol craves fat and sugar, and lots of it.
This syndrome is even worse for menopausal women.
Estrogen, which women in the peri and menopausal years are producing less of, is a natural cortisol fighter. Take away that estrogen, and add that cortisol cascade, and you have a woman in her late 40s, early 50s who will have absolutely no control over the fat that is being distributed to their mid-section.
Before you start to cry (which is what I felt like doing mid-lecture when I was learning all of this), know there are steps to avoiding this cortisol/belly fat disaster.
First and foremost, control your stress.
Learn deep breathing techniques, take restorative yoga, walk every day (at a leisurely pace), enjoy time with friends and family, and don’t sweat the small stuff.
Second, sleep. Sleep deprivation is a first-class ticket to increased cortisol, fatness and stress.
The experts even went as far as to say that an extra hour of sleep would do people’s bodies more good than an extra hour on the treadmill.
Third, exercise less intensely if you are a peri and menopausal woman who is fit, but can’t seem to shake the belly fat. Yes, you read that right. Intense forms of exercise actually increase your cortisol levels.
So, if you are battling belly fat (sorry, those women out there who are in their 20s and 30s and women finished menopause, as well as all men, this does not apply to you), and have been working your butt off but are seeing no changes in your belly fat composition, research is pointing towards a moderate exercise intensity (60 to 70 per cent of your maximum heart rate) for burning fat without grossly increasing your cortisol levels.
PJ Wren is a personal trainer in the Delta area whose programs, both online and in-person, focus on losing the fat for good. www.gofitgals.com.