In case you ever wondered why our fat (especially for men) seem to congregate in and around our belly region this blog entry is for you.
I think we can all agree that "muffin tops" — the fat hanging over the waist of a too tight pair of jeans — and beer bellies aren't very attractive. Yet, when it comes to surplus belly fat, the situation is graver than how we look. Extra belly fat has been linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, some cancers and (no surprise there) stress.
When you experience stress, the body releases certain "fight-or-flight" stress hormones that are produced in the adrenal glands: cortisol, norepinephrine and epinephrine. When you start getting stressed, these hormones kick into action. Norepinephrine tells your body to stop producing insulin so that you can have plenty of fast-acting blood glucose prepared. Epinephrine will relax the muscles in your stomach and intestines and decrease blood flow to these organs. Once the stressor has gone, cortisol tells the body to stop producing these hormones and to go back to digesting regularly. It's normal for cortisol levels to go up and down through the day, but when you are chronically stressed your cortisol level goes up — and stays there. This is now your baseline.
When stress and cortisol levels are high, the body actually resists weight loss. The body appears to thinks times are hard and you might starve, so it hoards the fat you eat or have present on your body. It retains it, rather than burn it as disposable energy. Cortisol tends to take fat from healthier areas, like your butt and hips, and transfer them to the abdomen which has more cortisol receptors. Hello love handles!
In the process, it transforms what used to be peripheral fat into unhealthy visceral fat (the fat in your belly that surrounds the internal organs) that increases inflammation and insulin resistance in the body. This belly fat leads to more cortisol secretion because it has higher concentrations of an enzyme that turns inactive cortisone into active cortisol. The more belly fat you have, the more active cortisol will be converted by these enzymes — yet another vicious cycle created by visceral fat.
So what if you have belly fat and you want to get rid of it? Lose weight by following the best nutrition and lifestyle strategies that support you in times of stress. These should be custom made to your particular circumstances. But as a rule of thumb limit your caffeine to 200 milligrams a day, avoid simple carbs, processed foods, and refined grains, and get plenty of high-quality protein, in addition to de-stressing yourself, you'll automatically help your body retain your stress hormones, especially cortisol, lower.
It's a day by day choice you'll have to make, but the outcome will be worth it. Think how good it will be when you are as healthy on the inside as you look on the outside.