Is Stress Making You Fat? The Cortisol / Belly Fat Connection

Happy March! Spring is around the corner and so are tank tops and short shorts (for the guys…let’s hope not so short shorts). For those who have accepted the challenge of resisting soda and your diet vice for ten days, congratulations! (Please see last week’s post: The comments and conversations that followed my February 22nd post were both informative and entertaining, but what I enjoyed most was your honesty.

We all have vices, whether we acknowledge them or not. Lisa’s comment about wine being a “gateway drug” that leads her to make other poor diet choices is very poignant and I’m guessing relatable to many of us. Bobby’s suggestion to break habits with small successes is spot on. We must hold attainable goals. So, simply put, the “less everyday” approach, rather than the “cold turkey” approach keeps you trending in the right direction and builds your confidence and energy, which eventually translates into activity and the production of endorphins—the feel-good chemicals released in your brain to bring you a sense of well-being.

If you are just beginning your 10-day challenge to cut out your unhealthy “go to” diet vice, welcome! In the same way that 60 seconds doesn’t sound like a long time (unless you are holding an abdominal bridge on a Swiss ball), 10 days may not sound like a long time (unless, of course, you are passing each day without your chocolate, bread, wine, embellished coffee treat, fast food or soda). Don’t fool yourself into believing that this task comes without dedication and strength. You may have already accidentally exercised selective memory for a moment and “forgotten” your choice to cut out all candy and chocolate as you unconsciously snatched a Hershey’s kiss from the reception desk at your hair salon. Whoops! Or, you may have nibbled on the pastry or sipped the Diet Coke that mocked you on the conference room table as you trudged through your Monday department meeting.

Breathe…you have not failed. Acknowledge your moment of weakness, and then walk away from it with a renewed sense of purpose and finish your 10 days. Be happy. This challenge allows you to make a conscious positive choice to take control.

Any stressful day, situation, or moment will threaten your resolve. Unfortunately, along with stress comes the body’s production of the hormone cortisol from the adrenal glands. This is a necessary part of our response mechanism, in that cortisol production activates our ‘fight or flight’ instinct. Small increases of cortisol have some positive effects, including a quick burst of energy for survival, heightened memory function, and lower sensitivity to pain. However, in our current high-stress culture, the body’s stress response is activated so often that we neglect any opportunity to stabilize, resulting in a physical state of chronic stress. Higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream may produce the following negative effects:

  • Suppressed thyroid function
  • Blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia
  • Decreased bone density
  • Decreased muscle tissue
  • Increased abdominal fat which is associated with serious health issues like heart disease, stroke, the development of metabolic syndrome, higher levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and lower levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL)

Just last week my son managed to stumble off his school’s field with a concussion after playing with a barrel of monkeys (aka 11-year-old-boys). Just as I glanced toward the hardened earth to wave my guy out of the pack for his tennis lesson, he lost consciousness under a dog pile of at least eight boys. He came to in a cloud of confusion and nausea and perspiration. My heart beating and my adrenaline at full throttle, we spent the afternoon between our pediatrician’s office and Rady’s Children’s Hospital in San Diego where a CT scan was ordered. My 4:15 p.m. cardio/sculpt class was now at the mercy of the closest available instructor to La Jolla Sports Club. I’m fine with not teaching my class (and therefore not getting my workout…uhg!), but now that I’ve literally hugged the technician who reported the scan clean of swelling or hemorrhaging, I can focus on loudly “going Italian” (as the hubby calls it) on my son for playing full contact tackle football with the monkeys. My cortisol is clearly in the red, my workout is shot, and I need to let off steam before I pass the monkey off to the hubby at the hospital so I can speed across town to scoop up my daughter from dance class and shuffle up the 5 freeway to the mandatory parent/cast meeting at her theatre company…in North County…at 5:30…with every other north-traveling motorist.

As our meeting ends at 8:00 p.m., I receive a text from the hubby that the monkey is feeling better and is in need of a Baskin Robbins sundae. In the car I realize I haven’t eaten since noon. I stop by Baskin Robbins and pick up all the necessary treats, but manage to eat most of the hubby’s double scoop of World Class Chocolate…in the car…for dinner. Elevated cortisol pumping through my body, and I brilliantly add sugar and fat!

We all have moments when we are at the mercy of chaos. Our schedule and our plans for good nutrition disappear with a bump of the head or the forgotten homework on the kitchen table or the computer crashing just as the final document is due to the client. Again, breathe. It’s important that the relaxation response is activated so your body’s normal functions return.

