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Blog Weight Loss Stress Belly: Taking A Quick Dive Into The Science Behind It

Stress Belly: Taking A Quick Dive Into The Science Behind It

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Have you been all so dedicated to your workout regimen, eating healthy, maintaining a calorie deficit, yet still can’t seem to lose your belly fat? Do you often feel overwhelmed, tired, and extremely hungry throughout the day? Then you might have a stress belly, the extra weight found around the abdominal area that is oh so difficult to get rid of. 

Can stress make my belly bigger? It definitely can. But how is this possible? And how can one get rid of the unwanted fat around the midsection area?

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What Is A Stress Belly?

A stress belly is the extra weight that accumulates around the abdominal area due to prolonged or chronic stress.

While belly fat may be caused by many things, including genetics, a stress belly is caused by the actions of a hormone called cortisol, which you will learn about below. 

Read More: 5 Types Of Bellies And How To Get Rid Of Them

Why Does Stress Cause Belly Fat? The Role Cortisol Plays

The cortisol stress belly fat association is way deeper than you may expect. In fact, this hormone, which is produced by the adrenal glands, could be responsible for the accumulation of belly fat due to stress. But how is this possible?

Cortisol, as aforementioned, is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in the body. The hormone helps to control metabolism and blood sugar levels in the body. Cortisol also gives us motivation and helps us to stay focused and elevated on a certain situation or threat. It is for this reason that levels of cortisol are elevated in the morning and why the hormone is released in plenty during exercising and periods of acute stress. 

Together with other hormones in the body, cortisol activates the fight or flight response. In a crisis, for example, the stress response reduces unnecessary bodily functions so that you can focus on the threat. Once the threat passes, things go back to normal. 

However, during periods of prolonged stress, the stress hormone levels are elevated, together with blood sugar and blood pressure. 

During periods of stress, the adrenal glands release cortisol. This, in turn, fills the body with glucose to give our muscles enough immediate energy to deal with the threat. A constant elevated level of cortisol can also lead to increased blood glucose levels. At this point, insulin is also released, hereby preventing the conversion of glucose into fat, making it easily accessible to the muscles that require energy to deal with the threat.

can stress make my belly huge
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The Importance Of Dealing With Stress

Once the threat or stress is dealt with, hormone balance is restored (12). But this is not always the case, because, as humans, we go through so many stressing situations and come across many stress-factors that lead to prolonged periods of stress. These periods of prolonged stress then lead to a stress belly. 

But how? An imbalance of cortisol in the body causes excess belly fat because:

  • Cortisol can actually release fat from storage and send it directly to your belly area.
  • The stress hormone may also affect appetite and cravings. One study even revealed that there is an association between elevated cortisol levels and high calorie intake in women – hence leading to stress belly fat in women (15). 
  • The high blood sugar levels caused by insulin’s inhibiting effects (subsequently caused by excessive cortisol) can starve the cells of energy. The body then responds to this situation by sending hunger signals to the brain. This then leads to overeating/binge-eating. Any unexpended glucose is then stored as fat in the body. 

One study by scientists at the University College London revealed that people with higher levels of cortisol had larger waist measurements and higher BMIs than those with low cortisol levels (12). 

In the same vein, another study proved that high cortisol levels is associated with an increased risk of obesity (8). 

Further research has also proven the fact that cortisol is indeed associated with abdominal obesity. However, this does not mean that every obese person struggles with higher levels of cortisol (5, 13).

cortisol stress belly fat
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How To Tell If Belly Fat Is From Stress?

While the accumulation of belly fat may be multifactorial, like genetics, a poor diet, or a lack of exercise, there are some signs that indicate that what you could be dealing with is stress causing belly fat. These signs include:

  • Feeling overwhelmed by nearly everything.
  • Feeling extremely hungry right after working out.
  • Having an increased appetite throughout the day, with the need to snack every now and then.

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How To Get Rid Of Stress Belly Fat?

Here are some tips that will come in handy when dealing with that stubborn stress belly:

  • Reduce Stress

As stress is the main cause for this type of belly, the number one thing you should do is try to avoid stress as much as possible. You may also opt to learn how to manage stress better, such as through meditating, yoga, performing breathing exercises, and more (10). 

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  • Exercise, Exercise, Exercise

Like it is with any type of fat in the body, to get rid of stress belly fat, you need to workout and maintain a calorie deficit. Exercising will not only help you lose the extra fat, but it will also boost your mood, which is a big deal as this type of fat is caused by a negative mood. 

Aim to perform at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise on most days of the week, and on the other days, focus on strength training, which will help convert the fat into muscles.

