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Stress and Belly Fat

Along with physical activity and good nutrition, one way you can help shed excess fat in your body is to reduce your levels of stress. Yup, that's right. Although many of us think of being stressed as just a normal part of daily life, too much stress over long periods of time can actually lead to physical changes in the body that will increase your fat stores.

The visceral fat within your abdomen is significantly affected by stress levels. When you're stressed, your body releases cortisol, which is also known as the "stress hormone." Although cortisol release is a normal process on a short-term basis, if your cortisol levels stay high for an extended period of time, you will have more trouble losing fat and run into health problems.

Cortisol increases when we are feeling overwhelmed in any way. It is our bodies' natural response to both physical and psychological stress and its main goal is to preserve carbohydrates to use for more vital organs, such as the brain. If cortisol becomes too high, however, it can lead to symptoms such as overeating, depression and weight gain.

Getting enough sleep is crucial to reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.

According to a February 2017 study published in Obesity, long-term cortisol exposure has a significant impact on fat accumulation in the body.

Cortisol actually causes fat to be stored or taken from other areas of the body to be stored in the abdomen area. It also leads to more fat cell development and increases blood glucose and insulin suppression.

On top of all of that, elevated cortisol levels will increase your appetite and make you crave more energy-dense foods, so you will feel hungrier and eat more too..

All in all, stress = bad for your body, so it's important to reduce your stress levels for your overall health and especially if you are specifically trying to decrease fat in your body. To reduce stress, try incorporating calming practices such as meditation, yoga or even just deep breathing throughout your day.

And don't overlook the importance of nutrition in helping you manage your stress. What you eat can have a big impact on your stress levels. Try avoiding diets high in refined grains, sugars, red meats and fats and instead sticking to more fruits, vegetables, fish, legumes, nuts and whole grains, as those foods are associated with reduced depression and anxiety, according to October 2019 research in PLOS One.

You can also reduce your stress levels by trying some of the following science-backed methods:

  1. Declutter your environment. A September 2017 study in Current Psychology linked clutter to decreased life satisfaction in adults. Marie Kondo your space and breathe a little easier!

  2. Get outside. A June 2019 study in Scientific Reports found that spending at least 120 minutes a week outside in nature increases wellbeing and happiness.

  3. Decrease your time on social media. April 2015 research from Computers in Human Behavior revealed that there is a direct correlation between stressful experiences and Facebook usage.

  4. Get enough sleep. "Studies have proven that increasing your sleep from six hours or less per night to between seven and eight may help reduce visceral fat by approximately 26 percent. Anything less than that may cause an increase in abdominal weight gain. (Cortisol is the culprit here again, since your body tends to release the hormone when you're sleep-deprived.)

8 Ways to Beat Stress-Induced Belly Fat

Stress raises cortisol levels, which can prompt your body to store belly fat. Is there anything more stubborn than belly fat? No matter how you try to whittle down your middle, that spare tire seems to cling to your waistline for dear life. Stressing about it won't help — and in fact, it might even be the reason that extra belly fat appeared in the first place.

The main culprit? The stress hormone cortisol. Yep, studies show a link between cortisol and increased visceral fat — the dangerous type of belly fat, sometimes called "inside fat," that surrounds internal organs in the abdomen. However, cortisol wasn't always the enemy. In ancient times, our bodies released cortisol to help protect us from threats, says Sara Gottfried, MD, author of Brain Body Diet. "A rise in cortisol increases the body's desire for sugar so it can feed the muscles to help us run from danger. However, the danger we face today is an angry boss or gridlock on the freeway. Except cortisol still reacts in the same way, even though we don't need to run anywhere," she explains. "In fact, we sit at our desks, so the glucose released by our body to prep the muscles to run gets stored as fat by insulin."

Unfortunately, stress — and the body's triggered response to it — is unavoidable. So, what can you do to mitigate its effect on your waistline?

