Before you head to the doctor for a diagnosis, this is not an actual medical diagnosis. “Stress belly” is a term that refers to one of the ways stress can affect our bodies.
I know some of us generally believe our bellies are our “problem area” When we’re trying to lose weight, but have you ever considered whether it could be stress belly?
What is stress belly?
Here’s how this article describes the link to our stress response and belly fat/abdominal fat:
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.
So, higher long-term cortisol levels are strongly related to having “abdominal obesity” and sometimes IBS – irritable bowel syndrome. Meanwhile, short-term stress (or short-term high cortisol levels) can result in things like diarrhoea and vomiting.
Cortisol, whether high or low, and how it reacts to other hormones an affect pretty much anything from our metabolism, to blood sugar, blood pressure and even our sleep. It also doesn’t help that when we are stressed we generally want more “comfort food” or junk food. Food that will make us feel good, but are generally higher in sugar, and carbs. These foods won’t mesh well with the cortisol levels slowing down our metabolism and also causing us to feel more lethargic – so we don’t even have the motivation to exercise.
What exactly might lead to a cortisol imbalance?
Cortisol can even affect the function of your thyroid gland. Have you been feeling hotter or colder lately? Well, if you have been experiencing any of these triggers – then this may be the reason for more than optimal cortisol levels:
• insufficient sleep
• excessive sugar and carbohydrate intake
• shift work schedule
• frequent skipped or delayed meals
• severe infections
• overworking (mental or physical)
• surgery or traumatic injury
• excessive exercise (especially endurance)
• toxic exposures
The above list is from this article and it is not an exhaustive list. It’s just a few of the major stressors. In this fast-paced world everything is moving a mile a minute and we are unable to really process what’s happening before we need to move on to the next thing. So if you don’t see a particular stressor here that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, it’s just that we can’t capture everything.
Give yourself the gift of “me time”
Just the other day I was thinking about how we aren’t even able to process grief anymore. It just feels like “wham, bam, thank you ma’am”. People expect to see you openly grieving on social media, not even to be apart of it but just to know that you’ve been mourning this person. Then they will have comments about whether it was too much or too little and how long you should be talking about it.
What a time we’re living in! But with all this “noise”, with all these expectations and deadlines and goals and our never-ending to-do list, how do you find space for yourself? How do you unwind and find time to just be alone, sit with your emotions and melt away the stress of the day? Finding ways to decompress is very important.
It doesn’t only help you to process the day and bring it to a close mentally (so you don’t keep replaying things in your head before bed), but it also helps you to let go of whatever was or wasn’t done. I’ve found that meditation helps me to “let go of the day” in such a profound way that I find that when I meditate I actually sleep better and wake up more restful.
Self-Care Starter Pack
A list of some of our favourite resources to help us make time and space for ourselves. There are a few blog posts, podcast episodes, and some templates to help you find rest and peace.
Never under-estimate the power of good sleep, and a good meditation practice!
Here are some ways to combat stress belly
If you feel like you may have stress belly, don’t just take your own word for it (or ours) – have a chat with your doctor about some of the things you’re seeing and they’ll be best to advise you.
There are many factors, like genetics and – for women – the number of children you’ve had, that will affect your weight distribution. With that in mind, here are some things you can do if you think you may have stress belly:
1. Reduce stress – find ways to decompress, schedule that “me time” and those rest breaks. You could also try some meditation. Not sure where to start? Check out a 5 minute meditation practice here and a body scan practice here.
2. Switch up your diet – according to this article, B vitamins can help relieve stress, so try to add dark green, leafy vegetables, avocados, and bananas to your diet. If you’re not vegetarian/vegan then fish and chicken are also good choices. Try to keep a “balanced diet”, getting in your fruits, veggies and whole grains. Try to avoid foods high in sugar and trans fats.
3. Create a consistent sleep schedule – the truth is, the older we get the more sleep we’ll need. Research indicates that most adults need about 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule will also help you to create an evening routine that might be able to help relax you before bed (which means better quality sleep, and less tossing and turning).
4. Move your body – exercising (almost) everyday is helpful. Most sites will tell us to exercise everyday but that is not always possible, but you can look out for those ways to move more, especially on the days when you opt not to do a workout. Maybe taking the stairs instead of the escalator, perhaps standing during that meeting instead of sitting (unless it would look totally awkward), and maybe walking to lunch instead of driving? Put in 30 minutes or more of moderate to high intensity training when you can and opt for movement as much as possible.
At the end of the day, you know what’s best for you and you should perhaps tune into that a bit more.