  • Eat More Fiber-Rich Foods

Fiber is known for its role in aiding digestion. This makes it a welcome addition to the diet of anyone who is stressed. This is because stressed people often suffer digestion problems such as constipation or indigestion. The addition of fiber rich foods such as beans, chia seeds,and bran cereal will help to deal with these issues. 

Read More: High Fiber Diet: What To Eat To Ensure A Smooth-Running Digestion?

  • Watch What You Eat

Consume a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole foods, and whole grains. Eat foods rich in vitamin B since it is known for its potential property to help relieve stress. Some good sources of vitamin B include chicken, dark green leafy vegetables like kale and spinach, bananas, avocados, and fish.

Still on the issue of your diet, you need to avoid foods with added fructose, trans fats, and high carb high-calorie foods that are low in nutrients (17).

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  • Lower The Intensity Of Your Workouts

This is because high-intensity workouts might actually elevate the levels of cortisol in the body and cause further stress rather than reducing it. 

  • Avoid Alcohol As Much As Possible

Not only is alcohol very high in calories, but also, when you consume alcohol, your body stops turning fat into energy and instead, begins to metabolize the alcohol (naturally, the body burns alcohol before actually burning other sources of energy). This then means that you end up using alcohol for energy rather than the fat stored in your body. 

  • Take Daily Walks

Going on a walk will help you to stay in shape, and will also help alleviate stress. The walk will also help you to clear your head by boosting the levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. Furthermore, it is also recommended that you walk at least 10,000 steps each day to be considered as active.

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  • Ensure You Get Good Quality Sleep Each Night

Ensure you get seven to nine hours of good quality sleep each night to avoid increasing the levels of cortisol in your body. 

In one study on adults between the age of eighteen and sixty five, it was discovered that those adults who slept for less than six hours each night and those who slept for more than nine hours each night had more visceral fat than the control group (2). 

Another study produced the same results, but with a test group of adults 40 years and younger (11). 

Apart from getting the required amount of sleep each night, it is also important that you set up a sleep schedule and follow a consistent sleep routine every night.

  • Consume Nutrient-Dense Foods

Instead of consuming high-carb, low-nutrient foods, opt for green vegetables, fruits, beans, lean proteins, black tea, black coffee, green tea, and healthy fats such as avocado, coconut, and olive oils. 

  • Avoid Smoking

Several studies have shown that smoking cigarettes can be linked to increased risk of abdominal obesity (3). 

stress belly fat in women
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  • Take Regular, Hot Baths

A hot bath will help to lower the levels of cortisol in the body. Furthermore, as the body temperature rises when taking a bath, the levels of endorphins in the brain rise as well, hereby boosting your mood instantly. 

  • Eat More Protein

Protein has a more filling effect than other foods, this means that when you consume enough protein, you will actually be working towards eliminating food cravings (1). 

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  • Build More Muscle

In one study from the University of Harvard, men who did twenty minutes of strength training each day had less age-related abdominal fat than those who spent the same amount of time (twenty minutes each day) on doing cardio (18). 

To deal with stress belly fat, try to do more compound exercises like squats, pullups, and kettlebell swings,which work the entire body as a whole. 

  • Get More Sunshine

A 2016 review revealed that exposing animals to sunlight could lead to a decline in weight gain and metabolic dysfunction as well. More research still needs to be done to find out if the same effect can be witnessed in human beings. 

How Long Does It Take To Work Off Stress Belly?

There are many factors that affect how quickly one can burn belly fat. Among these factors are age, gender, genetics, and daily activity. As such, the amount of time taken to burn belly fat differs from person to person. 

All in all, it is recommended that while working to get rid of belly fat, aim to lose one to two pounds of fat a week, as this is the more sustainable approach, rather than losing so much within a short amount of time. 

How To Prevent Stress Belly?

Prevention is always better than cure, right? There are a few things that you could do to ensure that you do not develop a stress belly in the first place. These include:

  • Reducing stress
  • Finding ways to cope with stress in a healthy manner
  • Avoiding smoking
  • Avoiding alcohol or drinking in moderation
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Consuming a balanced diet
  • Exercising regularly
stress belly fat in women
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FAQs

  • What Is A Stress Belly?

A stress belly is the extra weight that accumulates around the abdominal area due to prolonged or chronic stress. 

  • What Causes A Stress Belly?

A stress belly could be impacted by the actions of two hormones: cortisol in conjunction with insulin.

  • How Does Cortisol Cause A Stress Belly?

  • An imbalance of cortisol levels in the body causes excess belly fat because:
    Cortisol can release fat from storage and send it directly to your belly area.
  • Cortisol may also affect appetite and cravings. One study even revealed that there is an association between elevated cortisol levels and high calorie intake in women – hence leading to stress belly fat in women. 
  • Excessive cortisol leads to the release of more insulin, which inhibits the conversion of glucose to fat. This starves the cells of energy, and the body responds to this by sending hunger signals to the brain. This then leads to overeating/binge-eating. Any unused glucose is then stored as fat in the body. 
  • How Can I Get Rid Of Stress Belly Fat?

