One of the most common complaints I hear from women who are in their 40’s and 50’s is that their waist is disappearing and being replaced by a beer belly / muffin top / spare tyre. To make matters worse, even when they change their diet and start exercising it has little or no impact on the fat stored around their middle. This causes no end of frustration and leads women to believe that weight gain is inevitable as we go through perimenopause and menopause.
Weight gain during middle age can be attributed to a whole range of issues including a slower metabolism, reduced activity levels, fluctuating hormone levels and insulin insensitivity.
Unfortunately most weight loss programmes focus solely on diet and exercise and neglect one of the most important issues – stress. The amount of stress in your life will profoundly impact whether or not you are able to lose weight from your midsection so unless you take steps to manage your stress, losing weight, particularly from your middle, will be an uphill struggle.
It really is that important. I’ve spoken with women who are doing everything else right but because of the amount of stress they’re under, the weight won’t shift. Once you understand how stress impacts your waistline, I hope you will feel motivated to look for ways to reduce the amount of stress in your life and make self-care a priority.
Stress Hormones and Body Fat
We have two main stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol which are both released by the adrenal glands in a stressful situation. Together these two hormones prepare your body for fight or flight. Adrenaline gets you alert and focused while cortisol increases the amount of fat and sugar in the bloodstream so that you have enough energy to stay and fight or run away.
This clever response gives your body everything it needs to react quickly in a stressful situation. This is perfect when confronted by a spear-wielding caveman, but most of the stress we deal with nowadays comes from deadlines, traffic jams, credit card debt, family arguments etc, and your body doesn’t know the difference. It reacts in exactly the same way.
Once the threat is over, adrenaline levels quickly return to normal and you gradually start to feel calm again. Cortisol levels often remain higher for a while, increasing your appetite because your brain thinks you may need to refuel your body. This is fine if you’ve actually been fighting or running for your life as your body will need to replenish its reserves, but modern day stress is almost continuous and comes without the natural release of fighting or fleeing so all the extra fat and sugar that was released into your bloodstream (plus any extra that you eat as a consequence of the post-stress appetite surge) is simply re-deposited as fat around your middle.
Why around your middle? Because it’s close to the liver so the fat can be quickly converted back into energy for the next stressful incident.
If you’re continuously under stress and your body is never given a chance to recover, your cortisol levels can remain high and the body will adapt to this constant level of stress. Your body will hang onto the fat around your middle because it thinks it needs a convenient store of energy ready for constant use and you’ll also experience increased appetite and cravings because your body wants to ensure that your energy supplies are constantly topped up.
Symptoms of Stress
If you’re under continuous stress and your cortisol levels are constantly high you could experience any of the following symptoms:
- Weight gain around the middle
- Increased appetite and cravings
- Weakened immune system
- Tiredness, yet you can’t get a good nights sleep
- Low sex drive
- Digestive problems
- Muscle aches & pains
- Hair loss
The Way Forward
Recognising that your stress levels need to be addressed is the first step. You then need to find ways to manage them.
- Learn to say no
- Use relaxation techniques – meditation, breathing exercises, massage
- Physical activity – walking in nature is a fantastic way to keep active AND lower stress levels
- Manage your time
- Talk to someone
- Get more sleep
A good diet rich in vegetables, fruit, good quality protein and healthy fats will not only reduce the stress on your body but will also help you lose the fat from around your middle.
Be patient. It takes time for your body to get the message that it no longer needs to hang on to the extra weight, especially if you’ve been living with stress for a long time. But your body is very adaptable and if you are consistent in your approach the weight will come off.