Do you feel stressed often? If you do, you’re in good company – 78% of Americans feel stressed at least once a week, and 15% say they’re stressed every day. If this sounds familiar and you also have excess belly fat, you might have a stress belly.
Even if you’re doing everything right in terms of a balanced diet and exercise, chronic stress can stop you from losing the weight around your midsection.
In this article, we’ll cover exactly what causes a stress belly, how to treat it, and how you can prevent it in the future.
What is a Stress Belly?
Stress belly is the extra abdominal fat that accumulates as the result of chronic or prolonged stress. Although stress belly is not a medical diagnosis, it is a term used to describe the way that stress and stress hormones impact your midsection.
Most people realize they have a stress belly after struggling to lose weight. Despite following the best weight loss guidance, people with stress belly won’t notice much difference in their stomachs. This is because they aren’t treating the hormones that are at the root of the problem.
How Chronic Stress Causes Stress Belly
Some levels of stress are normal and even healthy. It’s your body’s natural signal that something is difficult or dangerous and needs extra attention. However, chronic stress can have negative implications. Increased levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, is linked with abdominal obesity.
Yet the hormone, at regular levels, is key for metabolism and helps with blood sugar control. Cortisol is released at times of acute stress, like during exercise. It gives us motivation and focus.
Your body responds to stress in one main way, via the fight or flight response – your body’s natural reaction to a situation that it sees as a crisis. When the body senses a threat, your adrenal glands produce cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones help slow any unnecessary body functions, which allows you to focus your energy on the threat. When the crisis is solved, your hormones return to normal levels.
We all experience the fight or flight response. In human history, threats were typically short-lived – we see a predator, we fight or run, and the stress ends. But in the modern world, stressors remain constant. When we experience chronic stress, a state of ongoing stress, these hormone levels, as well as blood sugar and blood pressure, stay elevated.
Research suggests that long-term increases in cortisol levels are linked to abdominal obesity – in other words, belly fat. Prolonged stress leads to increased blood sugar levels, which makes cortisol levels rise, which increases belly fat.
Signs of a Stress Belly
Although the appearance of your stomach and the struggle to lose weight are the predominant signs of a stress belly, they’re not the only ones. If you’re experiencing the following symptoms, you likely have a stress belly.
1. You’re Always Hungry
As if feeling stressed out wasn’t enough, stress also makes you hungry. It’s linked to a hunger hormone called ghrelin, which increases your appetite. More ghrelin in your system can lead to weight gain. If the amount of food that once satisfied you no longer does and you feel hungry after every meal, it could be a sign of stress belly.
2. You’re Overwhelmed
Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels can make you feel constantly overwhelmed. People typically report feeling like they’re on the verge of tears or like the smallest irritation might set cause them to scream. It’s a sense of feeling like you might explode.
3. Exercise Makes Things Worse
Imbalanced cortisol levels can also increase your hunger post-workout. In particular, it can make you crave calorie-dense foods. It’s worth noting that exercising too intensely can also increase your cortisol levels, which can play into this negative cycle.
Health Risks of Belly Fat and Chronic Stress
Abdominal obesity can put you at a higher risk for comorbidities – the presence of two or more diseases or conditions at once – as well as mortality. With that in mind, it’s important to understand that there are two very different types of abdominal fat.
Visceral fat is intra-abdominal fat that is in your internal organs, like your liver and intestines. It can also be stored in the omentum, which is a flap of tissue that sits under the muscles. The more visceral fat added here, the harder and thicker the omentum becomes, which leads to larger waist measurements.
This type of fat also releases retinol-binding protein, which leads to insulin resistance. Plus, it contains more cytokines, which can cause inflammation that can lead to chronic health conditions. For example, having more visceral fat can increase your risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and asthma.
The other type of belly fat is subcutaneous fat. This is the “normal” fat that lies just below the skin. Like the fat on the rest of the body, a small to moderate amount of subcutaneous fat is not harmful. It even releases some helpful hormones, like adiponectin, which regulates sugars and fats, and leptin, which burns stored fat and limits the appetite. However, too much subcutaneous fat is not healthy. If you have a lot of subcutaneous fat, you’ll need to reduce belly fat.
Research shows that people with higher levels of cortisol also have higher body mass index and larger waist measurements. Since cortisol is meant to slow the body’s functions down so you can focus when stressed, consistently elevated cortisol levels can disrupt most of your body’s processes.
These ongoing disruptions and prolonged stress can put you at higher risk for headaches, muscle tension and pain, digestive problems, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, memory and concentration issues, and, of course, weight gain.
