Can Cortisol Explain Your Belly Fat?

According to TikTok influencers, the anxieties of everyday life are the reason you can’t see your abs. They may be onto something.

Written by Anna Davies
Lindsay Hattrick/TZR; Iuliia Versta/Stocksy; Tiktok
high cortisol belly

A never-ending to-do list. An always-popping group text. Frustrating family dynamics. If you believe TikTok lately, these are the reasons you have belly fat. Not just the food you’re eating, or the exercises you’re (not) doing — the annoyances of everyday life are the reason you can’t see your abs.

More specifically, it’s cortisol to blame, according to influencers, who have flooded TikTok in recent months with videos on #cortisolbelly. (That hashtag currently has nearly 1 billion views on the app.) Cortisol is colloquially known as the “stress hormone,” which suggests, annoyingly, that the more you stress about your cortisol belly, the longer it’ll stick around. Many of these TikTok videos contain claims that getting your cortisol levels under control won’t only help the midsection, but will make you a “healthier, happy person,” too. So how can you tell if your issue really is your cortisol levels? And if it is — what can you do about it?

The truth is, cortisol doesn’t deserve its bad rap — not entirely, anyway. The hormone is essential to multiple functions within your body, including regulating your metabolism and your immune response. It’s normal for cortisol levels to change throughout the day. But the TikTokers do have one thing right: Over time, continually elevated levels of the hormone can lead to having issues buttoning your favorite pants.

“As cortisol levels rise, our body increases glucose production,” said Madelyn Larouche, a nutritionist and registered dietician who shares content on @adhd.dietician on Instagram. It’s an ingrained evolutionary response: A spike in glucose production, along with other hormones, gets your body ready to run away from a predator or fight in battle. Your body is anticipating using (and burning) those hormones for much-needed energy. But if the threat is a stressful meeting from your boss or swipe overload on Tinder, you’re (probably) not responding by sprinting away — which means all that glucose isn’t burned off. This excess glucose then converts into fat, which your body then stores in the abdomen, just in case you need it later.

What Are The Symptoms Of High Cortisol?

The problem is that it’s not so easy to tell if your cortisol is too high, for too long. On TikTok, influencers swear by vague symptoms: not feeling hungry in the morning, feeling tired, feeling wired, feeling tired and wired at the same time, or having a low libido. But because cortisol levels change throughout the day, you can’t easily tell whether your levels are too high by checking off symptoms — maybe a spike in cortisol really did make you lose your appetite in the morning, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your level stayed high throughout the day. (And remember, it’s cortisol levels that stay high that can lead to excess belly fat.)

High cortisol levels can be detected through a blood, saliva, or urine test, but, again, because your levels are constantly changing, a test may not tell the whole story.

That’s not to say TikTok isn’t onto something. In fact, working out intensely can cause your cortisol levels to become elevated, especially if you’re already under stress. So can skipping meals, relying on caffeine to stay awake, and staying up late. All of these habits mess with your hormones, all of which can screw with your insulin levels and lead to weight that just won’t go away.

It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole on TikTok and assess whether your cortisol levels are high. But the bottom line is, if you’re stressed, you know it. And there’s good reason, beyond losing belly fat, to figure out how to minimize your stress levels and feel more chill and balanced. The good news: Some of the “cures” for high cortisol levels on TikTok are “can’t hurt, might help” life hacks that can help reduce your overall stress levels and make you feel better. One, from @healthwithholland, is to skip drinking coffee in the morning in favor of a robust overnight oats recipe. Another, from @trifectacollective, is to “sleep as much as you can” and “get outside to see the sun first thing in the morning.” One from @giuliahalkier recommends humming as a way to lower stress levels. Other ways to reduce cortisol levels, according to TikTok, are to engage in EFT Tapping and drinking water in the morning. The thing many of these cures have in common: they all help contribute to a more relaxed, less anxiety-prone state. So while picking and choosing cures might not work, taking them together with the overall goal of feeling more calm may be the key to reducing belly fat.

Should I Take Supplements For Cortisol Belly?

Many people on TikTok tout supplements that supposedly help de-bloat cortisol belly. But do they work? You know what — they really might, says Alyssa Wilson, a registered dietician and metabolic success coach at Signos, a glucose-monitoring app, though she adds a reminder to consult with a medical professional before beginning a supplement regimen. Magnesium, fish oil, and probiotics are some common supplements that have been shown to help decrease and regulate cortisol levels. For example, studies have found that high cortisol levels were linked to low levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Fish oil supplements provide these acids, which are also found in foods like salmon, walnuts, chia seeds, and soybeans.

Then again, building a healthy diet of whole foods can also help provide your body with the nutrients it needs to naturally regulate your cortisol.

Don’t Blame It All On Cortisol

The problem here is that none of this is as simple or straightforward as TikTok makes it out to be. (Isn’t that always the case?) Linda Khoshaba, a board-certified naturopathic physician who treats hormonal imbalances, cautions against blaming any abdominal fat gain on cortisol levels alone. “The idea that stress-induced mild or moderate increases in cortisol can lead to significant abdominal weight gain in otherwise healthy individuals is not fully supported by the scientific literature,” Khoshaba says. “Weight gain and fat distribution in the body are influenced by a wide variety of factors, including diet, physical activity, genetics, and overall health.”

‘Stress can lead to slippage in established healthy habits as your body moves into a flight-or-fight response.’

That’s why it’s important to take a holistic assessment of your MO when you’re stressed. Stress and coping mechanisms go hand in hand, and it may be more likely that takeout, an extra glass of wine, or poor sleep habits are the culprits of your weight gain. “When we are in that state of stress, we're often not focused on our diet choices, we're most likely being less active, and we're not taking care of ourselves in the way that we need to,” explains Larouche. “Especially with stress and a poor diet, a lot of people end up consuming more sugars, less balanced meals, and, due to lack of sleep from stress, more caffeine. All of those tend to exacerbate the problems and play a role in glucose production.”

If you notice belly fat that’s not moving no matter what, it might be time to do a holistic assessment of your life, says Wilson. “Stress can also lead to slippage in established healthy habits as your body moves into a flight-or-fight response. This is completely normal as you navigate a stressful situation or season,” she says.

Her solution: Focus on what you can do and control in the current moment. You can’t control those layoff rumors at your job. But you can control your sleep hygiene, your daily food intake, your water intake, and your daily habits like meditation or journaling. Focusing on these four things can make a huge difference in regulating some of the stress hormones that may play a role in cortisol belly.

If lifestyle changes don’t make you feel better, it may be a good idea to get a full workup from a doctor, to see if weight gain and excess belly fat may be the result of another issue, such as a thyroid disorder, says Khoshaba. It can also be helpful to consider whether a therapist might be helpful to navigate this season of your life. In some cases, it may make sense to address underlying anxiety through medication, talk therapy, or a combination of both. A calmer life (and pants that fit comfortably) may await.