Are you stressed out? Is it hard for you to lose weight? Is there excess fat hanging around in your belly area?
If you answered yes to those questions, exploring the relationship between those problems is crucial to your health and well-being.
And even if you didn’t answer yes to all three questions, it is important to understand how stress can harm your body.
That’s because your body’s main stress hormone – cortisol – can rise to damaging levels when you experience stress.
Cortisol (a steroid hormone) helps fuel the fight-or-flight response – the psychological loop that fires you up to fight or run for your life when facing danger.
Think of it as your body’s built-in alarm system. When you are faced with immediate danger, increases in cortisol help you respond. The hormone works with certain parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation, and fear.
Cortisol also handles other important bodily tasks, explains WebMD.
- Manages how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
- Keeps inflammation down
- Regulates your blood pressure
- Increases your blood sugar (glucose)
- Controls your sleep/wake cycle
- Boosts energy so you can handle stress and restores balance afterward
Your hypothalamus and pituitary gland (both located in your brain) can sense if your blood contains the right level of cortisol. If the level is too low, your brain adjusts the amount of hormones it makes. Your adrenal glands read those signals, and then fine-tune the amount of cortisol they release. Cortisol’s primary function is to increase blood sugar levels so your brain, muscles, and organs have enough fuel to get you through a stressful situation.
Cortisol receptors are located in most cells in your body, and their job is to receive and use the hormone in different ways. Your needs will vary from day to day, and when your body is on high alert, cortisol can alter or shut down functions that get in the way. These might include your digestive or reproductive systems, your immune system, or even your growth processes.
If you are under constant stress and your cortisol levels remain high, health problems including anxiety, depression, headaches, heart disease, memory and concentration issues, digestive troubles, and sleep struggles can all result.
In addition to the problems listed above, another undesirable consequence may occur: high cortisol levels can increase the amount of fat you hold in your belly. This is called visceral fat, and it is particularly nasty.
I described visceral fat previously, in an article about the dangers of drinking soda:
Visceral fat – also known as “deep fat” – wraps around your internal organs, including your liver, pancreas, kidneys, and intestines. It is much more dangerous than subcutaneous fat (the fat that you can see – the “inch you can pinch”). That’s because visceral fat (which gets its name from viscera, which refers to the internal organs in the abdomen) affects how our hormones function and is thought to play a larger role in insulin resistance – which may increase Type 2 diabetes and heart disease risk.
You don’t have to be visibly overweight to be at risk. Even relatively thin people can have too much visceral fat, which is why it is often referred to as “hidden” belly fat.
Chronically elevated cortisol levels increase blood sugar levels, which in turn elevate insulin levels. Some studies (including this one) have found this can interfere with fat loss – no matter what exercise or weight loss program you follow.
If you are concerned about cortisol, you may want to ask your healthcare provider to test your blood levels.
Even if you are not interested in having a blood test done, there are things you can do to help manage stress – and potentially your cortisol levels. Of course, it is important to remember that there could be other underlying issues you may not be aware of that are causing your symptoms.
Consume a healthful, low-inflammation diet
Fill your diet with protein, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and a good amount of dietary fat (click here to read all about fat and why you need it in your diet). Avoid trans fat, keep your sugar intake as low as possible, avoid soda (yes, even diet soda), consider eliminating gluten and grains from your diet (more on why here), and take care of your gut microbiome (find out why here).
Because stress is a major cause of troublesome cortisol levels, stress management is crucial to good health. While stress is a normal part of life and cannot be entirely avoided, it is important to learn how to manage the impact it has on you.
The insightful article Everything You Need to Know About Stress offers the following tips.
Reframe your thinking: Change your perception about stressful situations and view them as a challenge rather than a threat. Focus on available resources, see the hidden potential benefits of a situation, and remind yourself of your strengths. Getting into the habit of thinking like an optimist can also help.
Set realistic expectations: Perfectionism can lead to more stress. Learning to tolerate uncertainty and accepting that you cannot control everything can help reduce stress, too.
Accept: Acknowledge that you are experiencing stress and that it is just a feeling and will pass. Look at the bigger picture: will this problem matter in a few days? A week? A month? Is it worth getting worked up over? If the answer is no, focus your time and energy elsewhere.
Understand: Realize that your mind may be playing tricks on you. Are things really as bad as you think?
Have self-compassion: Don’t be too hard on yourself – no one is perfect, and treating yourself with kindness and understanding will ease your stress levels and make it easier to learn from your mistakes.
Focus: Are you stressed out about something that might happen later? Are you imagining worst-case scenarios? If so, bring yourself back to the present and focus on what is happening now – and what you CAN control.
Breathe: Deep diaphragmatic breathing is a powerful stress-reducing trick because it activates the body’s relaxation response. It helps your body shift from the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system to the relaxed response of the parasympathetic nervous system. Marla W. Deibler, PsyD, a clinical psychologist, suggests slowly inhaling to a count of 4, filling your belly first and then your chest, gently holding your breath to a count of 4, and slowly exhaling to a count of 4. Repeat several times.
Meditate: There are several ways to do this – you can find a quiet place to escape for a few minutes, go on a focused walk, or use imagery to bring yourself to a calmer place. If you need meditation guidance, give the Calm app a try.
Visualize: Imagine yourself handling whatever situation is making you stressed with calmness and grace.
Move: Go for a walk or bike ride if you can – clear your head and get some fresh air. Studies have shown that sitting too much can increase stress levels, so get up and move around throughout the day.
Write: Carry a notepad or a journal with you. Get your thoughts and worries down on paper and out of your mind.
Organize: You don’t need to micro-manage every minute of every day, but reducing the number of decisions you need to make by using routines can help you avoid stress. If there’s something you need to do every day, do it at the same time every day – that way, there’s one less thing you have to worry about fitting in or forgetting.
Use lists: To-do lists can either reduce stress or increase it. If you have a list that is steadily growing and you find you aren’t checking off any of the items, that’s not going to help you become less frazzled, is it? For help with creating to-do lists, check out To-Do List Formula: A Stress-Free Guide To Creating To-Do Lists That Work!
Try Biofeedback: This technique can help you learn how to control your response to stressors. It is especially useful in helping people learn to deal with stress in a healthy way, and it therefore also helps to relieve a variety of stress-related illnesses.
Take care of yourself: Avoid using caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, junk food, binge eating, and drugs as your primary means for coping with stress. Using them to help you cope may result in longer-term issues, such as weight problems, alcoholism, or addiction.
Sleep well: Insufficient sleep is a problem that plagues many of us, and the consequences can be disastrous. If you are experiencing sleep difficulty or insomnia, whether acute or chronic, practicing good sleep habits is crucial to helping you better manage the challenges of everyday life. There are several apps that can help you develop healthy sleep habits – my personal favorite is Pzizz.
Nurture yourself: Yes, you are busy – most of us are. But that’s no excuse to neglect your personal needs. Set aside time to relax and participate in activities you enjoy. Exercise. Take a yoga class. Read. Listen to or play music. Light some scented candles and take a long bubble bath. Treat yourself to a massage. Watch a funny movie or TV show.
Because stress can be so harmful to health, please be sure to seek the guidance of a healthcare provider if it is interfering with the quality of your life.