Stress, cortisol and obesity

What is stress? How do you experience stress and in what ways can you respond to it? What is the connection with increased cortisol production? What are the positive effects of cortisol and what are the negative ones? What is the relationship between cortisol, obesity and a beer belly? And what does a beer belly (or visceral obesity) mean for your health? What forms of stress management can you use to combat stress-induced obesity? Read the answers to the questions above.

What is stress?

Opinions differ about the precise definition of stress in humans. But in any case, stress is a form of tension in the human body in response to external stimuli. This tension evokes a certain pattern of physiological responses.
Stress can be positive, for example in the form of an enjoyable challenge. Stress can also be negative, for example in the form of fear or anxiety. It is mainly negative stress and excessive tension that pose a threat to your health because of the strong and long-lasting consequences for your central and autonomic nervous system.

Epinephrine, norepinephrine, and the experience of stress

When stress levels are high, your body secretes epinephrine. This flight-or-fight hormone is often referred to by the outdated name adrenaline. Epinephrine is mainly released when you feel that the situation is hopeless. A feeling of fear or defeat activates the hypothalamus in your brain and ultimately leads to the release of the stress hormone cortisol from the adrenal cortex.
The way you respond to a stressor depends on your experience. If you experience the stressor as a threat to your control over a situation, you mainly secrete the hormone norepinephrine. This fighting hormone is also still called norepinephrine.
With too much norepinephrine you feel scared, tense, excited , or euphoric. How you feel depends on various factors such as your mood or other neurotransmitters (for example serotonin). If your norepinephrine level is too low, you may feel depressed.

How do you respond to stress?

When you are confronted with stress, you respond by fleeing or fighting or freezing.
In a flight or fight response, your heart pumps faster and more powerfully and more free fatty acids enter your blood.
A stiffening reaction can lead to increased lipogenesis. This is the synthesis of fat from carbohydrates. Lipogenesis can lead to visceral obesity. This involves an accumulation of fat around the stomach and intestines. This form of obesity with excessive belly fat is also popularly called ‘beer belly’, although some patients with such a heavy belly never drink beer. The issue of belly fat will be discussed in more detail later in this article. A stiffening reaction can also lead to the breakdown of tissues or suppression of the immune system.

Stress and increased cortisol production

Cortisol is produced in your adrenal glands. The production of this steroid hormone occurs when you wake up, digest food, or exercise. Cortisol is an important hormone that plays a role in the correct functioning of glucose metabolism, the regulation of blood pressure, the release of insulin to maintain blood glucose levels, the immune system and inflammatory reactions.
Psychosocial stressors lead to higher cortisol levels in your blood. That is why cortisol is also called a stress hormone. A short-term elevated cortisol level has a positive effect, but a long-term elevated cortisol level has a negative impact on your health.

Positive effects of a short-term, slightly increased cortisol value

While norepinephrine (norepinephrine) and epinephrine (adrenaline) prepare your body for a flight-or-fight response, cortisol helps release and regulate energy. A slight increase in cortisol levels has a beneficial effect. For example, you quickly have access to extra energy, your memory functions better, your immune system becomes more active and you are less sensitive to pain.

Negative effects of a long-term elevated cortisol level

If the stress lasts too long and cortisol levels are elevated for a long time, various harmful effects occur. Consider, for example, reduced intellectual performance, blood glucose disturbances or high blood pressure. An important negative effect of an increased cortisol level is the risk of overweight or obesity.

What is the connection between cortisol, obesity and a beer belly?

Studies in humans and animals have shown a link between elevated cortisol levels, feelings of hunger, cravings for foods high in carbohydrates and/or fat, and weight gain. It is also known that cortisol can promote adipocytes (baby fat cells) to grow into adult fat cells. But the biggest negative effect of cortisol is that it can move fat from fat storage sites to fat deposits deep within the abdomen (the infamous belly fat).
Cortisol has a direct influence on fat storage and weight gain in people under severe pressure. The concentration of cortisol in your tissue is regulated by a specific enzyme that converts inactive cortisone into active cortisol. This specific enzyme is located in the so-called visceral fat tissue, that is, in the fatty tissue around the stomach and intestines.
Research into visceral adipose tissue and subcutaneous adipose tissue in humans has shown that this enzyme is more active in people who suffer from obesity. It has also been proven that more of these enzymes are active in human abdominal fat than in subcutaneous fat. The increased numbers of these enzymes in the visceral abdominal fat cells are thought to lead to obesity. This would be related to the greater amounts of cortisol produced at the tissue level. This abdominal fat also has stronger blood flow and four times as many cortisol receptors as subcutaneous fat. This may also be the cause of the effect of cortisol on fat storage and the enlargement of fat cells.
If too much cortisol circulates in your body for a long time, visceral obesity (a ‘beer belly’) can develop. This form of obesity is associated with the risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes mellitus type II and cerebrovascular disease (diseases of the blood vessels in the brain). It is therefore very important that you keep your cortisol levels within reasonable limits, for example through stress management.

Stress management

An effective exercise and stress management program can reduce or prevent stress-induced obesity.
To manage stress, you can choose one or more of the following activities that have proven their value in practice.
To start with, consider sports and other active exercise, but also activities such as tai chi, yoga, breathing exercises and relaxation exercises. You can also reduce your stress level and therefore your cortisol levels with visualization exercises or meditation.
Choose the activities that suit you. These activities help you the most to de-stress and therefore bring your cortisol levels to a healthy level.
In addition, a healthy diet and sufficient (night) rest can also contribute to your well-being. Making or listening to music yourself is also beneficial.

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