Ardha Kurmasana - Half Tortoise Pose

I’ve added images of the yoga posture, ardha kurmasana, or half tortoise pose (no, that’s not me!). This posture can be done at anytime of the day when you feel stress, tension or fatigue creeping through your bones. As you compress your ‘third eye,’ onto your mat, your heart will elevate above the level of the brain and increase blood circulation to the hypothalamus, calming the nervous system. Keep the knife-edge of your pinky fingers on the floor as you straighten and extend your arms through your shoulder girdle while sitting back onto your heels. I wonder what the radiologist, or the kid working at Baskin Robbins, would have thought if they’d seen me hit the floor in half tortoise instead of “going Italian”? J

Julie Manriquez


About bbluford
I am an executive finance professional with a love for process and application development (MS Access, Excel, Quickbooks), mostly as it relates to Accounting and Business Functions. I also love to write and share ideas with other people in this world. I'm an admitted Gym Rat who works out excessively. The best summation of me is that I love to teach and to learn.

17 Responses to Is Stress Making You Fat? The Cortisol / Belly Fat Connection

  1. bbluford says:

    Great Post, Julie! I’m the worst at recognizing the importance of recovery and downtime. I’m terrible at forgiving myself for missing personal appointments (working out, getting this post done, finishing that book) when life has other ideas of what I need to be doing. Sometimes it takes God hitting us over the head to remind us that taking a break is not only okay, but required if we want to perform at our highest level. I just finished a great book, “The Power of Full Engagement” that talks a little bit about that. There is also a Harvard Business Review article on the same topic, by the original authors, as well as other interpretations and suggestions:


    • Julie Manriquez says:

      Bobby, thanks for the links….love the time management article and the shout out to Jack LaLanne! Different authors and subjects, but same solution: ritual, ritual ritual. We have to schedule ourselves into our own lives, and stick to it…..scary, yes, but necessary!

  2. Colleen Monaco says:

    So this is why my old room mate and I called ice cream “crabby medicine”. We need a new outlet!

    • Julie Manriquez says:

      Hahahaha….it was buttered popcorn in my college apartment. Five girls, butter and salt, Saturday Night Live, 1988? Yikes!

  3. Sandi Denton says:

    Ok, scary story about your boy…glad all is well. Love the stuff about letting go when our “human-ness” takes control…every breath is a second chance 🙂

  4. Laura Collins Phillips says:

    The last 3 years, I have seen the direct effects of stress on my husband. It has actually shocked me to see how physically devastating this can be on us humans. Thanks for the tips, and I love the half tortoise pose. My dad taught it to me when I was a teen, and I have done it ever since. I had no idea it was a yoga position. Awesome post!

    • bbluford says:

      Hey Laura-
      I, too, have really begun to realize the damaging effects of stress. Being an athlete–and macho to my detriment- I’ve always seen rest and recovery as a sign of weakness. To make matters worse, the corporate world doesn’t reward anything but long, painful hours. The truth is, to be effective in anything we do, we need to recover. Just like working out your muscles, learning to manage all other stresses (emotional, spiritual, and mental; in addition to physical) is extremely important. In fact, it is a requirement if you want to maximize your effectiveness. The book I just read, The Power of Full Engagement talks in length about it. I’ll be writing a post on it shortly, summarizing what it talks about, but there are also several places where they reduce the book to its main points, including a Harvard Business Review Article:

      Stay on your husband about learning to relieve stress. Nothing is worth killing yourself over- ESPECIALLY work!

      • Julie Manriquez says:

        Bobby, love your response. Unfortunately, we have to remind ourselves daily NOT to get swallowed up by the stressors that will ultimately take over our lives. We need to honor ourselves for recognizing that simplifying or simply taking a break is more important than that last hour at the office that keeps you from tucking in your kids or chillin’ with your spouse. These are the gifts that make us human.

      • bbluford says:

        Absolutely! And if we are honest with ourselves, we NEED people in our lives to remind us. At least I do. Thanks for being one of those people for me.

  5. Cyndi Kramer says:

    I love it Julie, now you have to check out my blog. Not as well written as yours, but similar sentiments..
    I am going to have to put this on my “to read” list.. and yes I am going to the doctor on Monday due to low functioning thyroid, which I am almost certain I caused.

  6. Good reminder to stop and think before grabbing a fistful of M&Ms! I also like to tell myself that I will only feel more stressed/hopeless/frustrated if I have the empty calories to process in addition to whatever I’m facing. The fattening food only makes it worse in the long run for me!

  7. Sissy Nasri says:

    I love the “less everyday” approach even with my favorite “getaway drug”! 🙂 Thank God your son is ok! Great post! Thank you

  8. Pingback: Choose Happiness «

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