How Chronic Stress Increases Belly Fat

Find out the reasons behind how a stressful lifestyle can lead to a bigger belly.

Stress. Everyone has it, nobody likes it, and it’s no secret that prolonged exposure to it is in no way good for your health, but did you also know that stress could in fact be making you fat? A study conducted at Wake Forest University and led by Carol A. Shively, PhD, found that monkeys fed a typical American diet and subjected to stress were more likely to suffer blocked arteries and a number of risk factors for heart disease than their non-stressed counterparts. It’s one thing knowing that being a worry wart or living a stressful lifestyle can lead to a bigger belly, but the even bigger question is why?

The Cortisol Connection

Cortisol is a glucocorticoid, or steroid hormone, produced by the adrenal glands and secreted not only throughout the day (more in the morning, to get you up and at ’em, and increasingly less as the day goes on) but also as a response to stimuli like fear and stress. In combination with its more commonly known partner epinephrine, cortisol is behind the so-called “fight or flight” response that helps kick your body into high gear when it’s faced with a threat to well-being or overall survival. The cortisol kicks off a flood of glucose that your muscles convert into energy and at the same time narrows your arteries and increases your heart rate which causes your blood to course through your body harder and faster than normal. All of this is the “rush” you feel when someone threatens you in a bar or when you’re in the car and have to suddenly and swiftly engage in some defensive driving to avoid an obstacle in the road.

An Overdose of Adrenalin

The typical cortisol cycle noted above is normal, but when that fight-or-flight response becomes more of the rule rather than the exception, the body begins producing more insulin than its using and all that extra potential energy has to be stored somewhere. When you’re stressed out all day every day, your body is interpreting everything from your boss’s angry email to the kid’s mid-grocery-store temper tantrum as a life-threatening situation and reacting accordingly. The excess sugar in your blood converts to fat, and that fat sits right on your abdomen. Even worse than the effect this belly fat has on your wardrobe is the effect it has on your health–the bigger your waistline the bigger your risk for everything from heart disease to cancer to high blood pressure and even a stroke.

The Food Factor

In times of stress we often seek comfort, which for many people means reaching for our favorite foods. According to a study conducted by the American Psychological Association, 38 percent of adults say that they have consumed unhealthy foods or overeaten as a result of stress over the past month, with half of those respondents reporting that they had engaged in stress eating on a weekly or even more than weekly basis. Consuming unnecessary calories as a routine response to stressful situations in a surefire way to pile on belly fat and feel crummy–in fact 46 percent of respondents in the APA study said they felt disappointed about themselves after the stress-induced binge.

Weight gain can be combated in a number of ways, most effectively via a comprehensive weight management program that takes into account not just whether or not you have weight to lose, but also the hows and whys behind the original weight gain. This way, you can strive to achieve the physique you desire while also learning coping techniques and lifestyle changes that will support a healthier outlook inside and out.