If you’ve been doing everything right, like hitting your macros, exercising regularly, and eating healthy, but still seem to carry excess weight in your midsection, this could be a case of the stress belly. Of course, there can be other factors that can contribute to a stubborn belly, such as genetics, food intolerances, or a slowing metabolism. However, excess belly fat due to stress is much more common than you think.
Let’s take a quick dive into some science. Stress can lead to weight gain due to increased appetite, insulin resistance, and inflammation. Part of the physiological connection between stress and weight gain has to do with our fight or flight response. This served as a very basic and beneficial survival mechanism: when we encountered predators our adrenal glands released stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) giving us the energy we needed to fight or flee. One way or the other, the stressor was resolved quickly (e.g. either we successfully fought or fled from the predator–or we didn’t). Today, our body still goes into fight or flight when we experience stress, but now it’s often chronic. Having a chronically activated stress response can lead to chronically high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones. This can throw insulin and blood sugar levels out of whack, leading to weight gain and weight-loss resistance. Increased levels of cortisol are also related to increased levels of ghrelin, a hunger hormone that helps regulate appetite. But more specifically, studies show that stress-induced cortisol is linked to abdominal fat distribution.
While stubborn excess belly fat is just one visible indicator, here are some signs that it may be caused by stress:
Chronic stress has become a norm in today’s society, due to job pressure, social and family obligations, constant exposure to news outlets, etc. However, this doesn’t mean that in order to combat stress belly, you need to eliminate all the stress from your life. A little short-term stress can even be beneficial.
The main goal is to learn to cope with life’s stressors and avoid unnecessary stressful situations. This study shows that women who had better stress coping mechanisms carried less belly fat than women who were exposed to the same stress but with less ability to cope. According to the study, “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.”
Here are some great coping tips that can help battle the stress belly:
Breathing exercises and meditation. Simple breathing techniques can significantly lower your cortisol and stress levels in a matter of seconds!
Lowering the intensity of your workout routine. When workouts are too intense, they can lead to heightened cortisol and stress on your body. Try incorporating more lower intensity exercises like this restorative yoga exercise between high-intensity training days.
Go on daily walks, outside if possible. The combination of fresh air, sunlight, and endorphins is a great natural stress reliever. Walking can also help with fat loss! But if you’re short on time, try getting in a few minutes of grounding. This easy technique can instantly improve your mood and reduce stress levels.
Although we can’t always control the stress in our lives, we can control how we respond to it. This is why a regular practice of yoga, breathing, meditation, or mindfulness-based stress reduction is an important part of any weight-loss plan.