How Stress Causes Belly Fat and That Middle Age Spread

young-woman-trying_~IS098T7U9A chronic complaint I hear from my female clients is “why is my middle getting thicker all of a sudden? Did you notice once you hit your mid 40’s it seemed like overnite, you gained weight around the belly area!

I’ve read an enormous amount of material on mid-life belly fat weight gain and now know there are a number of causal factors involved, including hormone imbalance from perimenopause and sleep deprivation, diet and exercise, and gravity but the one major causal factor that I just couldn’t wrap my head around was the stress factor. I know stress increases cortisol and increased levels of cortisol in the blood cause weight gain in the abdominal fat cells. But why? Call me crazy but this kind of stuff keeps me awake at nite! I had to understand how this could physiologically happen and I wanted to be able to explain it to anyone in a way that they (and I, myself) could understand. It seems like everything I read left off certain connect the dots points for me.

On my flight back home from a lovely and much needed vacation in the Dominican Republic I pulled out my work/reading materials and low and behold in the February IDEA Fitness Journal was a complete comprehensive article that broke this down for me with an explanation I could finally grasp! Without getting too scientific, I will try and share a simple version of it here with you.

First you need to know there are two types of body fat. Subcutaneous body fat is fat which is just under the skin; i.e. fat on your face, arms, chest. Visceral or central body fat occurs in the intra-abdominal area of the body and has much greater blood flow and more glucocorticoid receptors. (sorry, a little scientific, I know). But you need to know that these receptors regulate the fat accumulation effects of cortisol and are four times more concentrated in visceral fat than in subcutaneous fat. To simplify, just think of these receptors as key holes and cortisol is the key that fits. There are a lot of keyholes in the belly area.

When we are under chronic stress (i.e. pressures, strains, boredom at work, our own mid-life mental and physical crises, ageing/ailing parents, children’s college expense, family/life/relationship problems, empty nest syndrome, computer problems, traffic jams,financial worries and retirement planning-aye yie yie!), the brain triggers a chain of command that ultimately causes the adrenal glands to release cortisol. If the chronic stress (real or perceived) does not wind down, elevated levels of cortisol remain in the blood stream and also lead to daily increases of cortisol secretion. Cortisol is known to stimulate appetite and with the help of elevated insulin levels (which happens when you eat those simple carbs-like bread, crackers, sweets, pizza), the enzyme lipoprotein lipase is activated. This enzyme facilitates the deposition of fat and inhibits the breakdown of fat (triglycerides) so voila! Instead of burning off fat you store more fat. And guess where? In the belly as visceral intra-abdominal fat because the fat in those cells have more receptors. Chronic stress consistently contributes to greater central fat accumulation in females. Life isn’t fair is it!

Here are some tips to reduce stress in the first place.

1) Exercise is a way to release excess stress hormones and provides a distraction from stressful situations.

2) Meditation allows the mind and emotions to quiet down and relax. Studies show that a daily meditation practice increases gray matter density in the brain which regulates emotions.

3) Practice Yoga to reduce stress and improve overall well being. A yoga practice will cultivate and maintain a balanced attitude in day to day life.

4) Eat and drink healthy food. Dehydration and hunger provoke stressful feelings and anxiety. Eating a nutritious diet and drinking water throughout the day can reduce stress. Limit intake of simple carbs.

5) Eat mindfully in a relaxed state so your para-sympathic nervous system will be at work, properly digesting and absorbing nutrients from your food. When you eat at your desk your boss may think you’re a martyr but you’ll be making more belly fat. Cortisol will be doing it’s thing and you might as well apply your lunch directly to your belly.

6) Stand and sit up straight. Poor posture leads to muscle tension, pain and increased stress. Do a posture self check regularly while sitting at your desk or when walking.

7) Breathe deeply and speak slowly. Slow down your speech and take deep belly breaths through the nose when in stressful situations. When we stop and breathe we think more clearly and slow down the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response.

8) Practice visualization. (I visualize that beautiful Carribean Sea!) Relaxing images calm the mind and body.

9) Try Rescue Remedy, a homeopathic product from Bach Flower remedies. You can put a dropperful in your water, use the spray or take the small pellets all day long during stressful times. It is perfectly safe and non habit forming.

(IDEA, Fitness Journal, Feb 2011 pg.44-49).



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  16. thank you very much for your feedback. This has been a topic that has always intrigued (and bothered me) because I could never wrap my head around the various causes/explanations of what indeed causes belly fat/middle age spread. I hope I’ve helped you to understand too! Stay healthy!

  17. […] If you’re struggling to lose weight and are exercising til the cows come home but still the scale won’t budge, you might want to look at how much sleep you’re getting.  I always say that sleep trumps exercise for weight loss and good health because studies show that if you don’t get the required 7-8 hours of sleep per nite, your body will produce higher levels of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates hunger and less of leptin, the hormone that suppresses appetite and sends the signal to your brain that you’re full. Stress Sleep and Your Weight  And when you’re hungry and sleep deprived, you tend to feel irritable, depressed or anxious which raises cortisol levels which then leads to an increase in belly fat. How Stress Causes Belly Fat and that Middle Age Spread. […]

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  19. I appreciate your input and yes you are absolutely right. Sometimes weight gain can be from a medical condition or side effect of medications such as antidepressants and sleep aids. Thanks for sharing.