Bringing Wellness Full Circle

Insulin and Cortisol

You may not like the tummy fat that jiggles when you try to zip up your jeans, but it’s not the worst kind of belly fat from a health standpoint. The kind you really have to worry about is deeper fat that lies beneath your abdominal muscles and increases the risk of health problems like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. This form of fat called visceral fat becomes more common with age, especially around the time of menopause in women and in men as they approach the age of 40–no fun at all if you ask me! Let’s see what we can do about that, shall we?

There are two primary hormones that play a role in visceral abdominal fat and reining in these two belly-boosting hormones can help control a deep belly fat problem: Insulin and Cortisol.

Insulin, produced by the pancreas, regulates how your body handles glucose. Insulin has a lot of jobs in your body:

~it helps carry glucose into cells where it can be stored right after you ate

~it helps muscle cells take up amino acids, which is important for muscle repair after a workout

~it increases the synthesis of lipids and prevents the breakdown of stored fat to be used for energy

~it encourages cells to take up potassium

~it increases blood flow through arteries by relaxing blood vessel walls.

Pretty serious stuff if you ask me.

Cortisol, produced by the adrenal gland, is the one hormone we often call the “stress hormone” because it rises during times of mental and physical stress. Here are some common conditions that increase cortisol levels: prolonged exercise (yikes!) , starvation, calorie restriction (bye-byestupid diets!)  and sleep deprivation. Cortisol has many functions, but one of its main functions is to simply maintain blood glucose levels in response to stress. One way it does this is by promoting gluconeogenesis, a process by which the liver makes glucose from amino acids. To supply the liver with the amino acids it needs to make glucose, cortisol encourages the breakdown of muscle tissue, which isn’t a good thing when it comes to health or body composition–triple yikes! Who wants to lose more muscle mass as they age? In addition, it suppresses the immune system and promotes bone breakdown – another not-so-good thing from a health standpoint.

So why are insulin and cortisol such a bad combination when it comes to visceral belly fat? Well, cortisol activates a hormone called lipoprotein lipase that stimulates fat storage, but it also increases the activity of hormone sensitive lipase, a hormone that breaks down fat. Taken alone, these changes might not be so bad since the fat storage effects of cortisol would be cancelled out by its effect on fat breakdown. But then insulin enters the picture. Insulin promptly turns off cortisol’s effect on hormone sensitive lipase, and the breakdown of fat grinds to a halt. Now cortisol’s effect on fat is to promote its storage, and it does so primarily in the deep abdominal region to form visceral fat. There you have it! The solution? Reign in these two hormones.

Here is some good advice to help you deal with the belly fat problem, you need to lower levels of these two belly-plumping hormones:

~eliminate processed carbohydrates and sugary foods that send blood sugar and insulin levels into overdrive. Choose fiber-rich carbs from vegetables and whole grain sources. The fiber in these foods helps to reduce insulin spikes.


~add regular, moderate to high intensity exercise program that includes both strength-training and aerobics. High-intensity exercise boosts release of growth hormone, which helps take a bite out of belly fat.

~ eat regular meals that contain lean protein and fiber-rich carbs to maintain blood sugar levels, and don’t overly restrict calories to lower cortisol in your body

~keep exercise sessions short and intense. Some research shows that prolonged endurance exercise boosts cortisol levels.

~sleep! Sleep deprivation raises cortisol levels.


~get enough B vitamins, vitamin C and magnesium in your diet since these vitamins and minerals help to lower cortisol levels.

~limit caffeine

~find effective ways to manage stress

There you have it!


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