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How Stress Makes Your Belly Fat
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Nobody wants a fat belly. It’s a physical sign that something is going horribly wrong inside your body.
What you might not know is that chronic stress is a primary cause of belly fat gain. It works like this:
Anytime you experience a threat, your brain tells your adrenal gland to release the stress hormone cortisol. The purpose of cortisol is to trigger the release of energy from cells in the liver, fat, and muscle tissue in order to give your body the energy it requires to get you through a difficult situation.
In the short-term, stress triggers the fight or flight response, causing a decrease in appetite and shutting down other “unnecessary” processes such as reproduction or tissue repair. This is a protective mechanism because you don’t want to be distracted by hunger or an impulse to breed when your life is in danger.
Unfortunately, if stress persists, it’s a different story. Over the long term, chronically high cortisol levels lead to a series of changes in the body that make you gain belly fat. The thing is that not only is a fat belly unsightly, it’s dangerous to your health. Belly fat acts as an endocrine organ, doing all kinds of nasty things such as releasing inflammatory compounds that harm cells and compromise health, raising your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases.
In this highly chaotic world, you need to understand how stress makes your belly fat and develop a plan to avoid it. This article will do just that, providing a list of science-proven actions you can take to get rid of excess belly fat once and for all.
#1: Stress Increases Food Intake
Have you ever had a killer day at work, not feeling hungry at all until you get home and then you’re just overwhelmed with a desire to eat?
This is cortisol having its effect on your brain and body. Here’s what happens in a low stress environment: Cortisol spikes first thing in the morning to help get you out of bed. Having breakfast reduces cortisol by half, after which it will slowly decrease over the rest of the day until it reaches a low level at night. The body experiences small elevations in cortisol as you near lunch and dinner time in an effort to raise energy levels by releasing glucose into the blood, but assuming you eat regular, healthy meals, the overall shape of your cortisol curve will decrease over the course of the day.
Things change with a high-stress lifestyle. Studies show that although the immediate acute effect of stress is to blunt appetite, over the course of day it triggers food intake and leads to the release of hormones that raise appetite.
Stress also appears to diminish your brain’s sensitivity to food intake, meaning that you can be eating, but the incoming energy doesn’t register in the brain and has no effect on lowering your hunger. The result is that people who are stressed will overeat without any awareness that they’ve consumed more calories than they need. Those extra calories have to get stored somewhere and the abdominal area is the first place the body deposits extra energy when cortisol is elevated.
The number one thing you need to do is to have regularly planned meals every two to four hours in order to avoid cortisol spikes from lack of food intake. Meals should be planned around a high-quality protein (chicken, eggs, fish, beef or other meat), vegetables, and healthy fat (nuts, avocado, seeds, olive oil) because this will help balance blood sugar and improve release of hormones that blunt appetite.
#2: Stress Inhibits Your Ability To Make Rationale Food Choices
High cortisol activates a part of the brain that makes you crave pleasurable foods, but goal-oriented parts of your brain are reduced. This means that even if you have every intention of eating a healthy meal of protein and vegetables, you’ll be overwhelmed with a desire for bread, cake, chips, or some other high-carb delight when your stressed.
You see, high-carb foods lead to the release of insulin, which is a hormone that acts as a cortisol antagonist—that is, when blood sugar is elevated and insulin is released, cortisol begins to go down, easing your experience of stress. This craving for carbs is actually something of a protective mechanism against sky-high cortisol.
Things go wrong though when stress is beating you down day after day and you frequently give into your food cravings, eating foods that generate a large insulin release: This is the perfect belly fat storing environment because when cortisol is elevated and insulin is released, a fat storing enzyme called lipoprotein lipase (LPL) is elevated.
Another effect of cortisol is that it causes damage to cells, which makes them less sensitive to insulin. As insulin resistance develops, the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin get out of whack and your brain becomes unresponsive to the “stop eating” message, making you unable to control how much you eat.
You can’t wait until you’re already famished to decide what to eat. Not only do you need to knowwhen and what you’ll eat for each meal, but it’s worth it to have it prepared in advance to avoid snacking on junk food.
This approach works: A recent study found that among a population of stressed out kids who had high cortisol, those who had better coping skills and didn’t turn to sweets when the going got tough had less belly fat. Kids who coped by eating had worse body composition and bigger waist lines.
#3: Stress Causes Inflammation, Inducing Insulin Resistance
Chronic inflammation is a hallmark of belly fat, but it’s a little complicated to understand. After all, it’s hard to visualize inflammation, especially when it is happening inside your body.
