Today I have a little science lesson for you about what I call the “belly fat” hormone: cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that’s produced in the adrenal glands. It’s a normal, natural hormone your body releases when you wake up in the morning, exercise, as well as when you’re under stress.
When you’re faced with something that causes stress (say, you see a bear), your adrenals release cortisol to prepare for the fight-or-flight response (in a beautiful dance with epinephrine). This floods your system with glucose (blood sugar), so your muscles have enough energy to deal with the stress. It also slows insulin, so the glucose can be used immediately. Your heart rate increases until you escape the stressor. (Bye bear!) And then your body and hormone levels return to normal as you breathe a deep sigh of relief.
Unfortunately, in today’s day and age, our stressors are less likely to be short-lived stressors we can quickly get away from (or eaten by, in the case of a grizzly). Rather, we’re more likely to face chronic stress like working long hours, unrealistic deadlines, or social conflicts. Which can keep cortisol elevated and constantly, well, stressing our bodies.
And unfortunately, chronically high cortisol levels have been linked to increased levels of abdominal fat!
So it makes sense if you want to burn more belly fat, you may also want to reduce cortisol as well as the stress that leads to increased levels.
3 Ways to Lower Cortisol Levels
1) Work less. Working too much by itself has been shown to increase cortisol levels. And new research shows that if you work more than 48 hours per week, you’re also more likely to consume excess alcohol. Alcohol consumption, it turns out, also increases cortisol, and together, they both increase belly fat. If you’re looking to shrink your belly, trimming back your working hours while choosing calorie-burning exercise for stress relief (in lieu of alcohol) can work wonders for your waistline.
2) Don’t consume caffeine after 6:00 p.m. Caffeine can be a double whammy on cortisol levels, especially if consumed at night when it’s likely to negatively affect the quality of your sleep. Getting quality, uninterrupted sleep each night is critical to reducing cortisol, so you’ll want to avoid caffeine in the evening hours.
3) Take time to “unplug.” A recent Canadian study showed that those who were constantly “plugged in” to technology (e.g., TV, smart phones, computers) throughout the day were significantly more stressed than those who took time to “unplug” during designated time blocks each day. More stress means more belly fat, so if you want a trim belly, start planning some device-free time each day. Better yet, spend some of that time outside exercising for an even bigger benefit.
There you have it. Three easy ways to help reduce stress and elevated cortisol levels in your body for a flatter belly!