Stress is a fact of modern life. From the moment you wake up to when you finally close your eyes and go to sleep at the end of your day, you are under constant bombardment from things that can increase your stress levels.
Common sources of stress include:
- Your job
- Family and friends
- Perceived lack of time
- Painful memories
- Thwarted ambition
- Illness and pain
Unbridled stress can trigger a host of problems, including increased blood pressure and inflammation. It can also lead to weight gain and can make losing fat much harder.
Stress also tends to promote fat storage around your abdomen – belly fat. Belly fat is more than an aesthetic issue; it’s terrible for your health too. Doctors call belly fat heart attack fat because the more fat you have stored around your abdomen, the higher your risk of heart disease becomes. The combination of stress and belly fat is a deadly combination.
What is stress?
Stress is a natural response to the dangers and difficulties we face daily. Your body acts in a very specific way when it perceives it is in a stressful situation. It doesn’t matter if you have just had a near-miss car accident, your computer has crashed, or you have exceeded your credit card limit, your body’s reaction to stress is largely the same:
- A large increase in adrenalin
- Blood glucose levels increase
- Muscle tension increases
- Blood diverted away from organs and toward muscles
- Cortisol levels increase
- Heart and breathing rate increases
In the good old days, our response to any stressor was fight or flight as most dangers were physical. That provided an outlet for stress that meant the effects of stress were very short-lived.
In the 21st century, it’s not acceptable to throw your computer out the window or punch your boss; not only are stressors more prevalent, there are fewer outlets. Fight or flight has turned into stress and stew.
Prolonged stress with no release means that a lot of people are stressed 24/7, and that’s a real problem. Stress affects virtually every system in your body, and not in a good way. Because of this, a large and ever-growing percentage of the population experience health complications due to stress.
Stress and weight gain
So how does all this stress lead to weight gain? There are several mechanisms at play.
Eating provides short-term relief from stress by increasing the production of the feel-good hormones dopamine and serotonin. When they feel stressed, a lot of people turn to so-called comfort foods to help them feel better. The more stressed you are, the more you eat. This is thought to be a leading cause of obesity because as stress levels have risen, so too have body fat levels.
Part of the stress response involves increasing blood glucose levels. This was useful during the fight or flight response, giving you an instant energy boost. However, for the average person, this extra energy goes unused. Elevated blood glucose triggers the release of insulin, and insulin drives this unused glucose into your fat cells, simultaneously putting the brakes on fat burning. This double whammy, combined with the aforementioned comfort eating, creates a perfect storm for weight gain.
In addition, stress can prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep. After tossing and turning all night, you get up and start your day feeling tired and unmotivated to exercise. On top of that, because your energy levels are low, you’re also more likely to reach for fast-acting carbs to try and keep yourself on your feet and moving forward.
Unfortunately, the energy from a fast-acting carb only lasts for a short time, and you’ll need another hit in an hour or so. Once you are on the sugar energy roller-coaster, it can be tough to get off. The result is weight gain – or at least difficulty losing weight.
Increases in the stress hormone cortisol are also a contributing factor to weight gain. Cortisol increases fat storage, especially around your abdomen. This, combined with overeating, is a sure-fire recipe for weight gain or, at the very least, difficulty burning fat.
How to manage your stress
It’s hard to avoid the sources of stress, but you can limit their impact to reduce your personal stress levels. In some instances, you may benefit from professional stress counseling, but there are also lots of things you can do yourself.
1. Become a time management master
Lack of time is a leading cause of stress. Learning to manage your time better can eliminate many sources of stress. Analyze how you use your time and look for ways that you can use it more wisely. Most people are guilty of wasting time, and that means you have to try and squeeze more into whatever time remains.
2. Get enough sleep
Being tired makes everything feel harder. The harder your daily tasks are, the more likely they are to overwhelm you and stress you out. Go to bed at least 6-8 hours before it’s time to get up to ensure you get enough sleep per night. You’ll have more energy for the tasks of the day, and that will make them less stressful.
3. Eat more vegetables and fruit
Stress has a significant, negative impact on your physiology. This is compounded if you eat a lot of junk food. Instead, fuel your body with plenty of vegetables and fruit. The nutrients they contain will help replace the things that stress take out, reducing many of the unhealthy effects of prolonged stress. More sugar and junk food will only exacerbate the effects of stress.
4. Cut down on caffeine
Caffeine, found in tea, coffee, cola, and chocolate, can make stress worse. It’s a stimulant that increases your heart rate, adrenalin, and cortisol levels just as stress does. If you are tired or need an energy boost, caffeine can help you to push through, but when used (or abused) in excess, it can make you feel anxious and even more stressed. Cutting down on caffeine might not be easy, but it will help lower your stress levels.
Exercise is a great stress reliever. It allows you to work off the energy created during the stress response and also triggers the release of feel-good hormones, which can help blunt the stress response.
All forms of exercise can work, but as exercise itself is a form of stress, it’s important that you don’t do so much that you leave yourself even more stressed. A workout that leaves you feeling energized and refreshed is better than one that leaves you exhausted and in pain.
6. Cut ties with people who cause you stress
Some relationships are more stressful than others. While it might be hard to cut ties with everyone who causes you stress, it’s often worth distancing yourself from those who seem set on making your life more demanding than it should be. Taking a step back from stressful relationships can often be beneficial for both parties.
7. Stop overspending
Whether it’s a lack of money, a lack of time, or a lack of energy that causes you stress, you need to understand that spending even more of these valuable resources will increase your stress levels. Look for ways to spend less or create more of what you need. It doesn’t matter if it’s money, time, or any other valuable resource, if you have a comfortable excess, you will have much less stress in your life.
Stress can have a massive impact on every aspect of your life, not least your health and your belly. Any steps you can take to reduce stress is time and energy well spent. As stress is a leading cause of illness and unhappiness, it’s good to know that lowering your stress levels will have a very beneficial effect on your life.