How Cortisol Affects Belly Fat And Muscle Wasting

Greetings fellow gym warriors. This post is meant to be a compliment to the fat loss series I did not too long ago. If you are having trouble losing those last ten pounds, particularly belly fat, even though you’ve been spending lots of time in the gym, then this could be particularly pertinent for you.

It’s also key information for those who may have been trying to gain muscle and just aren’t seeing the results. There’s a reason for that, and probably not one you’ve considered before. I’m talking about cortisol. Cortisol is something alot of trainers and bodybuilders have no clue about, but it can be the difference between a ripped body and a chubby body.

What Cortisol Is

Cortisol is a catabolic hormone, produced in the adrenal glands, in response to stress. Your body produces it naturally at different levels through the day, and levels should be highest first thing in the morning and taper off as the day goes on. However,  when you’re under a lot of stress those levels can be exceedingly high. This will interfere with your sleep, fat loss, and muscle development.

What Cortisol Does

Cortisol’s main functions are to:

  • Increase glucose levels by stimulating gluconeogenesis (the formation of glucose from non-carb sources)
  • Suppress the immune system
  • Help with the metabolism of fat, protein, and carbs
  • Regulate blood pressure
  • Decrease bone formation [i]

The secretion of cortisol causes the breakdown of muscle tissue. Proteins from your muscles are dumped as amino acids into the bloodstream, which head to the liver to be formed into glucose. Simultaneously, cortisol tells your body to release fatty acids from within your fat cells and directs them to the muscles to be used for energy. This is all done with the intent that you will need to respond in some physical way to the stressor. If you don’t actually run away or fight off the threat, your body stores the glucose as fat instead of converting it to energy.

People with high cortisol levels may suffer from high blood pressure, purples streaks on their abdomen, fragile skin, high blood sugar, osteoporosis, and abdominal obesity. Children may suffer from delayed development and women may have irregular periods.[ii]

What Raises Cortisol Levels

Basically, anything that causes you stress will raise your cortisol levels. This could be mental or physical stress to your body, like over-training, illness, arguments with a loved one, temperature extremes, being stuck in traffic, too much caffeine, too little sleep, a physically demanding job, not enough food, not enough fat in your diet, being late to work, getting in trouble with your boss, or really anything that causes anxiety.

Some drugs may increase cortisol production. These are estrogen, prednisone, prednisolone, and other glucocorticoids.[iii]

How Cortisol Affects Muscle Development

Long-term elevated levels of cortisol can lead to muscle wasting, and will interfere with muscle development. It reduces protein synthesis and stops tissue development. Unfortunately, you can’t work out more/longer in order to overcome this problem because the longer you work out, the more cortisol is released. In fact, about one hour after you start lifting weights, your testosterone levels start to drop and cortisol levels start to increase. Any training done after that only further increases the production of cortisol. This means that any muscle gains you might have had during that first hour are negated by the increase of cortisol.

Cortisol vs Testosterone

Cortisol and testosterone are both produced by the adrenal glands (although the majority of testosterone is produced in the testes in men – only some comes from the adrenal glands). When your body is subjected to stress, cortisol is produced and the production of testosterone is halted. Once the stressor is removed, the levels of each hormone return to their regular levels; but if the stress is ongoing, this can cause trouble for the functions that require testosterone.[iv]

How Cortisol Affects Fat

For some reason, people with higher cortisol levels tend to have more abdominal fat. Cortisol causes fat distribution in that your body will store more visceral fat (fat around your organs).[v]

Doing too much cardio work in the gym will also raise your cortisol levels. This means that rather than burning off some of your fat, that 90-minute session on the treadmill or bike or elliptical trainer will actually cause you to produce more fat and hang on to the fat you already have.


Your doctor can order blood tests to check your cortisol levels. Urine tests may also show total cortisol in the blood, but multiple blood tests taken at different times of the day can tell you exactly how high your levels are at certain times of the day.

How To Keep Cortisol Low

There are several things you have to do in order to lower your cortisol levels and keep them naturally low:

1. Keep your weight training sessions to less than one hour.
2. Give your body adequate rest between training sessions.
3.Keep your cardio sessions to less than an hour with a maximum of five sessions a week. (and really, unless you’re training for a competition and getting into single-digit BF levels, there’s no need for more than 30 or so minutes for most folks)
4. Eat more frequently, as this seems to keep cortisol lower than eating large meals only a couple of times a day.
5. Eat properly and adequately: get enough fat and protein, and don’t eat at a huge caloric deficit unless you’re cutting.
6. Reduce your stress levels. This might mean getting a new job, taking time off, learning how to relax, pray, or reading a book.
7. Get adequate sleep. Your cortisol levels are lowest while you sleep, so the more you sleep, the less cortisol you’ll be making. It varies from person to person, but shoot for eight hours a night, if you can.
8. Limit your caffeine intake. As few as two cups can cause cortisol levels to rise. If you do drink coffee, do it first thing in the morning, not after lunch.


It’s extremely important that you keep your cortisol levels as natural as possible. Anything that causes your body or mind stress should be limited as much as possible in order to keep cortisol levels low. This will, in turn, help you to build muscle, burn fat, and sleep well at night.

Now that you have the scoop on cortisol, a good next step is to get your cortisol levels tested. In conjunction with that a great step to help facilitate your physique and strength goals is to learn how to better manage the stress in your life. This is a whole separate topic in and of itself, but it’s a good start to know that effective management is possible and it starts with admitting you have too much stress and intentionally attacking the problem and pursuing a solution.

Train Hard,


Leave A Reply (59 comments so far)

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    Great article Rick.

    I surely have plenty of STRESS – work, home and more office stress that sticks for long hours.

    I do follow most of the training/nutrition tips you mention (well, except coffee!)… but my stress
    levels are still way up there.

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