Today, the stresses of modern life attack us from every angle - work, family, financial responsibilities, lack of sleep. Stress is becoming a huge part of life. But did you know that even if you eat healthy and exercise consistently, high levels of stress can prevent you from losing weight? Or even worse, they make you gain fat, especially visceral fat, the belly fat. In fact, chronic work stress was related to increased central fat stores in adults over a 19-year period.
How Does Stress Make You Gain Belly Fat?
When you’re stressed, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol. Although your body needs cortisol for regulating glucose metabolism, blood pressure and immune response, consistent elevated cortisol levels are problematic. Why? The production of testosterone, one of the key hormones for muscle building, slows down when your body secretes cortisol in response to your stress. This drop results in reduced muscle mass making you burn less calories and therefore gain weight on the long term- even if you’re having the same eating and exercise habits. Also, high cortisol levels trigger excess fat storage: cortisol plays a role in mobilizing fat from storage depots and relocating it to fat cells in your abdomen. So basically, moving fat from your periphery to your belly!
Here are 4 ways to avoid high cortisol levels and beat the fat storing effects of stress:
- Eat Frequently
Skipping meals contribute to increased cortisol levels. When you don’t eat for a long period of time, your blood sugar levels drop; and once they get really low, your body releases cortisol to convert energy stores to glucose to bring up your blood sugar levels to normal to keep you going. This is why most people who consume only 1 or 2 big meals per day are more likely to be overweight and have this belly fat! Try eating small frequent meals a day to keep your blood sugar levels balanced, avoiding cortisol release.
- Limit Caffeine
Caffeine increases cortisol levels. Stressed people tend to drink a lot of coffee. So if you’re stressed and drink a lot of coffee then your cortisol levels are above the roof. A study showed that consuming around 2½ to 3 cups of coffee when under mild stress increased cortisol levels by about 25%; and kept it up for 3 hours. If you’re under stress, try limiting your caffeine beverages to 1 cup a day.
- Sleep More
Little sleep makes you wake up with elevated cortisol levels. Researchers investigated the effect of sleep duration on fat gain over a five year period. They found that those who slept less than 5 hours per night accumulated abdominal fat. Try getting at least 6 hours of sleep. Ideally 7.5 to 9 hours per night.
- Workout Often
Working out regularly is one of the best ways to combat stress. First, exercise releases Endorphins, natural pain and stress fighters. These are also our “feel good hormones” that elevate your bad mood related to stress. Also, exercise helps you sleep better, which is most likely disrupted by high stress levels. A study found that those who did moderate exercise for 150 minutes a week had 65% improvement in their sleep quality. All of these exercise related benefits can reduce your stress levels. Try exercising 3 times a week.
- Make Time to Meditate
Focusing on the present helps in lowering your cortisol levels as well. A recent study investigated the effects of mindfulness on cortisol. Results showed a 20% significant drop in serum cortisol levels in subjects after 4 days of meditation practice. Yoga is a form of meditation that can also be a good way to prevent high cortisol. A study compared the effects of yoga alone with the effects of medications in lowering anxiety symptoms in stressed individuals. Subjects who only did yoga had a higher drop in cortisol levels compared with those who were on medications. Try meditating for few minutes every day or join a yoga class frequently to keep your cortisol levels in check!
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