How Stress Can Make You Fat and What to Do About It

husband and wife experiencing stress while eating breakfast

You may have read or heard that stress has a negative impact on your ability to lose weight and body fat. You may have assumed that this is due to stress eating; that urge to comfort yourself with foods that are loaded with calories and fat. However, it’s not as simple as that. In fact, it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with eating at all!

Stress not only interferes with your ability to lose the fat you already have; it also actually stimulates your body to store fat, especially belly fat. But that fat doesn’t always come from an unhealthy diet. What’s at work here is your body’s natural hormonal processes.

Your body was designed to react to stress in a number of ways and many of them have to do with your hormones. Coincidentally, the hormones most affected are those that control fat storage and fat burning. Isn’t that awesome?

Stress and Cortisol

There’s been a lot of media attention given to cortisol lately, but what’s being said about it can be confusing if it isn’t explained properly or you don’t happen to have a degree in physiology. Here’s a simple breakdown of how stress affects cortisol and how cortisol affects body fat.

You may have heard of the “flight or fight” response. It’s a natural function of the body in response to stress or danger. One part of that response is the release of cortisol into your bloodstream. That cortisol then signals the body to store glycogen (metabolized food that should be burned for energy) in your abdominal area. The reason for this is that millennia ago, stress usually meant that you weren’t going to be eating for a while because you were busy running from bison or angry cave people.

Today, stress doesn’t usually mean that you won’t have a meal anytime soon or that you’re going to be running for your life, but the fat storage response remains the same. Additionally, it doesn’t take a horde of cave-people or a herd of bison to stress you out enough to release cortisol. In fact, it takes very little stress. Several years ago, a study by Harvard University School of Public Health found that even the stress of counting calories stimulated an increase in cortisol production!

As if that news isn’t bad enough, lack of regular sleep, an argument with your spouse, and even missing your train to work can do the same thing.

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What You Can Do About It

If you’re thinking that you don’t think you can completely rid your life of stress, you’re right. If you think this means you’ll always be overweight, you’re wrong.

Yes, managing or limiting stress is helpful to weight loss, but there are steps you can take to combat the effects of the stress you’ll always have.

Fat Loss and Vitamin C

The first step is to increase your intake of Vitamin C. Vitamin C is one of the most powerful antioxidants in existence and your body uses it for all cell renewal and rebuilding as well as combatting stress. Unfortunately, Vitamin C is a soluble vitamin, which means we don’t store large quantities of it. This means we need to get enough of it every day to meet our body’s needs.

Vitamin C helps you to lose fat in two ways: it decreases the body’s perception of stress (which lowers cortisol levels) and it also is one of the key ingredients in a nifty little compound known as L-carnitine. L-carnitine is responsible for taking stored fat to the liver, where it can be converted back into glycogen and burned as energy.

But here’s the rub; your body doesn’t really hold fat burning as a high priority. Definitely not as much of a priority as you think it is. Your body basically triages your Vitamin C supply. First it takes what it needs for cell building, cell repair, and healing. If you have some Vitamin C leftover (and if your cortisol levels aren’t through the roof), it’ll go ahead and allocate some to the production of L-carnitine. Visualize it this way; if you get enough Vitamin C (and take the other steps below), your cortisol levels drop, which signals the body to go ahead and get rid of stored fat, so it makes more L-carnitine. Then L-carnitine takes a little run by your abs and picks up a load of fat and zings it over to the liver.

The very best way to get enough Vitamin C is through a diet of plenty of whole fruits and vegetables, such as apples, oranges, peaches, plums, grapefruit, strawberries, kiwi, kale, spinach, and almost anything else in the produce section. You can also take a good Vitamin C supplement to help make sure you have enough on board.

Other Steps to Combat Stress and Lose Fat

Eating a Vitamin C-rich diet isn’t all you can do.

One of the best things you can do to help you lose weight and burn fat is to get enough sleep. That same Harvard study found that people who slept irregular hours or slept too little (less than 7 hours nightly) had larger waistlines and far more body fat than people who slept at least 7 hours a night at roughly the same time every night.

Exercise can also play a huge part in your fight against stress-induced fat, aside from burning calories and building muscle. Exercise increases dopamine levels in your body. Dopamine is yet another natural chemical, which gives you a sense of wellbeing and even happiness. This is why most people say they feel so much happier after they work out. It also reduces the amount of stress that your body perceives, because dopamine balances the stress hormones.

Yes, stress can make you store fat, but you don’t have to move to a deserted island to fight it. Taking these steps will combat cortisol and help you to burn that belly fat, even when your boss is yelling at you and the kids have shaved the cat.

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