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Most of us have experienced the dreaded belly fat at some point in our lives. If you are having that experience at this time, you are my people. Me too!
While I kept hearing reports that stress can contribute to belly fat, I didn’t really take much notice. My life was nothing but stress at the time, so I figured if that was contributing, there was nothing I could do about it. I wish I had taken it more seriously, sooner.
My husband and I recently had his childhood home remodeled. What started out as a simple clean-out ended up being a project that lasted over a year. We were living with my son and his partner, and things got a little heated. OK, things got very heated. Stress was a daily experience, and our bellies were demonstrating our stress load in ways we had never before experienced. We were blowing up like balloons, even though our eating habits hadn’t changed.
We’ve now been in our “new to us” home since the week before Christmas of ’22. In the 6 weeks we’ve lived here, I’ve dropped from a size 3x shirt to a 1x and a size 20 pants to a 16. I haven’t done anything any differently, other than my stress load is gone. My husband is on his last belt notch and dropped one pants size.
This whole “stress equals belly fat” theory has my attention.
Let’s talk about cortisol, shall we?
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone. There are endocrine glands that sit on top of your kidneys called adrenal glands. They produce and release cortisol. Cortisol, among other things, helps regulate your body’s response to stress.
Cortisol is an essential hormone that affects almost every organ and tissue in your body. It plays many important roles, including:
- Regulating your body’s stress response.
- Helping control your body’s use of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, or your metabolism.
- Suppressing inflammation.
- Regulating blood pressure.
- Regulating blood sugar.
- Helping control your sleep-wake cycle.
What is a hormone?
Hormones are chemicals that coordinate different functions in your body by carrying messages through your blood to your organs, skin, muscles, and other tissues. These signals tell your body what to do and when to do it.
Glucocorticoids are a type of steroid hormone. They suppress inflammation in all of your bodily tissues and control metabolism in your muscles, fat, liver, and bones. Glucocorticoids also affect sleep-wake cycles.
Higher-than-normal or lower-than-normal cortisol levels can be harmful to your health.
Are there different kinds of stress?
Yes. You’ve heard of “good stress”, I’m sure. It motivates you and makes you happy, right? Getting ready for your wedding day can be considered good stress, or planning for a big vacation.
But there are other types of stress that aren’t as great for your body.
- Acute stress: Acute stress happens when you’re in sudden danger within a short period of time. For example, barely avoiding a car accident or being chased by an animal are situations that cause acute stress.
- Chronic stress: Chronic (long-term) stress happens when you experience ongoing situations that cause frustration or anxiety. For example, having a difficult or frustrating job or having a chronic illness can cause chronic stress. Domestic Violence, and being bullied at school or at work are also examples of chronic stress.
- Traumatic stress: Traumatic stress happens when you experience a life-threatening event that induces fear and a feeling of helplessness. For example, experiencing an extreme weather event, such as a tornado, or experiencing war or sexual assault can cause traumatic stress. In some cases, these events can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Your body releases cortisol when you experience any of these types of stress
How does cortisol affect my body?
Cortisol affects your body in the following ways:
- Regulating your body’s stress response: During times of stress, your body can release cortisol after releasing its “fight or flight” hormones, such as adrenaline, so you continue to stay on high alert. In addition, cortisol triggers the release of glucose (sugar) from your liver for fast energy during times of stress.
- Regulating metabolism: Cortisol helps control how your body uses fats, proteins, and carbohydrates for energy.
- Suppressing inflammation: In short spurts, cortisol can boost your immunity by limiting inflammation. However, if you have consistently high levels of cortisol, your body can get used to having too much cortisol in your blood, which can lead to inflammation and a weakened immune system.
- Regulating blood pressure: The exact way in which cortisol regulates blood pressure in humans is unclear. However, elevated levels of cortisol can cause high blood pressure, and lower-than-normal levels of cortisol can cause low blood pressure.
- Increasing and regulating blood sugar: Under normal circumstances, cortisol counterbalances the effect of insulin, a hormone your pancreas makes, to regulate your blood sugar. Cortisol raises blood sugar by releasing stored glucose, while insulin lowers blood sugar. Having chronically high cortisol levels can lead to persistent high blood sugar (hyperglycemia). This can cause Type 2 diabetes.
