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Does stress cause increase in body fat – especially around your abdomen?

Psychology Weight change

Written by:
Birgitte Nymann ( www.nymanns.dk )
Author, speaker and educator within Exercise, health, nutrition and motivation. Concept – and seminar developer at Pro Academy, Denmark. Educated and trained in sport from University of Copenhagen.

Did you know that stress can make you fat? Especially around your abdominal region?
Stress can have an impact on your digestion, and cause it to either stop completely or the opposite. This often results in a swollen and prominent abdomen, a deficient food assimilation and a higher risk of overeating. Furthermore, stress increases the craving for sweets to a great extent.

Are you stressed?

According to Shawn Talbott (Source: The Cortisol Connection) stress is:
The way that you feel when the demands in life outweigh your ability of satisfying these demands.

Colloquially, stress has become a word that we often use when we are under pressure, when we do not have the time to do it all and when we feel that our everyday life is chaotic. Stress can be defined as several different things – and the total amount of stress in your body can be affected by a series of factors. In this connection, we will only deal with the impact that your thoughts can have on the body, and not on lack of sleep, food, drinking, smoke and chemistry in your everyday life (from food, cleaning detergents, shampoos, creams, air fresheners, computers etc.).

Fight or flight

The stress mechanism in the human body has been created back in a time where stress should improve our ability of fighting or flighting from a physical danger: an attack from a wild animal, a tribe attack etc. Fight or flight! Stress is created by our consciousness or by a thought, which starts a chain of physical reactions that enables the body to fight or flight as effectively and with strength as great as possible. That is why stress gives you:

  • Higher pulse rate (to release more blood out to the muscles that are about to work – so does the body believe)
  • Higher blood pressure (to pump the blood around faster)
  • Release fat from fat deposits (to provide you with energy to fight or flight)
  • Release glycogen (sugar) from the liver (to provide energy quickly to fight or flight)
  • The blood becomes slightly thicker (so you don’t lose too much blood if you get hurt)
  • Blood vessels clip in certain areas (for example around the intestines – there is no time to use energy on digestion when you need to fight or flight)
  • Blood vessels become enlarged in certain areas (as in for example arms and legs)

All this happen to enable the body to perform physically as much as possible – without having these reactions, there would not be humans on earth today. Problems with stress arise when the impact of stress becomes more or less permanent.

Acute stress and chronic stress

We all get stressed several times a day. We react differently to stress, hence some people tolerate a far greater pressure before they give in to stress than others. However, everybody is affected by stress in one way or another.

Acute stress is the kind of stress that is created when we are in acute ”danger”; when we don’t think that we have enough time to reach the train, when we become frightened, when we are about to fall of our bike etc.
Chronic stress is the kind of stress that is created by constant stress factors as ongoing deadlines, things that you don’t have the time to do, bad economy, illness, difficult relationship, being dissatisfied with yourself etc. All these factors are present for a longer period of time – and for some people for years. This type of stress is harmful to your health and is robbing your life energy. Furthermore, this type of stress gives you a long series of daily symptoms like tiredness, lack of presence and concentration, overweight, fluid accumulation, headache, neck pain, skin problems, bad digestion, sleeping problems, mood swings, overeating etc.
Since our modern world only rarely demand physical unfolding when we become stressed, we actually do the opposite of what the body should do when we are stressed, because we sit still while we stress. This is where we find the core of the problem that makes chronic stress very straining for the body.

Stress mechanism

Our physical”stress system” consists of glands and the hormones that they produce. The hormones have an impact on the tissue and”stress” occurs.
The first thing that happens when you become stressed is that your adrenal glands release adrenaline, nor-adrenaline, aldosteron and cortisol. Adrenaline and nor-adrenaline makes your pulse rate rise, blood vessels and lung tissue enlarge and the brain functions better. Aldosteron controls the sodium and potassium balance in your blood, cells and tissue and it has an impact on the control of fluid balance. The more aldosteron, the more salt is retained in the body. Salt retains water = increased fluid accumulation. This is why a great number of people gain weight when they become stressed – simply due to increased fluid accumulation. Cortisol is responsible of making sure that a sufficient amount of glucose enters in the blood, that veins constrict in certain areas (for example around the intestines – and causes bad digestion), that your blood pressure increases and that the appetite is stimulated when you need to fight or flight. For this reason, many people gain weight or have difficulties in losing weight when they are stressed. Regarding chronic stress, the appetite is usually stimulated with quickly ingested carbohydrates or the craving for alcohol increases. These factors altogether result in an increased storing of fat around the abdominal region. Today, we see more people with too much fat in the abdominal region than we have ever seen before. This is due to two things: stress and sugar, which both result in increased fat deposits around your abdomen.

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