Most medical researchers argue that the relationship between cortisol and fat depends upon the level of stress experienced by individuals and is two-fold. Stress causes a boost in the body's production of cortisol. Cortisol, which is an appetite stimulant, often causes people to consume more calories than they need, which leads to the accumulation of fat and weight gain. Further, scholars believe that the presence of cortisol results in the production of glucose that is typically converted into fat. Cortisol is also linked to a particular type of fat production, abdominal fat. Thus, people that experience high levels of stress over an extended period of time are likely to overeat and accumulate fat around their mid sections, which is the direct result of increased cortisol levels.
The human body is programmed to deal with stress by fighting off or fleeing from the source of the stress. In order to provide the energy required to either fight or flee, the body releases hormones that help to mobilize existing fat and carbohydrates for a quick energy boost. One of these hormones is cortisol. After the source of stress is removed, the other hormones dissipate but corisol remains to help the body recover from mobilization by increasing the appetite so that the fat and carbohydrates used to fuel the body during fighting or fleeing are replaced.
Modern sources of stress, however, rarely require humans to actually fight or flee. Therefore, the carbohydrates and fat mobilized to fuel an individual during a fight or while fleeing never get burned. The body however, still assumes that physical exertion has taken place and cortisol remains to stimulate the appetite. What results is that the person eats fatty foods and carbohydrates to recover energy that was supposed to be used during fighting or fleeing, and tends to accumulate fat because they are consuming more calories than those burned. Thus, cortisol and fat are linked because cortisol stimulates a person's appetite to eat more than they require after times of stress.
This relationship between cortisol and fat accumulation is particularly heightened in people who experience high levels of stress over long periods of time because their appetites are constantly stimulated to replace energy that was supposed to be lost, but never was. When this occurs, cortisol not only increases appetite, but can also directly stimulate fat production. This is because prolonged cortisol production results in stimulating the production of glucose and glucose is generally turned into stored fat.
Cortisol and fat in the abdominal region are also linked. Fat cells that reside in the abdomen are more sensitive to cortisol. This is due to the fact that the fat cells in the abdomen have a higher number of stress hormone receptors and further, are more suited to storing energy than fat cells that reside in other parts of the body.