- Helping control your sleep-wake cycle: Under regular circumstances, you have lower cortisol levels in the evening when you go to sleep and peak levels in the morning right before you wake up. This suggests that cortisol plays a significant role in the initiation of wakefulness and plays a part in your body’s circadian rhythm.
Having less than optimum cortisol levels can have negative impacts on your overall health.
Are there disorders that can cause high or low cortisol?
Yes. Cushing’s syndrome, Addison’s disease, and hypopituitarism can all cause your cortisol to become unbalanced.
So how do I know if I have a disorder or a “stress belly”?
First and foremost, see your doctor. Once all of the above medical issues are ruled out, then you can move forward.
The Center for Wellbeing tells us that “Although the appearance of your stomach and the struggle to lose weight is the predominant signs of a stress belly, they’re not the only ones. If you’re experiencing the following symptoms, you likely have a stress belly.
1. You’re Always Hungry
As if feeling stressed out wasn’t enough, stress also makes you hungry. It’s linked to a hunger hormone called ghrelin, which increases your appetite. More ghrelin in your system can lead to weight gain. If the amount of food that once satisfied you no longer does and you feel hungry after every meal, it could be a sign of stress belly.
2. You’re Overwhelmed
Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels can make you feel constantly overwhelmed. People typically report feeling like they’re on the verge of tears or like the smallest irritation might set cause them to scream. It’s a sense of feeling like you might explode.
3. Exercise Makes Things Worse
Imbalanced cortisol levels can also increase your hunger post-workout. In particular, it can make you crave calorie-dense foods. It’s worth noting that exercising too intensely can also increase your cortisol levels, which can play into this negative cycle.
Additional symptoms of cortisol imbalances
- Excessive worrying
- Feeling jittery and full of anxiety
- Poor memory and brain fog
- Food cravings for chocolate and salty foods
- Exhaustion and fatigue
- Problems getting to sleep, staying asleep, and getting poor-quality sleep. Insomnia
- Digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome
Is there a diet that will fix this?
While eating healthy is always a good way to lose unwanted pounds, this situation is clearly different. In addition to eating a healthy diet, this is one of those times when dumping your stress load may be the only way to help yourself get rid of the bulge.
Consider trying the following (and by try, I mean just do it…you’re worth it!):
The best way to get rid of stress weight is by managing your stress levels. This can be done through deep breathing exercises, meditation, relaxation techniques, and cutting out junk food and alcohol. However, Diet won’t make much difference if you can’t lower your chronic or long-term stress levels.
It may be time to see a DO
A DO is an Osteopathic Doctor. Osteopathic Doctors are like an MD, but they have an additional layer to their training. They treat the body, mind, and spirit. A DO may have suggestions for you in terms of reducing…really reducing…your stress levels. They care about the whole person, not just the disease or disorder.
I feel your pain
When we were in a stressful environment, there wasn’t a lot we could do about it. Our living conditions were cramped (two households combined into one), and our son wasn’t in the best of moods about it. We had to wait for our home to be completed before we could move, and that was that.
I’m thankful our chronic stress was relieved a bit because as it is with stress, there’s always more where that came from, right? Such as caring for elderly parents, keeping the bosses happy at work, and managing a budget in these hard economic times. Some stress is just going to exist, so it’s important to find a way to control the stress, and not allow the stress to control you.
I wish I would have taken the “stress belly” more seriously. I hope you will, now that you can benefit from our mistakes. Be well…I’m rooting for you!
Photo credit: meno.power.com
As always, this blog is not a replacement for sound medical advice. I am not a doctor. Please make an appointment to see your healthcare provider and put a good plan in place that works for you and the needs of your body.
That’s all I have for you this week, dear reader. I’ll see you back here next Wednesday to share another cup of coffee. Until then, be good to yourself and each other.
Mind, Body, Spirit…Osteopathic Doctors treat the whole person, not just the ailment. Is your PCP a DO? Would you like to learn more about Osteopathic Physicians? Click HERE!