By James Duigan
Aside from alcohol, too much coffee and bad food, stress is one of the biggest causes of excess fat. If you’re doing everything else correctly (avoiding sugar, eating good fat etc.), but you’re stressed, you'll still have a fat little tummy and a thick waist.
When we’re frightened, angry, tense or worried our bodies become flooded with adrenaline and a stress hormone called cortisol (released from our adrenal glands – a tiny gland that sit just above our kidneys.) The adrenaline keeps us alert and focused, while the cortisol prepares our muscles for a ‘fight-or-flight’ response. It’s actually known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ hormone because it gives us an immediate burst of energy which we can use either to ‘fight’, i.e. confront a potentially harmful situation, or for ‘flight’, i.e. to run away from it. It also helps the body to release sugar into the bloodstream for instant energy.
That sickly, jittery, panicky feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you are stressed comes from the adrenaline and cortisol. It’s all part of a defense mechanism that allows the body to respond appropriately when faced with danger and which was designed to keep us out of harm’s way (especially in cavemen times when we had to run away from all kinds of dangerous animals).
Why modern stress is bad for you
While the stress mechanism worked well for us when we were cavemen, modern-day stress is not so good.
In fact, modern stress, caused by a relentlessly busy lifestyle, is really, really bad for you – even toxic. It causes you to get fat, wears out your immune system and increases your risk of serious illness. This is because many of the situations that cause you to become stressed nowadays aren’t the sort of danger that you need to run away from – although your body still wants you to. While an important job interview, a looming deadline or being told off by a scary boss may feel frightening, they won’t cause you any physical harm, so there is no need for you to run away from them – which brings me to why stress makes you fat.
Why stress makes you fat
Whilst when you get stressed from real danger these hormones don't make you fat, when you're not in real danger, it's a different story.
When you’re not in real danger, these fat-storing hormones and all that sugar is released into the bloodstream just float around, eventually ending up as fat on your tummy and around your waist. They also make you crave more sugar (in the form of chocolate and biscuits) because your body thinks it needs more to keep it going.
This is why stressed people often lose a couple of pounds on holiday – even though they may be eating the same amount as usual or sometimes even more, they don’t have fat-storing hormones floating around their system every day, high blood-sugar levels or constant cravings.
The stress hormone cortisol is particularly bad for you. A 2011 study in the Journal of Obesity found that women who reduced their stress levels lost the most belly fat. Several studies have shown that the stress hormone cortisol is directly related to abdominal fat. As stress levels subside, your adrenaline levels fall, but cortisol (and the resulting blood sugar) stays in the system much longer.
Research from Yale University shows that fat cells around the stomach area have the most cortisol receptors, meaning they attract cortisol, giving you a layer of toxic fat just below your abdominal muscles that’s really hard to shift. So doing regular sit-ups is going to be pointless if you always feel stressed – the only way to ditch this fat is to ditch the stress in your life.
Remember – stomach fat is the most dangerous type of fat there is because it raises your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and certain cancers.
A father of three, James has an incredibly successful career as a wellness entrepreneur, an international best selling author and as a trainer to the stars, he spends his time coaching many of the worlds most familiar faces! James is passionate about improving health and wellbeing and understanding the connection between the mind, body and spirit to live our best lives possible.