How does cortisol affect my visceral fat and appetite?

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Michael T. Murray, ND
Naturopathic Medicine

Cortisol exerts a double whammy on fat cells in the abdomen: 1) it stimulates their growth; and 2) it stimulates the manufacture of new abdominal fat cells. So not only does cortisol signal the brain to eat more, it increases the amount of visceral (abdominal) fat. As you will recall, when visceral fat increases, it leads to the release of hormones that block the action of insulin and promote the appetite.

Cortisol also adversely affects appetite and promotes the craving of carbohydrates by lowering brain serotonin levels. Serotonin is an important brain chemical that promotes a sense of relaxation and positive mood (happiness). When your brain is low in serotonin, carbohydrate cravings result. What the brain is trying to accomplish by signaling a carbohydrate craving is increasing the manufacture of serotonin from the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan has a difficult time getting into the brain because it competes with other amino acids for transport across the blood-brain barrier. After a high-carbohydrate meal, there are fewer molecules of amino acids that compete with tryptophan circulating in the bloodstream, thanks to our friend insulin. While insulin's primary job is to remove sugar from the blood and help it pass into the cells, it also promotes the absorption of certain amino acids into muscle tissue. As a result, there are fewer amino acids to compete with tryptophan for transport through the blood-brain barrier. Therefore, as long as cortisol levels are high, leading to low brain serotonin levels, carbohydrate cravings will be strong.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.