If you’ve been stressed lately and you’ve noticed your pants aren’t fitting quite the same, you may be wondering if they’re related.
“There are many reasons for weight gain including increased caloric intake, decreased physical activity, and stress,” says Cody Braun, CPT, Assistant Manager of Fitness at Beachbody.
“Our bodies are complex machines, which makes it hard to find the root cause of weight gain for each individual. The best we can do is assess our environment and find where we can make improvements,” he explains.
But there’s no denying that we’re feeling excess stress right now.
You’re likely aware if you’ve been eating more than usual, even if you’re not sure why you stress eat.
But weight gain isn’t always as simple as that.
Stress is associated with weight gain, and you may be dealing with a case of stress belly.
What Is “Stress Belly”?
“‘Stress belly’ usually refers to that weight gain around your midsection that occurs when there has been a change in your daily stress level, emotions, and life changes,” says Emily Tills, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N.
“Although this weight gain usually feels like it is from excess eating, which is a big contributing factor to stress belly, it also has to do with our body’s physiological response to stress,” she adds.
Dana Hunnes, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., a senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, adds that not all stress is likely to cause stress belly.
Short-term stressors are unlikely to lead to weight accumulating, whereas excessive and chronic stressors (like working a toxic job) can turn on and keep on a hormonal cascade that promotes weight gain.
Ultimately, there are two hormones at play here: cortisol and insulin.
That’s not to say that cortisol is a bad thing. We need some of it. Though cortisol is commonly known as the “stress hormone,” it also helps us get up and go.
A cortisol spike in the mid-morning, called the cortisol awakening response, helps us be alert enough to tackle that to-do list, for example.
The problem comes when there’s chronic stress. Your cortisol levels are constantly high and the body shuts down other bodily processes until the “stressor” is resolved.
But in this case the “stressor” doesn’t go away and your health is impacted.
The Stress Response and Weight Gain
When you need to fight or run to survive — how our ancestors’ stress happened — our bodies pump out cortisol.
This hormone does several things that help you survive: It’s a powerful anti-inflammatory agent (to help you keep running even if you break your foot). It turns off non-vital body functions (you don’t need to digest, you need to run).
And it mobilizes glucose in order to get your muscles the fuel they need.
What’s the problem with that?
Our bodies are primed to run or fight — but we don’t. In fact, many times we just sit at our desks.
So our bodies call for more fuel to escape, but as Tills points out, “the body is already in a fed state and actually suppresses digestion as a response to stress, therefore causing the body to store this excess energy as fat, causing stress belly.”
Hunnes explains that this is because the combination of cortisol and insulin creates lipoprotein lipase, “which is an enzyme that tends to increase the amount of fat we store in our midsections.”
These effects of cortisol are so hard to escape because cortisol is released for hours after you experience something stressful.
And the amount of stressors we experience daily, many researchers hypothesize, is far higher than that experienced by our ancestors.
Other factors that contribute to “stress belly”
Hormonal issues or transitions can also cause fat to accumulate around your belly.
For women, this often means fat gain in the abdomen during perimenopause or menopause.
Lower thyroid function, increased cortisol production, and estrogen out of balance with progesterone all tend to happen as women age and may contribute to gaining belly fat.
Though fat storage is the primary driver of “stress belly,” there may be digestive problems at play, too.
“It is possible that digestive problems can add to a small fraction of weight gain,” Braun says. “If you notice bloating or other digestive problems it is important to reassess your nutrition and your stress levels.”
You may have stress constipation that’s making weight gain from stress look bigger.
Although more human research is needed, preliminary animal research shows that psychological stress can also negatively impact the balance of bacteria in the gut, thus potentially leading to weight gain.
What Are The Risks of Having Stress Belly Fat?
“Cortisol has been linked to the storage of visceral fat,” Braun points out — and this is where the health risks come in.
Unlike subcutaneous fat, the kind that accumulates under your skin (you can pinch it), visceral fat forms around your organs in your abdomen.
Subcutaneous fat storage is more individual: Some people tend to gain weight around their midsections, while others may accumulate it on their hips, thighs, and butt.
“Everyone is predisposed to store fat differently, but visceral fat inside the abdomen can be more detrimental to health when you accumulate too much,” Braun explains.
And there are risks to having visceral belly fat even if you’re at a normal weight.
Women with higher abdominal obesity — fat gain in the abdomen specifically — had a higher risk of having asthma and their asthma was more severe than women with smaller waist measurements, one study found.
The risk was still higher for those with waist measurements pointing to visceral fat even if their weight was normal.
The potential dangers of visceral fat aren’t simply because it’s found around the internal organs.
Visceral fat is actually hormonally active, which means it can interfere with many of our bodies’ natural processes.
This type of fat’s effect on circulating hormones is one of the reasons why it’s associated with so many health conditions.
The more visceral fat you have, the less of a compound called adiponectin you have circulating in your body, researchers have found.
Low levels of this hormone are associated with type 2 diabetes, elevated glucose levels, high blood pressure (hypertension), and even certain types of cancer.
Getting specific about the type of fat matters. (Even though you can gain subcutaneous fat around your stomach, it’s visceral fat that’s linked to diabetes risk.)