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Stress Belly 101: The Basics

Introduction

Isn’t it frustrating when you feel like you are doing all the right things, yet buttoning up those jeans keeps getting harder and harder? I have been very health conscious for the last 3 decades and a Registered Dietitian for the last two and even having this knowledge and lifestyle has not stopped me from becoming a victim of the dreaded stress belly! The one thing I neglected to realize, until the last year and a half, is the impact that stress has on our waistlines. I always thought “I need to work out harder” or “I need to be stricter with my diet” and that was not the case at all. I feel certain you can relate and I’m so happy to share some ways that you can tackle that stress belly once and for all!

What causes a stress belly?

Stress

You may be asking, “so what exactly causes a stress belly?”. The answer to that question may vary for each person, but in general, stress is one of the most overlooked factors when it comes to belly fat. Stress can come in many forms, whether it be environmental, physical, psychological or emotional. Chronic stress effects abdominal obesity by stimulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, further increasing cortisol secretion and leading to an increased consumption of energy dense and/or fatty foods (1). You may recall from a previous post that cortisol is our “stress hormone”.

Sleep

Sleep deprivation creates added stress on your body and therefore your body naturally increases cortisol production as a way to deal or cope with the increase in stress. In fact, short sleep duration (<7 hours per night) and a late bed time have a positive correlation with obesity, which can be attributed to the effect that on the hormone’s ghrelin, leptin, and cortisol (1).

Hormones

Stress Belly Cycle

According to Dr. Shawn Talbott, author of The Cortisol Connection, stress causes cortisol to travel to our brains to signal hunger and cravings for comfort foods. When this happens, our brain tells our fat cells, especially in the belly region, to store as many calories as possible. Talbott states, “No matter how much diet and exercise we do, if we are stressed, we are still sending those signals to our brain and therefore developing belly fat” (2).

Additionally, when we are chronically sleep deprived, two hormones that help control appetite are negatively affected. Ghrelin is increased, which stimulates our appetite and leptin is decreased. Leptin is the hormone that helps suppress our appetite. This often leads to an increase in calorie intake and therefore an increased risk of developing obesity (1).

What are the risks of having a stress belly?

I believe most of us have heard by now that the “apple shape” is more harmful to our health than the “pear shape”, when looking at body types. Therefore, there must be added risk to having a larger waist circumference and a large abdominal region, right? Correct! Let’s explore a few of the more serious risks that we face when we have a stress belly.

Metabolic disturbances such as insulin resistance / diabetes, dyslipidemia / heart disease and inflammation are significantly associated with abdominal obesity (4,6). In fact, it has been suggested that abdominal obesity is a better predictor of the risk of chronic disease than obesity in general (1). In fact, waist circumference, a measurement of central / abdominal fat is one of the criteria used for diagnosing metabolic syndrome and has been used to assess obesity-related mortality risk in adults (4).

With regards to inflammation, it has become increasingly evident that major life stressors can cause pro-inflammatory responses in our bodies as a protective mechanism which ultimately may lead to mental disorders such as depression (7).

Types of Stress

How to get rid of a stress belly?

So now that you know many of the things that can cause you to gain that dreaded stress belly, let’s talk about strategies that you can implement to get rid of it or prevent it from happening in the first place.

Stress                                                                  

Stress, in and of itself, is not entirely a bad thing. Our bodies are able to learn from setbacks and adversities when we experience stressful events that are matched with healthy coping mechanisms. It’s when we encounter chronic or toxic-stress that we become more vulnerable to mood and anxiety disorders and lose our ability to effectively cope. (5)

Developing healthy coping mechanisms and becoming more resilient to stressors is imperative to your overall health. The type of coping mechanisms you choose will depend on what works for you as an individual, but some common methods include:

  • Talking to a trusted friend
  • Meditation or deep breathing techniques
  • Herbal remedies that help rebalance your stress system
  • Talking to a counselor or therapist
  • Spending time outdoors walking or performing a moderate exercise for at least 30 minutes

Sleep

Chronic stress, inadequate sleep and abdominal fat go hand in hand and therefore getting enough sleep is one of the most effective ways to drop fat in the abdominal region. An overwhelming majority of the American population reports chronic stress and inadequate or disrupted sleep. According to Dr. Shawn Talbott, missing as little as two hours of sleep for three nights can increase cortisol production by 50% (2). This lack of sleep is perceived as yet another stressor on your body.  To improve the quality and / or duration of your sleep, try:

  • Developing a healthy night time routine (have a set bedtime & wakeup time, have a completely dark room and a comfortable temperature)
  • Limiting screen time / blue light exposure at least one hour before bed
  • Limiting caffeine containing products (for example: no coffee after 10am)
  • Including foods or supplements to help increase your melatonin production (I use this *corn grass extract-based supplement to help my body produce more melatonin)
  • Implementing strategies to control your stress level

Diet

While you cannot prevent a stress belly with diet alone, it is still a very important component to overall physical, emotional and mental wellness. The gut is often referred to as the second brain and therefore what we feed it affects so many other processes throughout our bodies. In fact, research regarding the effect diet has on the microbiome and therefore obesity is being increasingly studied (8).

