How chronic stress impacts health: the mechanism behind cortisol, abdominal fat and immune disfunction.

We hear about stress being the culprit in all sorts of maladies, such as more abdominal fat or diseases such as diabetes and cancer, but how does that actually work and what’s the mechanism?

Approx read time: 3 mins
Stress and weight gain


When we’re stressed our adrenal glands, on top of the kidneys, release a hormone called cortisol. Way back in the day it helped us to run away from wild animals, like tigers or human rivals. It came out when we had to escape and went back in in-between times. Cortisol increases blood sugar levels, suppresses the immune system and changes the way fats are used.

Life is the tiger – chronic stress

Move forward to today and the tiger is no longer a tiger but is school pressures, work pressures, social pressures, financial pressures, relationship pressures, lack of sleep pressures and life overload in general.

Fat stomachs, arrgghh. Cortisol and abdominal fat.

When we’re stressed a lot, as so many of us are now – chronic stress – we have high circulating blood sugar a lot of the time, thanks to cortisol (and the stuff people tend to eat when stressed), and that means we secrete more insulin to bring it down. Insulin is really fab at causing fat to accumulate in your abdomen, and abdominal fat has some very nasty personality traits including the release of inflammatory cytokines.

Cortisol also breaks down proteins in muscle tissue and they go off to the liver to be converted into glucose – hence even more blood sugar (you need that energy to run away from danger) Over time cortisol can also make your cells more insulin resistant, hastening the onset of type 2 diabetes and that helps abdominal fat to settle in even more and make its ghastly home and do its awful deeds.

How immune function is affected by stress

Looking at immunity, constant cortisol release can decrease the number of immune cells and molecules that control your immune response. This is not good, not good at all 😩 It can also upset the balance of ‘all the immune things’, leading to more inflammatory proteins and fewer anti-inflammatory ones – hello more inflammation and all the nasty health havoc it causes. Our immune systems pop off cancer cells before they go mad, as well as other rogue cells and pathogens. Hence chronic cortisol release = upset immune system = disease.

Some ways to to keep cortisol at healthy levels

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Meditate.
  • Work your hours, unless they are stupidly long, then protest*
  • Take breaks and chill.
  • Nurture happy relationships and laughing 🙂
  • Bin-off people who do yr head in, if poss….
  • Be active/exercise without over-exercising or exercising close to bedtime or crazily early.
  • Practise proper breathing.
  • Eat a healthy, low glycaemic, diet and avoid alcohol as much as poss.

*Unless protesting makes you more stressed!

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Thank you for reading this article. Please note that while we share a lot of awesome information and research you should be aware our articles are strictly for informational purposes and do not constitute medical advice intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent any disease.