5 Ways to Get Rid of Stress Belly and Belly Fat
Before discussing how to get rid of stress belly, it’s important to understand that there are many factors that impact where your body stores fat, where you lose weight, and how high your stress levels are.
Genetics, hormones, and age can determine where you store fat. Women who’ve had children carry weight differently, as do women in menopause. Likewise, lifestyle factors like smoking and alcohol use can also play a role.
Despite these factors, there are still ways to improve your health, reduce belly fat, and find a healthy weight.
1. Limit Stress
It’s easier said than done, but reducing and limiting your stress and stress hormones is key to controlling elevated stress cortisol levels. What calms you down and makes you feel relaxed? Find time to do more of that. In stressful situations, give yourself a few minutes to meditate. Planning time for yoga, activities with loved ones, reading, art, and more can ensure that you get to unwind.
2. Eat a Balanced Diet
We all know that a balanced diet is key for maintaining a healthy weight, but it’s also great for limiting stress. For example, green leafy veggies, bananas, and avocados contain B vitamins that research suggests can relieve stress.
3. Moderate Intensity Exercise
Exercise can improve your mood while lowering stress. However, working out too intensely can add stress and increase cortisol levels. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity workouts about four days a week, and add in strength training on at least two days. Plus, you heat up when you work out. As the body temperature rises, your brain releases more endorphins which improve your mood.
Although you might want to do all the ab exercises, they won’t have any impact on visceral fat. Instead, strength training and mood-boosting moderate-intensity workouts will improve stress and provide overall weight loss.
Chronic stress causes you to gain belly fat while also impacting your ability to sleep. When you get less than six hours of sleep, you also develop more visceral fat. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s important to break it.
Aim for 7 to 9 hours per night. Try to get enough physical activity and mental stimulation throughout the day so that you go to bed tired. Remove screens from the bedroom and try to keep a consistent sleep schedule.
Moderate Drinking and Stop Smoking
Research suggests that both drinking and smoking can increase belly fat. Although they might seem like they relieve stress, they eventually lead to more stress by causing weight gain.
It’s also important to understand that your body burns alcohol first, before anything else. If you want to burn fat, you should avoid alcohol.
How Long Does It Take to Get Rid of Stress Belly?
Unfortunately, since there are so many factors that contribute to belly fat, there’s no set timeline to get rid of stress belly. Your age, genetics, and gender will play major roles in your ability to lose weight.
However, if you’re able to truly commit to limiting stress and living a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet and plenty of daily activity, you should see weight loss each week. One to two pounds of fat per week is a reasonable and sustainable goal. Aiming to lose more than that can lead to more stress and burnout, which could cause you to put the weight back on.
4 Ways to Prevent Stress Belly
Whether you’ve lost the stress belly and want to maintain your figure or want to prevent it altogether, the following will help you do so.
1. Manage Stress
Practice stress management or coping techniques each day. For example, breathing exercises, meditation, or mindfulness can help keep cortisol levels in check.
2. Maintain Your Weight
Maintaining a healthy weight for your height and age will help limit belly fat.
3. Move Daily
Getting enough movement each day will help limit stress, improve sleep, maintain a healthy weight, and lead to overall health.
4. Enjoy a Balanced Diet
A balanced diet should include a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, healthy fats, and lean protein. Fiber is especially important as it helps regulate your digestion, which can be imbalanced at times of stress. You should also try to avoid high-calorie processed foods that have added fructose or hydrogenated vegetable oils, as these foods offer little nutrition.
When Should You See Your Doctor?
Excess abdominal fat isn’t necessarily a reason to see your doctor, but it, as well as prolonged stress, can cause long-term issues. See your doctor if you’re experiencing anxiety, depression, digestive issues, or fatigue and are having issues when you try to lose weight.
It’s also worth noting that struggling to lose weight, especially when you’re doing everything right, can be a real pain point. Stress is a constant variable that can get in the way of your weight loss, and it can be frustrating.
This is exactly what one of our patients was dealing with. She came to us with a 25-pound weight loss goal and was losing weight on her own, but not at the rate other people were losing at. She could only lose a certain amount of weight, no matter how she tried. As a very intense person, she was constantly stressed without realizing it. When she went on vacation, she lost five pounds without trying. Her body was finally able to relax!
With the help of the Center for Wellbeing’s health coaches, the patient was finally able to learn meditation and other stress control techniques that helped her lose the weight for good.
To get these results, a multi-pronged approach is a must. It’s mind, body, spirit. When you master all three, you can feel good in your own skin, find your optimal weight, and stay there.
Are you ready to change your life? Check out our Metabolic Reset Weight Loss Program to get started.