As the year and the holiday season come to a crescendo many of us are looking down and noticing a bit more of a pouch than before.
At this time of year it’s easy to think of going on some radical fast or detox plan to shave off a few pounds quickly.
There is nothing wrong with using food to lose belly fat. As a matter of fact, it is probably the quickest way to do it.
However, there is something that is considerably more insidious when it comes to widening our waists. And if we don’t address it in the long run, that belly fat will come right back as soon as we end that cleanse.
And that is stress.
Stress is a necessary evil in most of our lives.
It has many adverse effects in the body.
And increased belly fat is probably one of the worst.
But how does it work? And how can we stop it?
Stress produces a hormonal cascade in the body that results in increased cortisol and therefore increased blood sugar. This results in higher levels of insulin, which triggers the body to TURN OFF fat burning.
So actually the best way to lose belly fat is to practice SELF-CARE
There are two major areas of self-care that are particularly impactful when it comes to lowering cortisol and (and insulin and other hormones).
And they are:
- Sufficient Sleep
- Stress Management
Poor sleep wreaks havoc in the body.
This is probably THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT factor to address for self-care
- Individuals who regularly get less than 7 hours of sleep per night were more likely to have a higher BMI and develop obesity versus those who slept more
- Lack of sleep causes a metabolic effect on the body
- Increased levels of ghrelin, salt retention, and inflammatory markers.
- It also causes a decrease in leptin and insulin sensitivity
- Other studies show that sleep restriction decrease thyroid hormones (TSH and T4) (which can lead to weight gain)
- With sleep deprivation, leptin is decreased, and ghrelin is increased
- Increased hunger and appetite – especially for caloric-dense foods with high carb content
- Can contribute to food intake and weight gain
- Why? Because increased caloric intake has been shown to encourage sleep, so overeating may be the body’s mechanism to promote sleep
- Those who sleep less have more hours during the night & more opportunities to consume calories
- People who lack sleep also have more fatigue, so there is a reduced likelihood of engaging in physical activity (1)
So good sleep is really, really important.
And the minimum requirement is 7 hours per night. Some experts say 8 hours.
Getting good sleep is the cornerstone of self-care. And it will directly affect your ability to lose belly fat!
Here are 5 tips for improving your sleep:
- Go to bed at around the same time every night
- Sleep in a cool room (65-68 degrees F)
- Avoid large meals and heavy exercise at least 3 hours before bedtime
- Sleep in a room that is pitch dark
- Get morning natural light exposure
When we hear the term “self-care” we immediately think of stress management.
Just remember that there is no stress-management routine in the world that can make up for poor sleep. So make sure you work on sleep first.
Stress is a major player in belly fat and weight problems. It also causes a lot of other problems:
- Chronic stress, and therefore chronic cortisol production, causes a greater likelihood of consumption of foods with high GI index, and reduced amount of sleep – vicious cycle where cortisol, obesity, and stress interact and amplify each other
- Cortisol – glucocorticoid – causes a redistribution of white adipose tissue to the abdominal region and increased appetite with a preference for energy-dense foods (“comfort food”) (2)
- Stress causes the sympathetic state (fight or flight) to dominate, which causes increased cortisol levels
- Stress causes physical/psychological harm – headaches, constipation, smoking, poor diet, sleep disruptions, obesity
- Also, behavioral shifts – overeating, overconsumption of high fat, salt, sugar foods, less intake of fruits/veggies
- Chronic cortisol hypersecretion increases fat storage in the abdominal region more than the hips
- Abdominal (visceral) fat is associated with development of CVD, coronary heart disease, and ischemic stroke
- “Therefore, stress management could play an important role in weight loss, amelioration of body composition and prevention of various comorbidities” (3)
We pretty much all know that stress is bad for us. But it’s something that usually gets brushed off.
If you are really intent on improving your health and losing belly fat or even just maintaining your weight, stress management is a must!
One great place to start is mindfulness.
You don’t have to go crazy. Even just 5 rounds of breathing practiced a few times a day can make a difference.
You can try “box breathing”, which means inhaling for 5 counts, holding for 5 counts, and then exhaling for 8 counts (all through your nose). Do 5 rounds of this a few times a day and watch the benefits unfold.
Breathing like this will “force” your nervous system closer into the para-sympathetic mode (aka rest and digest) and therefore reduce cortisol.
One controlled trial showed that stress management reduced the stress response and led to weight loss in the group that had counseling on stress management techniques.
Both groups had reductions in BMI, perceived stress, level of depression, as well as improved dietary habits, physical activity, daily routine, and social support.
The group that had counseling on stress management had better results in terms of reduction of weight, perceived stress, and depression levels.
- Stress management consisted of:
- Diaphragmatic breathing
- Progression muscle relaxation
- Guided visualizations
- Decreased levels of perceived stress causes lower cortisol secretion, which can contribute to reduction in abdominal fat – possible explanation for increased weight loss in intervention group
- Stress also affects eating behavior patterns – work overload, lack of time, consumption of fast food choices (3)
This is not rocket science!
We KNOW that stress has many adverse effects and we know we need to sleep 7-8 hours a night.
The first step in getting these things done is recognizing how important they are.
The second step is prioritizing YOU!
It is so easy in our modern, busy lifestyles to brush aside our own needs in the name of productivity.
The irony is that we perform better and we are more productive when we are well-rested and relaxed.
So, take the time to CARE FOR YOU. And see not only great benefits in your energy and productivity but you’ll also be on the road to losing that belly fat for good!
- Cooper CB, Neufeld EV, Dolezal BA, Martin JL. Sleep deprivation and obesity in adults: a brief narrative review. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2018;4(1):e000392. Published 2018 Oct 4. Meta analysis and systematic review
- van der Valk ES, Savas M, van Rossum EFC. Stress and Obesity: Are There More Susceptible Individuals?. Curr Obes Rep. 2018;7(2):193–203.
- Xenaki N, Bacopoulou F, Kokkinos A, Nicolaides NC, Chrousos GP, Darviri C. Impact of a stress management program on weight loss, mental health and lifestyle in adults with obesity: a randomized controlled trial. J Mol Biochem. 2018;7(2):78–84.