Hectic work schedules, family responsibilities, money or relationship issues, mind non- stop thinking, little sleep and the list continues… Today, stress is a big chuck of our life… But did you know that consistent high stress levels make you gain fat? Not any type of fat, the worst one: visceral fat which is your belly fat. Chronic stress related to work was linked to increased central fat stores (belly fat) in subjects over a 19-year period. Even if you’re eating healthy and exercising to lose weight, high stress levels can slow down your weight loss progress.
Wondering How Stress Makes You Gain Belly Fat?
When you’re under physical or emotional stress, your body releases cortisol, your stress hormone. Cortisol is not bad for you, your body needs cortisol to regulate your glucose metabolism, immune response and blood pressure; but above normal cortisol levels are problematic. How come? When your body releases cortisol, the production of one of the hormones for building muscles, testosterone, drops resulting in a reduced muscle mass on the long term. This slows down your metabolism and makes you burn less calories and therefore gain weight even if you’re having the same diet and workout routine. Also, cortisol plays a role in mobilizing fat from your storage depots and relocating it to your fat cells in your abdomen. On other words, moving fat from your periphery to your belly! So high cortisol levels trigger excess fat storage.
The good news is that there are many ways to avoid high cortisol levels to beat stress related belly fat. Here are the most effective ones:
1. Don’t Skip Meals
Did you notice that people who eat only 1 or 2 meals a day are more likely to be overweight and have this belly fat? Skipping meals increases your cortisol levels. When you don’t eat for a long period of time, your blood sugar levels drop; and once they get really low, your body responds by releasing cortisol to convert energy stores to glucose to bring up your blood sugar levels to normal. So never skip meals; instead try having small frequent meals to maintain balanced blood sugar levels, avoiding cortisol release.
2. Limit Your Caffeine
Many people tend to drink a lot of coffee when stressed, especially those stressed because of work. Caffeine was found to increase cortisol levels. So if you’re stressed, you body is releasing cortisol and if you drink a lot of coffee on top of that, then your cortisol levels are above the roof. A study found that having 2
½ to 3 cups of coffee when under stress elevated cortisol levels by about 25%; and kept it up for 3 hours. So if you’re under stress, try limiting your caffeinated beverages to 1 cup a day.
3. Sleep Well
Not enough sleep makes you wake up with elevated cortisol levels. The effects of sleep duration on fat gain were investigated in a study over a five year period. Results showed that those who slept less than 5 hours a night accumulated abdominal fat, belly fat. Plus, little sleep makes you gain weight in other ways: it disturbs your appetite hormones like ghrelin making you feel hungry all day long and therefore eat more! Ideally you should sleep 7.5 to 9 hours per night, if this is too much for you, try getting at least 6 hours of sleep.
Exercise is well known for reducing stress. Do you know how? First, when you exercise, your body releases Endorphins, your “feel good hormones”, boosting your mood that is affected by your stress levels. Endorphins are also natural pain and stress fighters. Second, exercise helps you sleep better, which can also be disrupted by high stress. According to a recent study, sleep quality improved by 65% in those who exercised moderately for 2 hours and a half a week. You see? All of these exercise related benefits can reduce your stress levels. Stop the laziness, get out of your couch and try exercising at least 3 hours a week.
Mindfulness or focusing on the present helps in dropping your cortisol levels. A study showed a 20% significant drop in serum cortisol levels in stressed subjects after 4 days of meditation practice. Yoga helps you focus on the present and is therefore a good way to prevent high cortisol levels. In a new study, the effects of yoga alone were compared with the effects of medications in lowering anxiety symptoms in stressed people. Those who practiced yoga had a higher drop in serum cortisol levels compared to those who were on medications! Start meditating, even if it’s for few minutes a day or try joining some yoga classes to keep your cortisol levels in check.
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