What Is a Stress Belly and How Do I Get Rid of It?

by Carrie Gabriel, MS, RDN

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Carrie Gabriel, MS, RDN, discusses what stress belly is. Included: its causes, signs, and proactive ways to get rid of it.

It goes without saying that how you nourish your body is immensely important to your overall health. But sometimes, stress poses more harm to your physical and mental well-being than you’d imagine, especially when it compounds over time.

As a result, you may eventually experience a phenomenon called stress belly. Here’s a closer look at what it entails.

What is a stress belly?

True to its name, stress belly refers to excess stomach fat that results from chronic stress.

And while stress belly isn’t a true medical diagnosis, the mismanagement of stress and consequent hormonal imbalances come into play.

What causes stress belly?

Excess fat around the midsection can be attributed to a variety of factors. Genetics, aging, and eating habits can all play a part, but this fat can often be attributed to a cortisol imbalance.

Cortisol is a stress hormone that helps control blood sugar and metabolism. Further, it helps us get motivated and focused. Cortisol is usually elevated in the morning, when many of us need to perform at our best. In addition, exercise and periods of acute stress also help release cortisol and regulate energy.

Perhaps more notably, cortisol is also part of our body’s fight or flight response. The sympathetic nervous system activates in times of crisis, with the adrenal cortex then releasing cortisol. The body also gets a surge of glucose, which is meant to give our muscles an immediate supply of energy. At this point, insulin (which regulates blood sugar) is also released to prevent the surge of glucose from being stored as fat.

In an ideal world, our stressors would be short-lived and our hormones would soon balance out. But in reality, many of our stressors stay persistent, leaving cortisol levels consistently high and stress belly fat in its wake.

Sad stressed woman eating a cake alone

3 Signs of Stress Belly

Wondering what a stress belly looks like? Aside from the clear visual of excess fat in the midsection, here are three signs that may indicate you have a stressed out belly.

1. A sense of Being overwhelmed

Overwhelm is typical for people who experience cortisol imbalances. If it feels as though you’ll explode, cry, or scream with even a small (or even innocent) provocation, there’s a chance you’ll develop stress belly.

2. You’re Hungry All Day Long

Stress is linked to ghrelin, a hunger hormone that increases appetite and can lead to weight gain.

If you feel like you could eat five more meals after just finishing breakfast, or always feel the urge to snack past dinnertime, that can also signify a cortisol imbalance and ensuing stress belly.

3. exercise makes you Ravenous

If you’re so hungry after exercising that you crave only high-calorie foods, that can signify a cortisol imbalance. Additionally, you may be exercising too hard or too fast, which can raise cortisol to unhealthy levels.

Tip: Exercising at a lower intensity can actually reduce cortisol levels. For that reason, consider swapping HIIT or bootcamp-style workouts for something more low-key, such as Pilates or yoga.

Man sweaty from a workout; high-intensity workouts can raise cortisol and stress

How to Get Rid of Stress Belly

While you might want to look for a quick fix for stress belly, that route isn’t your best bet.

Instead, aim to adapt some of these lifestyle changes. Over time, you should start to experience positive results.

WOrk Out Regularly

For starters, exercise is great for boosting your mood. It can also help you reduce visceral fat (aka “inside fat”), the hormonally active fatty tissue beneath your abdominal wall. When you reduce visceral fat through exercise, you effectively lower the risk of developing greater health conditions.

Tip: Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise (including cardio and strength training) on most days of the week.

Cut Back on Alcohol

Drinking alcohol may feel good in the moment, but the relief and relaxation are usually short lived.

If your goal is to get rid of stress belly, heavy alcohol use in particular will typically hinder your efforts. It’s worth nothing that alcoholic drinks are high in calories. Plus, your body burns alcohol before burning fat.

Person chopping a salad with dark leafy greens to help get rid of stress belly

Eat Stress-Reducing Foods

Luckily, there are a number of great foods that reduce stress you can add to your diet.

First, B vitamins can help relieve stress. Foods with good vitamin B content include:

  • chicken
  • fish
  • eggs
  • dark green vegetables
  • bananas
  • avocados

Additionally, you can reach for anti-inflammatory foods that may also enable you to better maintain a healthy weight, such as:

  • berries
  • garlic
  • ginger
  • turmeric

Get Better Sleep

For adults, getting too little (less than six hours) or too much (over nine hours) of sleep is linked to developing more visceral fat.

Further, when we don’t sleep well or for enough time, our bodies don’t get the full benefits of sleep, which include both muscular and mental repair. This can set off cortisol production, which in turn can increase visceral fat and thus lead to stress belly.

reduce stress with self-care

You may not be able to completely eliminate stress from your life, but self-care can help you manage it. That said, take time for yourself every day.

Pick up that book you’ve been wanting to read, play your favorite music, and have a cup of hot tea or a few pieces of quality chocolate. Otherwise, socializing is a good form of self-care as well. It also has the added benefit of taking your mind off stress.

Tip: Do double duty by going for a walk with a friend. Paired together, physical activity and self-care through socializing can encourage more rapid progress when it comes to getting rid of stress belly.


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