To support a healthy microbiome, the healthy or “good” bacteria in the gut needs to be nourished and encouraged to grow into a diverse microbial community. You can consume a nutrient dense diet by:  

  • Filling at least half of your plate with vegetables at most meals (try adding vegetables at breakfast too).
  • Including probiotic foods or supplements (kefir, yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha).
  • Consuming plenty of fiber-rich foods (prebiotics) to feed those healthy gut microbes (example: legumes, lentils, bananas (not ripened), oats, onions, leeks, garlic, artichokes, apples).
  • Limiting alcoholic beverages as much as possible. The American Heart Association defines moderate alcohol consumption as one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women and states if you don’t already drink alcohol, it’s better not to start.

You can check out my favorite* gut-brain-axis system here which contains a blend of probiotics, prebiotics, and phytobiotics. This whole-body system also has a stress reducing, hormone balancing component).

Conclusion

When it comes to making lifestyle modifications, I always recommend keeping it simple and starting with one modification at a time. It’s easy to become overwhelmed and discouraged if you try to make a huge shift all at once. Rather, make a list of changes you would like to make, and highlight which three items you should focus on first. Implement one of these strategies per week until each one becomes hard wired. Then proceed to the other items on your list. You may find that some of the original issues are no longer present. Here’s to less stress, better sleep, good nutrition and a trim waistline!

The purpose of this information is to inform and empower the reader to make positive lifestyle changes. It is not intended to replace medical advice or instructions given by your doctor or healthcare provider.

*If you purchase items through this link, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.

References

  1. Chung S, Kwock CK. Fat Intake and Stress Modify Sleep Duration Effects on Abdominal Obesity. Nutrients. 2019 Oct 21;11(10):2535. doi: 10.3390/nu11102535. PMID: 31640155; PMCID: PMC6835938.
  2. Talbott, Shawn M. The Cortisol Connection: Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health – and What You Can Do about It. Hunter House, 2007.
  3. Freitas FV, Barbosa WM, Silva LAA, Garozi MJO, Pinheiro JA, Borçoi AR, Conti CL, Arpini JK, de Paula H, de Oliveira MM, Archanjo AB, de Freitas ÉAS, de Oliveira DR, Borloti EB, Louro ID, Alvares-da-Silva AM. Psychosocial stress and central adiposity: A Brazilian study with a representative sample of the public health system users. PLoS One. 2018 Jul 31;13(7):e0197699. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0197699. PMID: 30063700; PMCID: PMC6067710.
  4. Ramos-Lopez O, Riezu-Boj JI, Milagro FI, Moreno-Aliaga MJ, Martinez JA; project MENA. Endoplasmic reticulum stress epigenetics is related to adiposity, dyslipidemia, and insulin resistance. Adipocyte. 2018;7(2):137-142. doi: 10.1080/21623945.2018.1447731. Epub 2018 Mar 23. PMID: 29570038; PMCID: PMC6152516.
  5. de Kloet ER, de Kloet SF, de Kloet CS, de Kloet AD. Top-down and bottom-up control of stress-coping. J Neuroendocrinol. 2019 Mar;31(3):e12675. doi: 10.1111/jne.12675. Epub 2019 Feb 1. PMID: 30578574; PMCID: PMC6519262.
  6. Kwarteng JL, Schulz AJ, Mentz GB, Israel BA, Perkins DW. Independent Effects of Neighborhood Poverty and Psychosocial Stress on Obesity Over Time. J Urban Health. 2017 Dec;94(6):791-802. doi: 10.1007/s11524-017-0193-7. PMID: 28895036; PMCID: PMC5722729.
  7. Ouakinin SRS, Barreira DP, Gois CJ. Depression and Obesity: Integrating the Role of Stress, Neuroendocrine Dysfunction and Inflammatory Pathways. Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2018 Jul 31;9:431. doi: 10.3389/fendo.2018.00431. PMID: 30108549; PMCID: PMC6079193.
  8. Martinez KB, Leone V, Chang EB. Western diets, gut dysbiosis, and metabolic diseases: Are they linked? Gut Microbes. 2017 Mar 4;8(2):130-142. doi: 10.1080/19490976.2016.1270811. Epub 2017 Jan 6. PMID: 28059614; PMCID: PMC5390820.

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