Do you have 'stress belly'? Expert reveals why it could be the cause of the excess weight on your stomach and the 5 techniques to fight the problem

  • Excess cortisol – the so-called stress hormone – can increase stomach fat 
  • Expert Jackie Wicks explains the signs that you're suffering from 'stress belly'
  • Dieting alone is not enough to tackle the problem, she says  
  • She provides her tips for healthy eating and stress management techniques

Does the rest of your body seems to be shaping up, but nothing seems to work to shift that pesky fat around your middle? Then your stressful lifestyle maybe to blame. 

That's according to health expert Jackie Wicks, co-author of new book Cheats & Eats: Lifestyle Programme.  

When cortisol – the so-called stress hormone – is too high for too long, it can increase the amount of fat that's stored on your stomach, she explained.

Also called visceral fat, this is a form of gel-like fat that's wrapped around major organs, including the liver, pancreas and kidneys. This type is particularly nasty, being linked to increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and stroke.

Colorado-based Ms Wicks spoke to Healthista about the signs that you're suffering from 'stress belly', as she calls it.

Dieting alone is not enough to tackle the problem, she says – you have to combine healthy eating with stress management techniques.  

Scroll down for video 

Health expert Jackie Wicks points out that a stressful lifestyle maybe to blame for excess stomach fat (stock image)

Health expert Jackie Wicks points out that a stressful lifestyle maybe to blame for excess stomach fat (stock image)

What cortisol does when you're stressed

Cortisol, created in the body’s adrenal gland, is essential to give us the get-up-and-go we need to get motivated and focused, which is why it’s usually elevated in the morning.It's also released during exercise and periods of acute stress.

It regulates energy by selecting the right amount of carbohydrate, fat, or protein the body needs to meet the physiological demands placed on it 

You may have heard of the ‘fight or flight’ response that occurs when you’re faced with a stressful event.   

During this, cortisol is released from the body’s adrenal glands and floods the body with glucose – the simplest form of carbohydrate and preferred energy source – to give muscles an immediate supply of energy. 

Insulin – the hormone that reduces blood sugar – is also released to prevent the glucose being stored as fat and make it freely available to give you the immediate energy to deal with an event. 

Once the stress is addressed, hormone balance returns to normal.

THE THREE SIGNS YOU HAVE BELLY FAT CAUSED BY STRESS 

If you have fat around your belly that you can’t shift, there are a few other signs to watch for that could signal an imbalance of cortisol is to blame.

You’re ravenous all day

Stress causes an increase in appetite. If you feel like you could eat another four meals after finishing breakfast or dinner or you often have that all-day need to snack, especially on sugary or fatty foods, you may have an imbalance of cortisol.

You feel overwhelmed

‘"I can’t deal with this!" is a common cry I hear from clients I see with cortisol imbalances,' said Ms Wicks.

It’s that feeling that if someone gives you one more thing to do, one more decision to make or one more problem to solve, you will explode, break down – or both. That too could be an imbalance of cortisol.

Exercise makes you want to stuff your face

After exercise, do you feel so ravenous you could eat a giant hamburger or plate of pasta rather than a healthy meal such as chicken/fish and vegetables? 

If you feel so hungry after exercise that you want to eat foods that are super-high in calories, you may well have an imbalance of cortisol – or you may be doing exercise that is too hard and fast and thereby raises your cortisol levels too high.

Ms Wicks says you have to combine healthy eating with stress management techniques

Ms Wicks says you have to combine healthy eating with stress management techniques

That’s in an ideal world where all your stressors are short-lived. But they're often chronic, meaning have no real end in sight – bad bosses, toxic relationships, money worries and so on.

So, while a little stress is good for you and can give you the energy to get through say, a job interview, work challenge or exam, when it’s chronic and ongoing your cortisol level may be constantly raised.

As a result, you may feel overwhelmed, constantly tired or wound up. You may also be anxious, depressed or find it difficult to make decisions, concentrate or get to sleep. 

The Colorado-based expert explains how to avoid getting a 'stress belly' in her video 

The Colorado-based expert explains how to avoid getting a 'stress belly' in her video 

How excess cortisol gives you excess belly fat

Firstly, cortisol can release fat from storage and send it to your belly, which in itself may also increase the production of this hormone. 

