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What Causes Stress Belly and How to Treat and Prevent It

Prolonged stress can affect your mental and physical health. It can even lead to a little extra weight around the middle, and extra abdominal fat isn’t good for you.

Stress belly isn’t a medical diagnosis. It’s a way to describe how stress and stress hormones can affect your belly.

Join us as we explore:

  • things that contribute to stress belly
  • whether it can be prevented
  • what you can do about it

Let’s look at a couple of ways your body responds to stress and how these responses can lead to stress belly.

The fight or flight response

Cortisol is a crucial hormone produced in the adrenal glands. It helps control blood sugar and metabolism, among other things.

Along with other hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol is part of your body’s “fight or flight” response.

When faced with a crisis, this stress response slows unnecessary body functions so you can focus. Once the threat passes, everything goes back to normal.

That’s a good thing.

However, prolonged stress can keep stress hormones levels elevated, along with your blood pressure and blood sugars, and that’s not good.

Higher cortisol levels linked to abdominal obesity

Higher long-term cortisol levels are strongly related to having abdominal obesity, according to a 2018 review study.

However, not all people with obesity have high cortisol levels. Researchers suggest genetics may play a role in glucocorticoid sensitivity.

Short-term stress can cause belly issues such as vomiting and diarrhea. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can be the result of long-term stress. If you already have IBS, stress can worsen gas and belly bloat.

Certain health risks are associated with having obesity, but having abdominal obesity may be a bigger risk factor for comorbidities and mortality rate.

There are two types of belly fat: subcutaneous fat and visceral fat.

Subcutaneous fat

Subcutaneous fat lies just under the skin. Too much isn’t healthy, but it’s no more harmful than fat anywhere else on your body. Subcutaneous fat produces some helpful hormones, including:

  • leptin, which helps suppress appetite and burn stored fat
  • adiponectin, which helps regulate fats and sugars

Visceral fat

Visceral fat, or intra-abdominal fat, is found around your liver, intestines, and other internal organs underneath the abdominal wall.

Some visceral fat gets stored in the omentum, a flap of tissue under the muscles, which grows harder and thicker as more fat is added. This can add inches to your waistline.

Visceral fat contains more cytokines than subcutaneous fat. These proteins can cause low-level inflammation, increasing the risk for chronic health problems.

Visceral fat also releases more retinol-binding protein 4 (RBPR), which can lead to insulin resistance.

Increased health risks from visceral fat

According to Harvard Health, visceral fat may increase your risk for:

Genetics influences where your body stores fat. Hormones, age, and how many children a woman has given birth to also play a role.

Women tend to add more visceral fat after menopause, when estrogen levels drop.

Still, there are things you can do to lose belly fat.

First, avoid all those “lose belly fat fast” solutions, because there’s no quick fix. Making lifestyle choices with a slow, steady mindset is your best option to help establish long-term positive results.

Here are some recommendations:

Reduce psychological stress

We all have stress. There’s no way to eliminate it from your life, but there are ways to reduce and manage stress:

  • Take some me time. Unwind after a tough day. Hang out and listen to your favorite tunes, settle in with a good book, or put your feet up and sip some soothing tea. Do that thing that makes you feel peaceful and content, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
  • Meditate. Studies show that meditation can help lower psychological stress. There are many types of meditation to choose from, so if one kind doesn’t work for you, another might be a better fit.
  • Socialize. Whether it’s dinner with friends, movie night with your significant other, or jogging with your next-door neighbor, connecting with others can help take your mind off your stressors.

Exercise every day

Mood-boosting is only one of the many benefits of exercise. Daily exercise can help you to reduce visceral fat, even if it doesn’t help to shed pounds.

Try 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days and strength training on other days.

It’s OK to skip a day once in a while, but try to move more throughout the day.

When possible:

  • stand rather than sit
  • use stairs instead of elevators
  • don’t hold out for the closest parking spot

If you spend most of your day sitting, take walk breaks.

It may seem counterintuitive, but doing sit-ups and crunches won’t affect visceral fat. However, these exercises can help to strengthen and tighten your abdominal muscles and can help with overall weight loss.

Watch your diet

Research shows that B vitamins can help relieve stress, so try to add dark green, leafy vegetables, avocados, and bananas to your diet. Fish and chicken are also good choices.

Try to eat a balanced diet. A balanced diet should include plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. To help reach or maintain your healthy weight, try to reduce your total calories and try to avoid:

Drink alcohol only in moderation

Alcohol may give the illusion of easing stress, but its effect is temporary at best. It’s not worth the long-term effects if want to reduce belly fat.

Alcoholic drinks are high in calories, and your body burns alcohol before burning fat.

Get a good night’s sleep

Research shows that adults ages 18 to 65 years old who get less than 6 hours or more than 9 hours of sleep develop more visceral fat.

Another study showed similar results in adults ages 40 years old and under.

Research suggests most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.

Don’t smoke

Studies suggest that smoking cigarettes increases the risk for abdominal obesity.

Basically, if you smoke, increasing the amount of time you’re smoking makes it more likely for you to have stored fat in your abdomen.

You don’t necessarily need to see your healthcare provider if you have a little belly fat. However, you should still get your annual physical.

Make an appointment with your healthcare provider if you’re feeling the effects of long-term stress such as:

Stress belly is one way long-term stress can affect your health. Having extra belly weight can lead to other health problems.

While you can’t do anything about your genetics, there are ways to help prevent, manage, and treat stress belly.

See your healthcare provider if you:

  • have questions about your weight
  • need to know how your weight’s affecting your health
  • have other worrisome symptoms

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