Recent studies have shown an association between uncontrollable stress and abdominal fat distribution. It has been suggested that changes in cortisol secretion might represent one possible mechanism for this relationship.
This study investigated whether body fat distribution, determined by waist-to-hip ratio (WHR), is related to salivary cortisol levels in response to laboratory stressors. Subjects were 41 overweight women with a Low or a High WHR. Multiple measures of cortisol and mood were obtained during a session of stressful tasks (eg., timed arithmetic) and during a time-matched, control rest session.
Also, background life stress and psychological trait variables were assessed. Compared to Low WHR subjects, High WHR subjects secreted significantly more cortisol during the stressful session after 60 minutes of stress, and considering the total area under the curve of secretion. This difference was not seen on the rest day.
In terms of background and psychological measures, High WHR subjects were characterized by poorer coping skills and differences in mood reactivity.
Specifically, although all subjects became more angry in response to the stressful session, High WHR subjects showed smaller increases in anger. This could indicate that they are more likely to evidence a helpless reaction to uncontrollable stress. These findings support the hypothesis that cortisol secretion might represent a mechanism for the observed association between stress and abdominal fat distribution.
Furthermore, differences in coping and appraisal may suggest that a particular psychological pattern might influence the reactivity of the adrenal-cortical system to stress, and subsequent fat distribution.