I recently gave an accredited talk on stress management and the topic of weight gain happened to come up. More specifically, weight gain in the abdominal area – the classic telltale sign of chronic stress. There were lots of questions that day about losing weight in what I’ll call the “stress zone”, and I know my weight loss patients have similar questions. So, with Halloween around the corner followed by the celebratory season of eating in December, I thought I would focus this month’s blog post on the “stress zone” and how to reduce it.
First, I want to start off by saying that weight gain from chronic stress is a hormonal response. In fact, our body’s fight or flight response to a stressor is based off of a hormonal response. So, to understand why we accumulate weight gain in our abdomen area, it is important to understand our stress response process.
When we encounter a stressor, whether it’s a computer crash on a document you’ve been working on for months, an animated encounter with a colleague, or simply a client not returning your call regarding a time-sensitive matter, our body has only one response: fight or flight. Our adrenal glands (which sit on top of our kidneys) are spurred into action during times of stress and release hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Adrenaline is used for short term stress, and cortisol is used for long-term stress. Cortisol is the main reason for weight gain in the abdominal area.
Cortisol makes our heart rate increases to pump blood to our muscles, our blood sugar levels increase to provide an energy source, and blood moves to the back of the brain to help with coordination and movement, shutting down our ability for complex thinking. In a nutshell, all systems that help with a stress response are encouraged, while other systems (i.e., digestion, immunity, ability for complex thoughts, etc.) are temporarily shut down.
So where does the weight gain come from?
Well, the situation above is a description of what happens in our body when we encounter stress. According to some research, when we are battling stress all day and everyday our body’s adrenal glands can no longer meet the demand to produce cortisol on a continual basis- we call this adrenal fatigue. To compensate for this, our body needs a new place to make cortisol and other hormones, and abdominal fat becomes this new place. What we need to understand is that body fat is not just a storage locker; but that our “fat cells” have many functions. For example, the fat cells around the belly are especially good at making our hormones. It makes sense that fat cells should have the job of making hormones because many of our hormones are made with a back bone of cholesterol. So as our adrenal glands become weaker and weaker from chronic stress, our bellies become bigger and bigger in order to become an alternative location to make our hormones.
Other research says that constant stress sends a message to our body that life is unstable. As a response to this, the body starts to store extra energy in the form of fat in case of an emergency. I’m sure we’ve all heard the saying “feast or famine”; our bodies still use an old survival mechanism of storing fat for leaner times so that when they hit we are well prepared for them and we won’t starve. This is one reason why our body will crave high calorie foods, like carbohydrates, that will help keep the body going in the times of perceived danger.
The key point here is that all research shows that with increased stress there is an increase in abdominal fat, regardless of the calorie input and exercise habits.
Battling the Belly Bulge: Where to Begin
When patients come to me for weight loss and talk about their past unsuccessful weight loss plans that reduce calories or increase exercise but do not involve stress management, I instantly know at least one key place to focus for a successful plan. It is important to understand that the human body is dynamic, and its dynamic ability to respond to our environment relies upon hormones. Therefore, any successful weight loss plan should start by balancing hormones, and incorporating some form of stress management. Or, as I like to say to my patients, all good weight loss programs begin with a deep breath.