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Lowering Cortisol Naturally: How Stress Affects Belly Fat and Gut Health

It's 2024. There are so many things in our lives that could be causing us stress. Maybe it's the pressure of meeting deadlines at work, the constant arguments with our significant others, or the challenges of parenting our kids; maybe it's the frustration of not having reliable public transportation and being stuck in insane traffic on the 405; maybe it's the anxiety caused by global issues like the war on Palestinian people or the lack of gun control in this country. 

Whatever it is, stress can lead to hormonal imbalances, so it's very important that we get that in check. Today, we'll focus on cortisol, the stress hormone, and its relationship with gut health. We'll also discuss the phenomenon known as "cortisol belly" or "stress belly" and how to prevent it. 

Man at his laptop appearing very stressed, likely with high cortisol levels
Cortisol is a hormone released in times of stress. Chronic stress, even from work, can lead to serious health problems.

What is Cortisol?

Before figuring out how to lower our cortisol, we need to understand it. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. It regulates metabolism, immune response, and the body's stress response system. Cortisol levels naturally fluctuate throughout the day, typically peaking in the morning to help wake you up and declining towards bedtime to facilitate restful sleep.

Now think of fight-or-flight; if a lion is chasing you, your body will release adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol increases the glucose in your system (for more energy) and downregulates body systems you wouldn't need when running from a lion, like your digestive and immune systems.

As you may see, chronic stress can disrupt this natural rhythm, leading to chronically elevated cortisol levels, which can severely affect our health and bodies, specifically gut function.

The Gut-Brain Connection: How Cortisol Affects Gut Health

The gut-brain axis links the central nervous system with the enteric nervous system (the gut's own nervous system). Cortisol, as a stress hormone, can significantly influence this axis.

Chronically high cortisol levels can disrupt gut health in several ways:

  1. Increased Permeability: Chronic stress can lead to increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut), allowing harmful substances like bacteria and toxins to escape into the bloodstream and trigger immune responses.

  2. Altered Microbiome: Cortisol can influence gut microbiota composition, favoring the growth of pathogenic (harmful) bacteria over beneficial ones. This imbalance can contribute to digestive issues and inflammation.

  3. Reduced Digestive Enzymes: High cortisol levels can suppress the production of digestive enzymes, impairing proper digestion and nutrient absorption.

Understanding Cortisol Belly: The Link Between Stress and Abdominal Fat

Have you ever noticed that stress seems to accumulate around your midsection? This phenomenon, often called "cortisol belly" or "stress belly," results from cortisol's impact on fat distribution and metabolism. This is more prevalent in women, as men typically store excess fat in their abdomen regardless of stress. 

Here's how cortisol contributes to abdominal fat storage:

  • Fat Storage: Cortisol increases glucose in the system for fight or flight. Since that glucose isn't used for fighting or fleeing, it is stored. Cortisol promotes the storage of visceral fat (fat around organs) in response to stress. High amounts of visceral fat are linked to increased health issues and risks.

  • Appetite Regulation: Cortisol can influence appetite and cravings, often leading to the consumption of calorie-dense comfort foods that contribute to weight gain, especially around the abdomen.

  • Insulin Resistance: Prolonged exposure to cortisol can lead to insulin resistance, making it easier for excess glucose to be stored as fat, particularly in the abdominal area.

Yellow visceral fat from chronically high cortisol
Visceral fat (pictured on the right) surrounds the organ systems

How to Lower Cortisol Levels Naturally and Promote Gut Health

Preventing or counteracting "cortisol belly" and promoting gut health involves adopting lifestyle strategies that support stress management and overall well-being:

  1. Stress Reduction Techniques: Practice mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises to lower cortisol levels and promote relaxation. Even laughing has been shown to reduce cortisol levels.

  2. Balanced Nutrition: Focus on a balanced diet rich in whole foods, fiber, and gut-friendly nutrients. Limit refined sugars, processed foods, and excessive caffeine intake. If you are struggling with your diet and need help lowering your cortisol levels, contact me, and let's schedule a 1:1 appointment. 

  3. Regular Exercise: Engage in regular physical activity to reduce stress and promote healthy metabolism. Aim for a mix of aerobic and strength-training exercises.

  4. Adequate Sleep: Prioritize quality sleep to regulate cortisol levels and support optimal hormone balance.

  5. Supplementation: Consider incorporating probiotic supplements to support gut microbiome balance. Talk to a dietitian about adaptogenic supplements that may help lower cortisol levels. 

Man meditating at the beach
Meditation can help lower cortisol levels


Cortisol plays a vital role in the body's stress response. Still, chronic elevation of this hormone can seriously affect your gut health and metabolism, contributing to the development of cortisol in the belly.

By adopting holistic approaches to stress management, nutrition, and lifestyle, we can take control of our cortisol levels, optimize our gut function, and achieve overall well-being. Remember, a balanced approach to health is not just a possibility, but a powerful tool for thriving in today's stress-filled world.

Here's to a healthier, happier you with a well-nourished gut and balanced cortisol levels!

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