Ever wondered why after all that dieting you simply can’t shift that belly fat? Well read on because sometimes a challenging diet or lifestyle can be just the ingredients our bodies need to hold on to abdominal fat and actually add more.

Stress makes us fat

To really get on top of weight control we need to understand our basic biology. Stress makes us fat and it’s not our bodies having a laugh at us, we’re programmed like that because we’re designed to react quickly to danger. It used to be wild animals or famine that caused us stress and we needed immediate energy stores to escape, to survive.

It’s a very clever pathway, regulated by hormones such as cortisol which flood the system with extra energy (in the form of glucose and fat). Once the stress has passed cortisol increases cravings for high energy foods to replenish stores and ensure any excess energy is lodged as fat around the abdomen –  its closest to the liver and therefore easier to convert back to energy if the danger returns.

It’s our basic biology, but these days we don’t see people running 3 miles from an angry boss, financial problems or kids that won’t go to bed. We aren’t burning off the excess energy provided. More and more cortisol is being produced and more energy is stored as fat.

Our bodies really can’t differentiate where the stress is coming from, it reacts the same whatever the source – skipping meals, yo yo diets, arguments, traffic jams or someone nicking our parking space at Tesco are all perceived as a danger.

The problem isn’t just the risk of obesity. Abdominal fat has been called ‘toxic’ fat because it behaves differently to fat elsewhere and is biologically active. This ‘toxic’ fat has been linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes and insulin resistance.

The insulin link

There is a delicate balancing act between cortisol and insulin that determines how much fat is stored. When we are stressed, take stimulants or eat refined high sugar foods, the glucose levels in our blood rise. Insulin is released to bring the glucose to a safer level. Where does all the excess glucose go? The quickest solution is to store it as fat…around the middle.

Frequently too much insulin is released which takes too much glucose out of the blood, making us feel tired, have low energy and we can become dizzy or shaky. Stress hormones are quickly released to counteract this and bring the glucose levels back up, resulting in a sugar rollercoaster orchestrated by the interplay between cortisol and insulin.

Not forgetting sleep

The third part of the triangle is sleep (or lack of). Too much cortisol negatively affects sleep. When we’re tired, our appetites are increased along with sugar cravings. The notion being that the hormones that regulate appetite and body weight are disrupted by deficient sleep. On top of this we’re too tired to exercise and often turn to coffee and sugary foods to give us energy when we’re exhausted, causing further disruption to our blood sugar levels.

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How to get rid of belly fat

The only way our bodies will release stubborn belly fat is for us to send it the message that it’s ok to let go of it. That we aren’t in any immediate danger. Turning off our chronic stress response is vital to that message getting through.

All three factors, stress, insulin and sleep have to be addressed at the same time to bring stress hormones into balance.

Stress: we can’t physically run away from our problems but we can try to change the way we perceive things. This is often easier said than done but there are certain herbs that can help with this process, allowing us to step back from chronic stress and implement changes to our lifestyles. We’ve written about them in detail in our article Tired but wired.

Exercise is really important when we are stressed if we want to prevent excess fat storage. But, overdoing it at the gym and putting pressure on ourselves actually increases our stress levels and has a negative effect. Aim for regular gentle exercise such as walking, swimming, dancing, pilates and yoga rather than strenuous workouts.

Sleep: there’s a lot we can do to influence our sleep patterns but paramount is making sure we have all the ingredients we need to run as effectively as possible such as ensuring we have good levels of calming nutrients such as magnesium. We share our tips on how to get a good nights sleep here.

Diet: Our eating patterns can be sending the wrong messages to our bodies, telling them we are stressed. Restrictive diets, skipping meals and calorie counting can all send the message that there’s a famine. We’ll hold onto any fat to protect against starvation.

We need to eat in a way that tells our bodies all is well. That means sitting down to meals and keeping blood sugar levels stable by eating regular meals that have good levels of protein and healthy fats and reducing sugar and refined carbohydrates. Protein really is the key here, it helps slow the rate at which sugars are released into the system thereby minimising the impact on blood sugar levels.

We hope this article helps explain why we store stubborn fat around our middle and how best to counteract this process.

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