Last post, I talked about the real reason for stubborn belly fat and how important it is to know this if you want long-lasting, healthy, sustainable results. You can read the post here.
Chronic stress is a major cause of stubborn belly fat. Stress and energy are inter-related and at the heart of why it’s so hard to stick to a traditional diet and why women struggle to get the life-long fat loss they really want.
Stress isn’t talked about in almost all the diet programs out there. In fact, all these traditional diet programs do is make your stress hormone imbalances worse. And when we neglect the root cause of our health issues, we won’t get relief.
Treating a symptom, like belly fat, isn’t ever going to be as effective as treating the root cause, like stress.
You may not always feel stressed in the common “frazzled and overwhelmed” sense.
But you’re exposed to a ton of stressors every single day. From traumatic experiences, exposure to toxins, traffic jams, work deadlines, demanding families, running to hit all your appointments on time, and, of course, the stress we cause ourselves when we become obsessed with the scale, women take on a LOT of stress each day.
And this stress adds up.
Dieting, processed foods, junk foods, and negative self-talk are top stressors as well.
And, in our modern society, our stressors trigger our “fight or flight” response but rarely do we ever fight back or run away from what triggers us. I mean, I’d love to hop out of my car sometimes and whack that annoying driver over the head, but I can’t do that!
Mindset Adjustments Needed
Since we can’t appropriately (aka funnel our fight or flight response) attack our stressors, we have to learn how to better deal with our stress response. We have to learn how to nurture and harness it so that we avoid spiking our main stress hormone – cortisol – over and over and over again.
Otherwise, bellies continue to grow and health conditions worsen.
What Happens To Your Body On Stress
Your main stress response triggers the release of cortisol by the adrenals. It’s actually two little glands in the brain that figure out when to signal the adrenals to release cortisol, which means our stress response can become dysfunctional if those glands are affected.
When our stress response is out of whack, it’s usually a dysregulation of the whole hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis, for short).
Over time, this signalling can become out of whack, resulting in constant cortisol release. This is known as adrenal alarm or overdrive. Conversely, the adrenals can stop producing enough cortisol in response to all the stress, resulting in adrenal fatigue or suppression.
I see one of these dysregulations in every one of my clients, too.
And it’s really the imbalance of your stress hormones that cause stubborn belly fat; it’s not overeating calories. It’s actually this imbalance that triggers you to eat more comfort foods…
Again, treat the root cause (the cortisol imbalance), not the symptom (overeating by restricting calories or carbs).
What Happens to All This Cortisol?
If cortisol is continually pumped out, where does it go?
Under normal, healthy circumstances, your liver would be able to keep up, detoxifying the excess and sending it off for elimination.
But, under today’s chronically high-stressed situation, too much cortisol (along with other toxins) overburdens the liver. This leaves “old” cortisol circulating and affecting other areas of your body.
This is when health conditions associated with high cortisol or high stress happen.
High levels of cortisol production steal resources needed to make progesterone, so you end up with low progesterone and high levels of estrogen. Estrogen is a fat storage hormone too.
Chronically imbalanced stress hormones affect the functionality of the thyroid, slowing down metabolism. This increases testosterone in women, which is a weight loss killer.
Growth hormone, a fat loss hormone, decreases at the same time.
Chronic stress increases chronic inflammation. And all of this combined leads to weight gain, especially stubborn belly fat.
Cortisol’s Often Ignored Health Issue
We talk a lot about the problems associated with living a high stress lifestyle. Heart attack and stroke risks increase, cholesterol levels may rise, and certain cancers may run rampant.
But, when it comes to your body composition, cortisol also has a detrimental role in your musculature.
As noted above, when cortisol is released, its job is to prepare you for “fight or flight”. This triggers glucose conversion from the liver and from your muscles to be used as energy, which literally involves eating away at muscle tissue.
This leaves you with less metabolically active lean muscle tissue which, you guessed it, leads to fat storage and weight gain.
The Good News
Here’s the good news in all of this.
Once you know that chronic stress is at the root of stubborn belly fat and many of your health and weight concerns, you can start to rebalance your cortisol and manage your stress response.
This is the key to long-term fat loss – balance cortisol and ensure that you do everything you can to keep your stress response normal.
One of the key components to balancing cortisol is to ensure you’re eating enough of the right cortisol producing nutrients. Your adrenals love healthy fat, especially cholesterol.
Make sure you’re not causing undue stress by restricting calories beyond 1500 / day OR reducing your overall net carb intake below 15% most of the time. It’s always helpful to have a few “carb up” days each week to give your adrenals the signal that they’re safe and that you’re not in danger…aka, no fight or flight response triggered!
Second, if you’re stressed, you likely have energy imbalances throughout the day. This means it is crucial to exercise only to what your body tells you is comfortable. For women with a lot of stress in their lives, HIIT and CrossFit are bad ideas. Stick to resistance training or yoga most days, and get in a daily 30-minute walk outside.
Finally, practice your stress management techniques. Deep belly breathing, meditation, coloring, jigsaw puzzles, knitting, listening to music, reading, journaling…anything that relaxes you and allows your mind to stop worrying for 30 minutes a day is a great stress relief tool.