Secondly, high blood glucose teamed with the insulin suppression that is caused by excess cortisol can starve cells of energy. The body responds by sending hunger signals to the brain, which may lead to overeating. In this case, any unused glucose will get stored as fat in the body. 

Thirdly, cortisol may affect appetite and cravings as demonstrated in a study published in the journal, Psychoneuroendocrinology that showed an association between raised cortisol levels and higher calorie intake in women. 

Such chronic stress, research has shown can not only impact your immune system and raise your blood pressure, increasing your risk of heart disease, it can also cause you to gain weight and to have difficulty losing it. 

Research by University College London (UCL), published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, found that people who had higher levels of cortisol in their bodies tended to have larger waist measurements and a higher body mass index than those with lower levels. 

TECHNIQUES TO COMBAT YOUR 'STRESS BELLY'

Jackie Wicks and London-based nutritionist Robert Hobson in their new book provide a simple list that divides foods into two categories: Cheats and Eats.  

Below are some key ways you can help balance cortisol that focus on healthy eating and stress reduction from the programme.

Eat high nutrient density foods

No food is off limit. Everything is either an 'eat' or a 'cheat'. You get unlimited eats, which are very high micronutrient dense foods. These are foods such as vegetables and wholegrains and low fat proteins. 

Those could mean for example, a delicious heap of roast or steamed vegetables with lean chicken or a fillet of salmon, some fresh tomatoes and basil drizzled with olive oil, cucumber sprinkled with dill – the list goes on and on. 

Other examples include green vegetables, black tea and coffee, green tea, most fruits, most beans, lean proteins and healthy fats such as walnut, olive, coconut and avocado oils.

Go on, cheat!   

The authors suggest that 20 per cent of your plate be cheats. That means if you want the bacon, the wine, the chocolate, the butter have it, just have it in small amounts.  

Examples of cheats on the plan include alcohol, cream, fried foods and take aways as well as crisps, sweets and high fat meats. 

The authors suggest that 20 per cent of your plate be cheats (stock image)

The authors suggest that 20 per cent of your plate be cheats (stock image)

The idea is that the kind of stress you put yourself under when depriving yourself on a strict diet is not sustainable long-term, because increases in your stress levels cause you to end up bingeing or suffering the fattening effects of excess cortisol.

This way, you have a more sustainable way of eating that balances out your hormones and your stress levels by allowing you to treat yourself.

Walk 10,000 steps a day

Walking is not only a great way to burn calories, it also actually helps you clear your head by helping boost the levels of potent brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, all of which are essential to a happy mood. 

The 10,000 steps a day target sounds like a lot but really only amounts to about half an hour of walking a day.  

Take regular baths

Taking hot baths regularly has been shown to lower cortisol levels and this is something that anyone (with a bath) can do. Even if you only have two minutes, spending time on yourself, using aromatherapy you love will relax you by engaging your senses. Plus, as your body temperature rises during a hot bath, endorphins – your body’s natural feel good chemicals – are raised.

Use quick mind tricks to relax your mind

Lowering your stress levels doesn’t have to mean meditating for an hour every day – you just need a few mind tricks. 

The first is: ‘What other people think of me is none of my business,’ explains Ms Wicks.

'That works when I think someone may be critical of something I’m doing or when someone actually says something critical to my face.

'The second trick I use when I start to freak out is that I ask myself: "Is there anything I can control here?" 

Dieting alone is not enough to tackle the problem – you have to combine healthy eating with stress management techniques (stock image)

Dieting alone is not enough to tackle the problem – you have to combine healthy eating with stress management techniques (stock image)

'Most of the time there isn’t and once you realise that, it instantly diffuses the situation, giving you a healthy detachment from the outcome of things you have no power over.'

She says the final trick is a relaxation exercise she learned from sleep experts Mitchell and Olga Stevko.

'Sit down, take a breath and focus on a colour that relaxes you,' Ms Wicks explained.

'Put whatever stresses you out in the middle of that colour, whether it’s a friend or a family member of or a task or whatever. 

'Give it an image in your mind and then make it smaller and smaller. You can even "shoot" it with a gun our cannon if you like. 

'As the stressor disappears, replace it with an image or idea that makes you happy and make that image bigger and bigger. This might sound woo-woo but I find it’s the easiest way to stop stress in its tracks.'

This piece originally appeared on and has been reproduced with the permission of Healthista.

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