Does the rest of your body seems to be shaping up, but nothing seems to work to shift that pesky fat around your middle? Then your stressful lifestyle may be to blame.
That’s according to health expert Jackie Wicks, co-author of new book Cheats & Eats: Lifestyle Programme.
When cortisol – the so-called stress hormone – is too high for too long, it can increase the amount of fat that’s stored on your stomach, she explained.
Also called visceral fat, this is a form of gel-like fat that’s wrapped around major organs, including the liver, pancreas, and kidneys. This type is particularly nasty, being linked to increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
Colorado-based Ms. Wicks spoke to Healthista about the signs that you’re suffering from ‘stress belly’, as she calls it.
Dieting alone is not enough to tackle the problem, she says – you have to combine healthy eating with stress management techniques.
What cortisol does when you’re stressed
Cortisol, created in the body’s adrenal gland, is essential to give us the get-up-and-go we need to get motivated and focused, which is why it’s usually elevated in the morning.It’s also released during exercise and periods of acute stress.
It regulates energy by selecting the right amount of carbohydrate, fat, or protein the body needs to meet the physiological demands placed on it
You may have heard of the ‘fight or flight’ response that occurs when you’re faced with a stressful event.
During this, cortisol is released from the body’s adrenal glands and floods the body with glucose – the simplest form of carbohydrate and preferred energy source – to give muscles an immediate supply of energy.
Insulin – the hormone that reduces blood sugar – is also released to prevent the glucose being stored as fat and make it freely available to give you the immediate energy to deal with an event.
Once the stress is addressed, hormone balance returns to normal.
That’s in an ideal world where all your stressors are short-lived. But they’re often chronic, meaning have no real end in sight – bad bosses, toxic relationships, money worries and so on.
So, while a little stress is good for you and can give you the energy to get through say, a job interview, work challenge or exam, when it’s chronic and ongoing your cortisol level may be constantly raised.
As a result, you may feel overwhelmed, constantly tired or wound up. You may also be anxious, depressed or find it difficult to make decisions, concentrate or get to sleep.
How excess cortisol gives you excess belly fat
Firstly, cortisol can release fat from storage and send it to your belly, which in itself may also increase the production of this hormone.
Secondly, high blood glucose teamed with the insulin suppression that is caused by excess cortisol can starve cells of energy. The body responds by sending hunger signals to the brain, which may lead to overeating. In this case, any unused glucose will get stored as fat in the body.
Thirdly, cortisol may affect appetite and cravings as demonstrated in a study published in the journal, Psychoneuroendocrinology that showed an association between raised cortisol levels and higher calorie intake in women.
Such chronic stress, research has shown can not only impact your immune system and raise your blood pressure, increasing your risk of heart disease, it can also cause you to gain weight and to have difficulty losing it.
Research by University College London (UCL), published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, found that people who had higher levels of cortisol in their bodies tended to have larger waist measurements and a higher body mass index than those with lower levels.
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