What Is Stress Belly And How Can You Get Rid Of It?

Stress has all sorts of nasty effects on our health. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' Department of Women's Health, those effects include headaches and migraines, depression and anxiety, heart problems, and reproductive issues just to name a few. So it's not surprising that researchers are finding a link between stress and obesity. A. Janet Tomiyama, a Ph.D. of psychology at UCLA has published multiple studies on the connection between stress and obesity. And with each one, the link is more clearly defined.

There are several connections, but the most important come down to two things: cortisol and eating habits. Cortisol is one of the chemicals our bodies release when we're under stress. In small doses, it helps our bodies use energy more effectively until the danger has passed. But when you're dealing with chronic stress, cortisol just causes your body to store fat as outlined in this study from Monash University's Department of Physiology in Australia.

As if that wasn't bad enough, stress also encourages a desire for comfort foods. And we all know that comfort foods are almost always high in fat and calories. In fact, this study by Dr. Tomiyama found that the more stressed someone is, the more they enjoy their comfort food. Dr. Tomiyama specifically focused on women with high-stress lives —and for good reason. Another study from the November 2016 issue of Physiology and Behavior found that the stress-obesity link is stronger in women than men.

How to reduce stress

All these connections come together to cause something now known as "stress belly." Now that we know about the connection, though, what are we supposed to do about it? 

The obvious answer is to reduce stress but that's much easier said than done. Luckily, a few researchers have already started looking at specific methods that can help. Four departments of The John Hopkins University in Baltimore came together for a study that focused on meditation as a tool to combat stress. Nearly every participant in the study reported mild to moderate stress reduction after taking up meditation. The study allowed for several types of meditation, so it doesn't seem to matter how you meditate so long as you develop a regular meditation practice.

Meditation alone won't banish stress belly, though. And there are some stress reduction options that go beyond the usual advice to "just relax". The Office of Women's Health recommends organizing small parts of your life. Putting your keys in a key bowl or laying out your clothes the night before, can help you remove small stressors from your life. Regular, gentle movement such as yoga or walking is also recommended. And as tempting as those comfort foods are, you're better off reaching for nutritious foods full of B vitamins (which help stress levels because the vitamins balance nerves and brain cells), like bananas, avocados, chicken, and leafy greens.

At the end of the day, we all stress for different reasons. But meditation, gentle exercise, and small dietary shifts are universal tips for reducing stress-related obesity. And they're the best starting points for gradual, lasting change.