The real reason that stubborn bulge around your belly isn't shifting, most likely, has nothing to do with your diet or exercise, but just how stressed you are. The good news? We've got the strategies you need up your sleeve to prevent it. "The body doesn't understand the difference between a real or perceived threat so although someone may only be stressed about the amount of emails in their inbox, the body goes into fight or flight mode," explains Laura Moore, performance and health coach and founder of Uppy. "This sets off a chain reaction of biochemical events in the body that piles on the pounds."
Below, Moore lists the four ways stress can play havoc with your weight loss goals, and what to do about it.
1. Stress gives you belly fat
"When an individual is stressed the adrenal glands in the body are activated, which releases adrenaline as well as cortisol to flood the body with glucose for immediate energy," says Moore. "Cortisol, however, also slows down the body's metabolism to maintain the glucose supply, and when it isn't used, it is stored as fat...on the stomach!" Not the news we wanted to hear, but it gets worse - as a result of this process, the brain sends out hunger signals, which causes over-eating.
2. It affects your sleep
"When we don't get a good night's sleep it disrupts the hormones ghrelin and leptin in our body. These hormones turn our appetite on and off and tell the brain what to do with the fat (use for energy or store it)," says Moore. "Lack of sleep will confuse the process and you will experience unnecessary hunger, not know when you're full and store fat when it should be burned. Furthermore, our ability to perform at our best and make good decisions depends on the amount of sleep we've had, so on a day after little sleep you may choose poor meal options." Read more about how sleep affects your weight here.
3. Stress slows digestion
"When the body is trying to fight a threat it shuts down anything not integral to survival in that moment, therefore when the body is stressed it normally shuts down the digestion system," says Moore. The result, she says, is our food isn't digested properly and a toxic build-up ensues. "These toxins retain fat and excess water, resulting in you feeling puffy and sluggish."
4. It tampers with the benefits of exercise
Exercise is a good thing, right? Well, usually - but perhaps not if you're really stressed. "Even exercise can be damaging because it releases cortisol, but if the levels are already too high in your body (because of stress at work, for example), it could contribute to weight gain," says Moore. "In this situation, re-evaluate the type of exercise and intensity and notch it down until the optimal state of the body is restored."
Laura Moore's stress-beating strategies:
- Sleep 7-8 hours a night.
- Turn off technology 30-60 minutes before bed and establish a relaxing sleep routine.
- Eat simple meals with no more than seven ingredients, focusing on natural wholefoods.
- Practice yoga and meditation (even start with diaphragmatic breathing) to help increase awareness and relax the sympathetic nervous system, giving you a sense of calm and clarity.
- Know what your stress triggers are and devise ways to deal with them.
- Get professional advice.
- Do what makes you happy - schedule it in at least once a week and don't let anything distract you from it.