When high cortisol is combined with elevated insulin, it leads cells to release a kind of fatty acids from fat cells called VLDL. The VLDL travel around and damage tissue, ultimately getting deposited as fat in the abdominal area. At the same time, belly fat itself is metabolically active, releasing compounds called adipokines (IL-6. TNF-alpha are examples), which can chronically stimulate and disturb your body’s stress system.
These inflammatory compounds actually go back up to the brain and tell it to send out a message to release more cortisol even though cortisol levels are already elevated. It’s a vicious cycle that leads to more cortisol, more insulin resistance, and more belly fat. Adipokines also negatively affect blood pressure and vascular function, which is why belly fat is considered a strong marker for heart disease and stroke.
Eating a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods can go a long way in helping the body repair the damage done by high cortisol.
A lot of the super foods we hear about contain antioxidants that help eradicate inflammation: Coffee, green tea, whey protein, dark chocolate, olive oil, avocado, berries, leafy greens, beets, probiotic foods, multicolored veggies (eggplant, yellow and red peppers), fish, and legumes are all examples of foods that can help you fight the stress—belly fat cycle.
It’s also necessary to adopt stress management practices to help shut down the message to the hypothalamus to continually release more cortisol. Deep breathing, meditation, and exercise have all been shown to lower stress. For example, weight training will reset the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis so that cortisol balance improves and you’re better able to manage stress on a day-in, day-out basis.
#4: Stress Inhibits Sleep, Altering Glycemic Control
A lot of times we can’t sleep because we’re stressed, but trouble sleeping is equally stressful. It’s a vicious cycle.
Here’s how it works: When cortisol stays elevated all day long, release of the sleep hormone, melatonin is reduced. Without melatonin, you’ll never be able to sleep soundly. Growth hormone, which is released during deep sleep, is absent. The following day, insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance drop, while cortisol levels tick ever upward.
This means that after a night of disrupted sleep, you’re more likely to choose unhealthy, high-carb foods and nosh mindlessly, as described in #1. One study found that when subjects had their sleep disrupted, they increased food intake by 300 calories the following day, choosing high-fat, high-carb processed foods over healthier choices. One night and it’s not that big a deal, but 300 calories adds up: Over the course of a week that’s more than half a pound gained!
You must start sleeping in order to bring cortisol back into balance. First, do the little things that promote sleep:
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and other stimulants.
- Fix your bedroom, getting blackout curtains and covering or unplugging electronics that emit light.
- Turn off wi-fi and cell phones.
- Avoid exposure to bright lights, especially from TV, computers, and cell phones in the hour before bedtime because this decreases melatonin production.
Finally, try taking melatonin to reset your circadian rhythm. Melatonin supplementation has been shown to
improve sleep quality and reduce inflammation associated with belly fat.
#5: Stress Makes Us Lazy, Lowering Energy Expenditure
Because stress triggers a cascade of hormonal changes it has a negative impact on energy expenditure, both by lowering metabolic rate and by making us less physically active. Studies consistently show that people are more sedentary and exercise less when suffering from chronic stress.
Additionally, high cortisol alters the release of other hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, and thyroid hormone, all of which are involved in metabolic rate. The result is a drop in the amount of calories your body burns daily
Interestingly, belly fat is fairly easy to lose if you can get your stress under control. It is more easily burned than subcutaneous fat, which lies right below the skin, because it is very responsive to the catecholamine adrenaline hormones. This is why sprint training and other forms of high-intensity activity are very effective for reducing belly fat: They raise the catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine), freeing fatty acids to be burned for energy, while upregulating your metabolism so that you burn more calories during the prolongd recovery period.
Having a regularly scheduled workout program can help you maintain your training even when stress feels overwhelming. Keep workouts short (45 to an hour is the sweet spot) and be sure to allow for full recovery between sessions.
Your number one priority should be strength training with weights because this will improve adrenal axis function and help preserve lean muscle mass. For cardio, try a brisk walking program a few days a week to help you lower cortisol. Once you’ve got your stress more under control, you can add a few short (less than 20 minute) sprint interval workouts in order to burn off any stored belly fat.
It’s also important to focus on being active in daily life. You’ve heard it before, but we'll say it again: Avoid sitting for long periods both at work and at home. Simply standing up and shaking out your limbs during the work day can give your metabolism a little boost, and going for a 10 minute walk after each meal has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity.