stress, eating problems, bulimia, compulsive overeating, sugar addiction, weight gain. overweight woman with stack of chocolate cookies

Why You Gain Belly Fat When You’re Stressed

“I’m still looking for this kitchen in which abs are made…do you know where it is?”

That’s what one client said to me during a discussion in which she informed me that her belly was fat and nothing she did would get rid of it and she was gross and disgusting.

The wine we were having (this was a friend visit, NOT a workout – although I’m not against boozercise under the right circumstances) was not helping our bellies, but it was definitely helping our attitudes.

Look, I don’t want anyone out there to feel gross and disgusting, but I know what it’s like when you do and I’m not going to lie – It’s not easy to get rid of – the feeling AND the belly fat. If it were, I would not be having a wine-versation about gross and disgusting bellies, nor would I be writing this article.

And yes, diet is one of the most important aspects of losing belly fat…we’ll get to that. But there are other things we need to work on too and working on All of Them At The Same Time can make your eyeballs fall out of your head, roll across the floor and become your cat’s next favorite toy.

We don’t want that.

So let’s deal with things one thing at a time.

One major contributor to belly fat is:

STRESS

You need stress management. I know – the word management is an ugly one, so let’s just say stress management is all about pulling your s**t together.

In a previous article, I talked about how to tame your stress in several easy (okay, not easy, but worth trying) steps. In this one, we’re digging deeper to find out what stress is, what it does to your mind and body and, most important, how it affects your belly fat.

Stress – What the Heck IS It?

The dictionary says that stress is ‘mental, emotional, or physical strain or tension.’

Well, that covers just about everything we see, hear, do, say, think, feel or dream about.

Thanks, dictionary.com

Another definition is – The body’s reaction to a change that requires you to adjust or respond. Thanks Cleveland Clinic

That still means every damn thing causes some kind of stress. Turning the lights on, going outside, coming inside, listening to your husband snore like a chainsaw caught in a motorcycle inside a garbage truck, or when your cat sticks his nose in your armpit (perhaps that’s just me). 

But let’s narrow that definition to what we all really want to deal with:

Chronic Stress and Belly Fat

Here’s what I want you to know about chronic stress because some of it has nothing to do with your mind…it has to do with your body. Like all the physiological things going on inside that you can’t measure, track, or even see.

First, let’s talk about what stress feels like.

Symptoms of Chronic Stress

According to Healthline here are just SOME of the symptoms of stress:

  • Acne (been there, y’all)
  • Headaches, especially tension headaches
  • Pain – Some studies show that cortisol might be associated with chronic pain
  • Getting sick a lot – your immune system isn’t in the best shape when you’re stressed
  • Low energy
  • Insomnia
  • Zero sex drive
  • Stomach issues – digestive stuff, GI stuff like heartburn and acid reflux – all the fun ones
  • Changes in appetite – either eating way more or way less
  • Depress and anxiety
  • Sweating

I think I’ve had about all of these symptoms at one time or another and you can see why this makes life really uncomfortable. So, let’s get to the real deal now.

What Chronic Stress Does to Your Mind and Body (aka – It’s NOT YOUR FAULT)

Here’s what happens when your body is under chronic stress: 

  1. When you’re stressed out, your brain (part of the hypothalamus if you want to get technical) secretes a corticotrophin-releasing hormone. Stay with me here…nevermind – we’re going to call it CRH, okay?
  2. This hormone has a LOT of things to do in your body and is the main driver of the stress hormone system. 
  3. Once this hormone is triggered, it’s like s**t rolling downhill…it triggers other hormones.
  4. These hormones get into your bloodstream to your adrenal glands where…tada! 
  5. Your body secrets cortisol.

The stress hormone.

Let’s Talk About Cortisol for a Sec

You’ve heard about fight or flight, correct? Well, this was honed in our bodies back in the day when we were hunters and gathers and had to be on alert ALL THE TIME.

Fast forward to now and here’s the thing – Your body can’t tell the difference between a saber tooth tiger chasing you or the sight of your boss walking past your cubicle.

It reacts the same way every time – fight? Or flight? 

Now to the crux of the matter. Weight gain and stress.

Here’s Weight Gain Problem #1:

Stress is related to weight gain because in order to fight or flee you need energy. Cortisol is responsible for helping you to receive the energy you need, primarily by increasing your blood sugar. 

It does this by converting protein to sugar, then releasing stored glucose in your liver. When blood sugar levels are high, insulin (the fat-storing hormone) is secreted in order to transport the blood sugar to the brain and working muscles. 

Here is the catch: the muscles aren’t working because there is no physical stress, only emotional. You’re not moving, so the excess sugar you just secreted (and probably replaced in the form of yummy carbs, more on that later)  in the form of carbohydrates gets stored as fat. 

Here’s Weight Gain Problem #2:

Okay, so all the hormones are stimulated, excess sugar is running around in your body and you aren’t physically using that sugar.

Now? The real s**tshow starts. All of these hormonal reactions stimulate your cravings for comfort foods!

See how your body is driving this train? It’s. Not. Your. Fault. Take a deep breath and say it with me – It’s. Not. My. Fault. 

It’s physiology driving the cravings and, as one study shows, eating comfort foods “may directly result in reduction of the negative effects of the chronic stressor.”

Yep – Eating that mac ‘n cheese actually reduces the negative side effects of your boss or your kids or your life or your snoring husband or whatever is totally stressing you out.

That’s why we do it. That’s why we want to eat crap when we’re stressed the eff out.

Here’s Weight Gain Problem #3:

The fun doesn’t start there, y’all. Because here we are – Stress starts, the hormones break free, your flight or fight system kicks in, your body is producing excess sugar, your hormones are begging you for comfort food so you can feel better and….

All those excess calories? Go right to your belly.

Cortisol actually stimulates fat storage, especially around the belly. According to stress.org, “There is little doubt that increased stress and/or cortisol can cause increased abdominal fat and weight gain.

Why does this happen? Because our bodies protect us in times of stress by holding onto fat. 

What’s Next

So…you know what’s going on with your body. What next? How do you break the cycle of stress?

Your first step is to understand where you are in the stress-cortisol continuum. Start with this:

Learning to balance your emotional needs.

Click on the link above and download the free PDF from Professional-Counselling.com. Take some time to go through the worksheet because your first step to reducing stress AND belly fat is figuring out how to take better care of yourself. That’s the first thing you do. More to come!

Sources:

Dallman MF, Pecoraro NC, la Fleur SE. Chronic stress and comfort foods: self-medication and abdominal obesity. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. 2005;19(4):275-280. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2004.11.004

Heckman W. Stress, Cortisol and Abdominal Fat. The American Institute of Stress. https://www.stress.org/stress-cortisol-and-abdominal-fat.

 

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