Your body has a built in stress reaction that was meant to help keep you alert and protected from harm. Triggered by stress, the release of a particular hormone called Cortisol can often go into overdrive and the negative effects of persistent elevated stress levels can not only damage your mental state, but it may also add pounds. Researchers have studied the effects of cortisol on the body leading some to wonder, can elevated cortisol levels caused by continual stress add pounds to your belly?
A recent study at Yale University reported that non-overweight women who are vulnerable to the effects of stress are more likely to have excess abdominal fat, and have higher levels of the hormone (cortisol). Elissa S. Epel, Ph.D, lead investigator of the study said a healthy lifestyle, including getting enough sleep, exercise and relaxation, may reduce cortisol levels. (1)
What is Cortisol? Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland that is released in the brain. It functions in the body in a variety of ways and is released in response to stress, acting to restore balance in the body. However a prolonged cortisol secretion (often caused by chronic stress) can result in significant physiological changes.
If you are handling a large family, kids, trying to make ends meet, shouldering an enormous workload and commuting in rush hour, your body is treating these hassles as threats and as a result you may feel more stress. The stress response is normal and natural, but excessive stress can lead to health problems. Your body’s fight-or-flight reaction is an alarm system. When this system is activated due to a perceived, or real threat your body prompts your adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. Your heart rate increases, blood pressure and energy supplies increase. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone that increases glucose (sugar) in the blood stream and it stimulates insulin release. This can increase your appetite.
Belly Fat and the Cortisol Connection. In a recent issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, a study looked at pre-menopausal, non-overweight women, and overweight women who stored fat either centrally (at the waist) vs. peripherally (at the hips), and examined their stress responses over three consecutive days. Results suggested that Cortisol affects fat distribution by causing fat to be stored centrally, around the organs leading to an increase in belly fat. (1)
Tips on How to Manage Stress
Take a Breather:
Practice a meditation technique, breathing exercises or take a Yoga class. Relaxation techniques like meditation or exercise classes like Power Yoga, Bikram Yoga and other cardio workouts are also effective for stress reduction and meditation.
Get Your zzz’s
Try to get between seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Your body takes this time to balance hormones, and repair damage. Not getting the sleep you need can lead to a variety of health issues, but to reduce stress get the recommended amount of sleep daily.
Take it Easy
Over-training or exercising hard can lead to a spike in cortisol about 45-60 minutes after intense strength training. Resting every two days will give your body time to repair itself. On those rest days you can still get your exercise in, just try a low-impact workout like a 30 minute walk or a restorative workout like Pilates to help keep your body fat within the range you prefer.
Eat Cortisol-Busting Foods
Foods that contain Omega-3 fatty acids, Magnesium and Vitamin C along with teas like Black Tea have been shown to help reduce cortisol levels. Music, massage and even crying can help maintain normal levels of cortisol in the body and great foods like tea, can help manage fat storage. Try some of our favorite Omega-rich foods here or a delicious green tea!
References: Yale University (2000, November 20). Stress May Cause Excess Abdominal Fat In Otherwise Slender Women, Study Conducted At Yale Shows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 4, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2000/11/001120072314.htm