Is Stress making us fat?

pillarsoffitnesssuccessIs stress making us fat?


Within our support group Strong Confident Living, we believe that a lot of a healthy lifestyle begins with a healthy mindset, “It starts between the ears,” Scott St John co-Founder says.


According to current research, reducing daily stress and focusing on mindful eating can help to reduce belly fat.

Maybe we should be adding managing chronic stress strategies along with “getting back to the gym”, “cutting out added sugar” for lifestyle changes to pursue?

Continued research presents that psychological distress and elevated cortisol secretion promote abdominal fat. Belly fat is not just unsightly, but is also linked to oxidative stress, inflammation, shorter telomeres which has a direct affect on the aging of our cells, and greater risk of chronic disease.


What technically is “stress”?

The definition of stress is “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances”. Stress can be experienced chemically, physically, mentally, and emotionally.


Experiencing feelings of stress isn’t all bad; in fact, stress is a necessary survival technique. In short bursts, acute stress acts as a protective “fight-or-flight” response. For example, having to brake quickly in response to something while driving utilizes our fight response. On the other hand, chronic stress, experienced directly or observed, can be hazardous to the mind and body. Increased concentrations of the circulating stress hormone cortisol is linked to a variety of metabolically related disorders, including metabolic syndrome, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Consistent elevation of cortisol can potentially disturb the immune system and can even become toxic to the brain.  


Stress can also indirectly affect heart health through damaging behavioral habits such as smoking, physical inactivity, heavy alcohol consumption, and poor diet. Unfortunately, eating sweet and fatty foods tends to be one of the preferred choices for most of us when it comes to dealing with chronic stress, which can actually add to physical stress on our bodies. All of this provides reasoning to pursue lifestyle stress management.  If the chronic stress cycle never ends, we must notice what causes it and interrupt the cycle ourselves.

Dr. Beth Westie, an expert in Health and Nutrition, suggests tracking how frequently we enter stress mode and taking note of what onsets it. “The more we become aware of what causes stress, we can begin to break the cycle and develop strategies [to prevent it],” she says.


There are many easy activities you can incorporate into your daily life to help shift your focus and your mindset when you begin to feel stress. First, focus on what can you take direct control of: this may be incorporating the use of stress-modulating herbs called adaptogens into your diet, participating in an exercise program you enjoy, a spa treatment, cooking a meal you love, or simply turning off your phone for an hour.


Whatever your stress relieving activity is, schedule it into your calendar at least once a week.  It is crucial to make room in your routine for important self-care tasks, like you would with a doctor or dentist appointment. Dedicating time throughout your week to self-care routines will improve the consistency of your actions.

Dr. Beth also mentions that men and women experience stress differently. Due to women’s monthly cycles, their endocrine system needs proper time to heal from the stress. It may take longer than you expect to recoup, and special attention to self-care is crucial to overall health.

New findings published in the Journal of Obesity suggest that combining a technique called mindful eating with stress management can help reduce cortisol levels and the resulting belly fat. The most effective mindful eating practices are paying attention to the physical feelings of hunger, identifying cravings, sensation of fullness, and taste satisfaction so you fully enjoy your eating experience and feel satisfied about how you have fueled your body.


Daubenmier J, Kristeller J, Hecht FM et al. Mindfulness Intervention for Stress Eating to Reduce Cortisol and Abdominal Fat among Overweight and Obese Women: An Exploratory Randomized Controlled Study. J Obes 2011;2011:651936. doi: 10.1155/2011/651936

Daubenmier J, Lin J, Blackburn E et al. Changes in stress, eating, and metabolic factors are related to changes in telomerase activity in a randomized mindfulness intervention pilot study. Psychoneuroendocrinology 2011. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2011.10.008

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