And March Break is the catalyst for this post about stress. Well, stress and belly fat. The two seem to have a messy, tangled-up, co-dependent relationship.
This could get a little bit science-y, and I am emphatically NOT a science-y kind of person. Which is why I have had to do a lot of reading and research to boil it down. But here's what I know:
- You can't control where your body stores fat (that's genetics; you can only control gaining and losing overall percentages of body fat). Sadly, you also can't spot reduce or target where you burn your fat from.
- I have a lot of belly fat; my gut is where my body stores and clings for dear life to it. Hence the name of the blog. It's all about my Gut. I have a vested interest in trying to figure out how to get rid of belly fat, or at least how to avoid gaining more of it.
- Abdominal fat is just about the worst kind of fat. Fat in other places may be unsightly, but it's not always harmful. The spare tire? Packs serious health impacts. Deadly ones. Subcutaneous fat is the muffin top, the fat just under the skin that you can grab on to around your mid-section. Even worse is visceral fat, the kind that you can't see, but which fills the spaces in and around your vital organs. "Visceral fat has been linked to metabolic disturbances and increased risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. In women, it is also associated with breast cancer and the need for gallbladder surgery." (1)
- There are two Hunger Hormones: Ghrelin and Leptin. Ghrelin increases the appetite, and Leptin decreases the appetite. It would follow that if you are trying to lose weight, you don't want to produce too much Ghrelin. You want that hormonal bad-boy kept under control.
- When you are under stress, the adrenal glands secrete the hormone Cortisol. It increases blood sugar levels. And Ghrelin levels are elevated by chronic stress.
So ... what I'm piecing together is that stress and abdominal fat are highly correlated. Nuts. So much for a simple solution.
Stupid, insidious Ghrelin Gremlins.
But, it's not all their fault. The Cortisol hormone, we'll call him Captain 'cause the other hormones pretty much follow his direction, is what tells the Ghrelin Gremlins to release in the first place.
And Captain Cortisol responds to stress. Constant stress, too many stressors, and it becomes a chronic problem. The body never relaxes. The Captain never retires or takes a vacation. So the metabolism slows down, and you are always in an unnatural fight, flight, or defeated state. Those high levels of cortisol don't just release the Ghrelin Gremlins that tell your body you're hungry. Oh, no. Those Gremlins crave sugar, fat, and salt. In fact, a diet high in protein and good carbs will help to decrease ghrelin levels (as will sleep, and relaxation). That is part of the reason that it's harder to maintain willpower in times of stress, because it's not just psychological. The cravings can be a biological response, too. More ghrelin and you're not just hungry, you're hungry for the unhealthiest stuff available. Double whammy.
You heard that right. Dieting is a source of chronic stress. So is exercise. The top two methods of dealing with and reducing stress are also stressors. Ugh. No wonder we're caught up in a cycle that is tough to break out of. I should note here that it's intensive exercise, or over-training that is more likely the stress culprit; good exercise will release endorphins, which make you feel good. And it's dieting, in the restrictive, low-calorie sense of the word which is harmful, not changing your diet permanently. It can be hard to see the difference, especially if emotions are involved. If you feel deprived, you're creating stress for yourself, even if your body is getting good nutrition. What did I tell ya? Complicated and tangled.
Aside from changing diet and getting smart about exercise, finding a balance in both and ensuring adequate rest and sleep, there are things that I do to try and reduce my body's cortisol-releasing response to stress. I take fish oil (Omega 3 only) daily to help with inflammation. I take a Vitamin B complex, since the B's are the ones which are associated with cortisol (and which are often packaged and marketed as stress reducers. Save yourself some money, just buy a regular B-complex vitamin, because if you look closely at the ingredients in a lot of the "for stress" concoctions, that's basically what's in it). Laughing and crying are both stress releasers, and I do an awful lot of laughing. Crying, not nearly enough. I hate crying in front of people, but sometimes when I need an emotional release I'll pop in the part of a movie that I know will get me to heart-stabby levels of weepy.
Other things I know I should do, or do more of, include getting adequate sleep. More yoga with meditation. Journalling (the private kind, to vent and release and work out problems, not the blog-to-the-world kind of writing). Turn off devices and disconnect for at least 30 minutes a day (and story time programs don't count); phone, computer, TV - should be off. I need more nature on a daily basis. It really needs to be a multi-pronged approach to coping with stress, kicking Captain Cortisol to the curb, and get those Ghrelin Gremlins under control.
After all, I want to have a tight ass, not be a tight-ass.