As one study explains, the stress hormone cortisol “is known to cause a redistribution of white adipose tissue to the abdominal region” and “increases appetite with a preference for energy-dense food.” After reviewing more than 100 studies on the subject, scientists concluded that elevated levels of cortisol “are strongly related to abdominal obesity” — as well as to specific mental disorders like depression and anxiety.
In other words, if you’ve been under a lot of pressure lately, that may not be a beer belly poking out beneath your summer tank top, but a “stress belly.”
Although “stress belly” isn’t a medical term per se, it’s commonly referred to in the wellness space when talking about the effects of cortisol, which is released along with adrenaline when our sympathetic nervous systems are activated in response to stress. Cortisol contributes to a bloated midsection in a number of ways. Internally, the stress hormone disrupts your gut bacteria, which can lead to constipation. But as mentioned earlier, it also causes people to gain weight and keep it on by increasing junk food cravings and making it harder to sleep (research similarly shows a strong link between insomnia and weight gain).
Likewise, visceral fat, which is thought to be caused by cortisol, contains more harmful cytokines than other types of fat and causes inflammation. As such, the more visceral fat a person has on their belly, the more at risk they are for health problems like asthma, cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer.
One of the clearest signs of a stress belly is that when you eat healthier and exercise, you seem to lose weight everywhere but the gut. If that’s the case, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor to get your cortisol levels checked. From there, you can explore options for coping with stress in addition to exercise.
Of course, cutting back on beer and other alcohol is also helpful when combating stress, but ultimately, you may be doing more damage to your body while at your desk than at the bar.