Advertisements for weight loss and fitness products would have you believe you only need to eat less and exercise more to lose belly fat. If only it were that easy! Certainly, sitting on the couch and snacking on soft drinks and chips will increase the size of your tummy, but another less appreciated factor can too - stress. To make matters worse, over-exercising and restricting calories to lose weight can add to the stress the stress level and make it hard to control belly fat. These reasons create a vicious cycle that make it downright difficult to slim down around the belly. Let's look more closely at the role stress plays in belly fat.


The Hormonal Culprit: Cortisol

When you're under stress, a small gland above your kidneys produces more cortisol. Aptly named the stress hormone, cortisol prepares your body to handle stressful circumstances. If the stress is short-lived, cortisol levels drop quickly, and it does no long-term harm to your belly or your health. However, chronic stress is harmful to your waistline. When cortisol stays high, it causes a shift in where and how you store fat.  Rather than depositing fat around your hips and thighs, your body stores fat around your belly as well as around internal organs in your pelvic cavity, like your liver. This fat storage, called visceral fat, is associated with a greater risk of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some forms of cancer and it doesn't help you look buff in a swimsuit either.

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If you're chronically stressed, depressed, or anxious, your body establishes a long-term pattern of storing fat around your waist and belly. A study carried out by researchers at Yale University found that even lean women who are chronically stressed have higher levels of tummy fat. They are also at a greater risk of health problems associated with excess belly fat. Studies show thin, stressed out women have, as you might expect, higher levels of cortisol. They also react to stressful circumstances with spikes in cortisol release.

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Studies also show that people who are chronically depressed tend to have higher levels of cortisol and belly fat. Again, researchers believe cortisol is responsible for the excess belly fat.


Beyond Tummy Fat: Other Perils of Excess Cortisol

Cortisol contributes to fat storage and weight gain in other ways. When it's elevated, people eat more and crave more sugary snacks. Plus, cortisol suppresses immune function and reduces the ability to fight off infection, including pesky viruses. Longer term, chronically high cortisol contributes to loss of bone density and muscle mass that goes with aging. Increased tummy fat and loss of muscle tissue isn't a healthy combination.


How Can You Tame Excess Belly Fat?

Exercise and watching what you eat is important for controlling belly fat, but so is stress management. If you're in a chronically stressed out state, your body will continue to pump out too much cortisol and the belly fat won't budge. If you're eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and still can't shed belly fat, stress may be the missing link. Also, women often experience an increase in belly fat and their waistline grows after menopause due to hormonal changes. Stress is a factor here too since cortisol rises after menstruation ceases. The effects of cortisol are made worse by the fact that estrogen and growth hormone drop around this time too and these hormones help to counter the negative effects of cortisol.


How Can You Tame Cortisol and Belly Fat?

Find a way to reduce your stress level. You may not be able to completely control life stressors, but you can change the way you react to them. Mind-body exercises, like yoga, help to counter stress and some research links these practices with a reduction in cortisol. Learn how to breathe deeply and from your abdomen. Many people breathe too shallow. Don't skimp on sleep either. Studies clearly show that too little sleep elevates cortisol. Aim for at least seven hours of quality sleep each night.

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Exercise, particularly strength training, is beneficial as it helps maximize growth hormone to counter the effects of cortisol. But, don't overdo the cardio. Long periods of strenuous exercise like running can boost cortisol. Also, restrictive dieting places your body under stress. Skip the starvation diets and change what you eat. Clean up your diet by eliminating sugar, junk food, and ultra-processed carbs. Make sure you're eating enough magnesium-rich foods. Why magnesium? It plays a role in regulating the body's stress response.


In Summary

Chronic stress makes it harder to lose tummy fat, and the inability to lose it is associated with a higher risk of chronic health problems. Exercise and healthy eating are important, but don't ignore the importance of having a way to relax, unwind, and reboot.


 

References:

 

Yale News. "Study: Stress May Cause Excess Abdominal Fat in Otherwise Slender Women"

Psych Central. "Depression Linked with Belly Fat"