To get rid of stress fat, do the following:

  • Consume nutrient-dense foods
  • Go on a walk daily, and make at least 10,000 steps each day
  • Take regular hot baths to lower cortisol levels and increase the levels of endorphins in the brain
  • Build more muscle by participating in more weight and resistance training than cardio
  • Eat more protein
  • Get more sunlight
  • Consume more fiber-rich foods
  • Get a good night’s sleep, and maintain a consistent sleep routine
  • Avoid smoking
  • Minimize alcohol intake
  • Consume a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Exercise everyday
  • Reduce stress and learn how to healthily manage stress
emotions
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  • Is There Any Way To Prevent The Formation Of A Stress Belly?

For prevention, try to: 

  • Reduce stress
  • Put healthier coping mechanisms in place
  • Avoid smoking
  • Avoid alcohol or drinking in moderation
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Consume a balanced diet
  • Exercise regularly
  • How Many Types Of Belly Fat Are There?

There are two types of belly fat:

  • Subcutaneous fat – this one lies just under the skin, and it produces healthy hormones such as leptin.
  • Visceral fat/intra-abdominal fat – This type of belly fat is found deeper, around internal organs such as the liver, intestines, and also underneath the abdominal wall. Visceral fat contains more cytokines than subcutaneous fat (4). Cytokines may increase the risk for chronic health problems in an individual. Furthermore, too much visceral fat may increase a person’s risk to asthma, cancer, dementia, cardiovascular diseases, and colorectal cancer as well (4).

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Conclusion

A stress belly can be just that, stressful. This is especially true when you really don’t know what is causing it and how to get rid of it for good. Luckily, there are many remedies and ways to prevent the formation of this type of belly fat in the first place. As a rule of thumb, whenever you are trying to lose weight/fat in whatever part of the body – one technique you can try this is improving your eating habits and exercising more.

Check up this 20 Min Full Body Workout at Home challenge!

DISCLAIMER:

This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!

SOURCES:

  1. Brain Responses to High-Protein Diets (2012, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  2. Change in sleep duration and visceral fat accumulation over 6 years in adults (2014, onlinelibrary.wiley.com)
  3. Cigarette Smoking Increases Abdominal and Visceral Obesity but Not Overall Fatness: An Observational Study (2012, journals.plos.org)
  4. Cytokines, Inflammation and Pain (2007, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  5. Defining Comorbidity: Implications for Understanding Health and Health Services (2009, annfammed.org)
  6. Factors Affecting Weight & Health (2018, niddk.nih.gov)
  7. How do you lose belly fat? (2020, medicalnewstoday.com)
  8. Long-term stress linked to higher levels of obesity (2017, ucl.ac.uk)
  9. Losing Weight (2020, cdc.gov)
  10. Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being (2014, jamanetwork.com)
  11. Sleep Duration and Five-Year Abdominal Fat Accumulation in a Minority Cohort:The IRAS Family Study (2010, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  12. Stress and body shape: stress-induced cortisol secretion is consistently greater among women with central fat (2000, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  13. Stress and Obesity: Are There More Susceptible Individuals? (2018, link.springer.com)
  14. Stress-induced cortisol, mood, and fat distribution in men (1999, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  15. Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior (2001, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  16. Sun Exposure and Its Effects on Human Health: Mechanisms through Which Sun Exposure Could Reduce the Risk of Developing Obesity and Cardiometabolic Dysfunction (2016, mdpi.com)
  17. The effect of 90 day administration of a high dose vitamin B-complex on work stress (2011, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  18. Using weights to target belly fat (2014, news.harvard.edu)
O. Johnson
O. Johnson

Olivia is a passionate writer and a whip-smart proofreader who takes pride in her ability to turn hard-to-digest information into an enjoyable read. She is a book worm, a life of the party, a meditation and fitness enthusiast, and a champion for healthy living all in one. Dissecting dietary fads, debunking long-established weight loss myths and delivering science-backed quality content is her top priority. When working on a piece, Olivia tunes into her own experience of trial-and-error weight loss which helps her cut through the clutter when doing extensive research. Her unbridled enthusiasm spills over into her work and motivates readers to chase after their full potential.

S. Ziou
S. Ziou

Hi everyone! I am a Canadian Registered Dietitian (RD) who graduated from the University of Ottawa, Canada. I worked at the Montreal Pediatric University Hospital and the Ottawa Heart Institute before joining the International Clinic of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. With a strong interest in community nutrition, I worked in Haiti and in Syrian refugee camps affected by the scourge of malnutrition. I am passionate about food and its science!

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