If your cortisol is unbalanced, your workouts may be acting like Miracle Grow™ for visceral fat – belly fat that increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and breast, bowel, and liver cancer.[i] [ii] Visceral fat is also one of the first outward signs of hormone imbalance.[iii]

Let’s be honest – while we exercise to stay healthy, we also want to feel good in our skin. So if our waistline expands, it’s natural to want to amp things up – run longer, lift more, squeeze in another class, even skip recovery days.

This was true for Sue, a busy woman in her late-40’s who described herself as “a teensy bit Type A”. She sought my help for sluggish digestion, constipation, and undoing what she called a “poochy” belly.

Sue explained that despite cross-training 3-4 times a week and trail-running to relieve stress, she continued to gain belly weight and now felt bloated after most meals.

Enter cortisol, our body’s main stress-adapting hormone. When more exercise doesn’t tone your tummy, cortisol and its jittery partner adrenaline may be involved.

Headquartered in our adrenal glands, this dynamic duo springs into action at the first sign of stress:

  1. Adrenalin gives
    us a brief, intense “lightning strike” of energy to deal with
    the stressor
  1. A
    longer-lasting “downpour” of cortisol dampens the adrenalin surge
    shortly after, allowing us to come back to normal

This is perfect for occasional challenges, or getting us out of danger, but not so great when our bodies are under persistent stress.

Things like over-full days, constant worry, major life changes, and overly-intense exercise ramp up adrenalin like a room full of squirrels on a sugar high, depleting precious cortisol reserves.

The eventual effects are hard to ignore.

Your thyroid is suppressed – so you gain weight. Stomach acid is suppressed – so digestion slows and you feel bloated and constipated. And, your body shifts into fat storage mode – leading to the unfortunately-named “muffin top”.

Overly-intense workouts on top of this can contribute to joint inflammation, especially inner knee, loss of muscle tone, premature wrinkling from collagen breakdown, and even auto-immune conditions.

The problem? Most people don’t know they have a cortisol issue.

So, at the first sign of extra belly fat, they or their qualified, well-intentioned trainers amp up workouts, further draining cortisol, as evidenced by signs like:

  • Feeling
    okay during a workout, but depleted or wanting a nap afterward
  • Foot
    or ankle swelling for no obvious reason
  • Morning
  • Salt
  • Light
    sensitivity, needing sunglasses even on cloudy days

You can’t out-exercise a cortisol problem. It’s not more exercise that’s needed…it’s a smarter plan.

If working out harder won’t help, what can you do to banish excess belly fat?

First, get to the root of the problem. Confirm if cortisol is involved. If so, is it interfering with thyroid or other hormones? Specific, comprehensive hormone testing and functional analysis can fill in missing puzzle pieces.

What happened with Sue? Her exam and labs confirmed several layers of hormone imbalances, including cortisol and insulin. This told me where we needed to start.

When I explained the findings, Sue and her trainer were relieved to understand why it seemed her body was working against her.

It was clear that that an important part of Sue’s larger care plan to rebuild her hormone health was right-sizing her workouts. Our common goal was now to help Sue stay active without further burdening her cortisol.

Important: the same plan that boosts metabolism in a healthy person can turn on fat-storage in those with a cortisol issue. Hormone balance is nuanced and individual, so workouts should be too.

Sue was understandably skeptical about modifying her workouts, but she knew her belly fat wasn’t budging despite her hard work. She decided to start taking care of things on a different level.

She was a trooper, following nutritional guidelines to rebuild her metabolism, and lifestyle changes specific to her body’s needs. It wasn’t always easy, but we agreed at the onset that there was no such thing as “perfect”.

She was persistent, and as her cortisol began to normalize, Sue began to feel like herself again.

Within a few months her digestion had improved and the extra belly fat was whittling away (she called our office from a fitting-room one day…”no more muffin-top, and… I’m pooping EVERY day!”). Sue is delightful in a direct kind of way!

In Sue’s case, exercise itself wasn’t causing her belly fat. Unaddressed hormone imbalances were – but the wrong type of workout for her tipped the scales.

If this sounds familiar, a functional medicine professional can help you get to the root of hormone imbalances, and get you back on the track to hormone health.

Dr. Kimberly Higney helps patients rebuild their hormone health and metabolism through lifestyle. She has a private practice on the Seacoast of New Hampshire. For more information visit www.cardeaseacoast.com

[i] Chakraborty,
D, Benham, V, Bullard, B, et al. (2017). Fibroblast growth factor receptor is a
mechanistic link between visceral adiposity and cancer. Oncogene, 36, 6668–6679 

[ii] Zhang,
C, Rexrode K.M., Van Dam R.M., et al. (2008). Abdominal obesity and the risk of
all-cause, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality: sixteen years of follow-up in
US women. Circulation. 117(13), 1658-67. 

[iii] Björntorp
P. (1996). The regulation of adipose tissue distribution in humans. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 20(4), 291-302.