1. Make Sleep a Priority

You need to catch your Zzz's if you want to fight stress. Quality slumber not only has the power to lower cortisol levels, but it also produces growth hormone and melatonin — fat-fighting hormones that support healthy muscle mass. A good night's rest also helps maintain levels of leptin, a hormone that's important for healthy appetite control.

Plus, when you don't get enough sleep, you tend to reach for sugary foods to give you a quick boost of energy, which just adds to the belly fat dilemma.

How much shut-eye do you need? People who sleep fewer than five hours a night are roughly a third likelier to gain weight than those who sleep seven hours a night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. So make sure you're getting the recommended amount, which is seven to nine hours for most adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

2. Don't Skip Meals

When you're desperate to shed those extra pounds, you might think skipping a meal to reduce your calorie intake is a good idea. Don't do it!

If you skip meals or wait too long between meals, your body experiences more dips and spikes than it should, and that throws your hormones out of whack. Specifically, waiting too long to eat between meals causes a blood sugar drop, which triggers a stress response in your body, which in turn releases cortisol and causes your energy to crash hard.

The result? You may overeat the next time you nosh, causing a surge in blood sugar. When this happens, your body releases a flood of insulin, which stores that excess sugar as fat. (Talk about a vicious cycle!)

3. Choose Your Carbs Wisely

Contrary to popular belief, carbs aren't inherently bad. But not all carbs are created equal, either. Processed or refined carbs (think: white bread and white rice) tend to spike your blood sugar. And since they lack the fiber to fill you up, they're easier to overeat.

Complex carbs like quinoa, sweet potatoes and yucca are digested slowly and don't raise blood sugar excessively, says Dr. Gottfried. They also help activate the genes of weight loss, including the ones that code for adiponectin, a hormone known to reduce belly fat and inflammation.

4. Nix the Booze

After a long, stressful week, sipping on a cocktail might be your go-to way to unwind. But if you're struggling with belly fat, booze will just make things worse. Alcohol raises cortisol levels, which will impact your blood glucose and insulin levels.

While there's no evidence that alcohol slows your metabolism, or that one drink now and then will give you a wider waistline, drinking might increase your appetite, and excessive drinking is linked to higher blood pressure and blood sugar.

So the next time you're tempted to reach for that glass of wine, consider running yourself a relaxing hot bath instead. Soaking in a tub can burn calories and may help lower blood sugar, according to a small, March 2017 study in Temperature involving lean and overweight men.

5. Limit Sugar and Processed Foods

Cookies and chips are the ultimate comfort food when you're stressed. But cutting down on junk food is a must for anyone trying to beat belly fat.

Not only do highly processed foods contain heaps of added sugar and lots of empty calories without any nutritional benefits, they also contain endocrine disruptors like preservatives that can cause hormonal imbalances, says Caroline Apovian, MD, an obesity and diabetes researcher and professor of diabetes and endocrinology at Boston University School of Medicine.

This may cause a chain reaction leading to more visceral fat, the deep fatty tissue that lies beneath your abdominal wall, which can result in a host of health problems, including metabolic syndrome — a group of symptoms that signal an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

Reducing your sugar intake and removing processed foods will reset blood sugar and insulin.

6. Find Small Ways to Stay Active

Not every bit of exercise you do needs to be high intensity to beat belly fat. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) is all the ways you burn extra calories through fidgeting, pacing or parking farther away so you walk more — and it adds up.

Bonus: Even these small forms of exercise can help relieve stress by boosting production of feel-good brain chemicals, giving your mind a rest from life's daily stressors and improving your overall sense of well-being, according to the Mayo Clinic.

NEAT can increase your brown fat, which helps you scorch more calories. So, how do you make the most of NEAT? Essentially, take every opportunity to get your body moving.

Try smaller bits of exercise, like pacing while you talk on the phone or taking a two-minute dance break while you brew your coffee. Yes, a quick boogie session counts!

Bottom line? Finding ways to reduce your stress level, can actually help you lose belly fat!

*Some included information provided by


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