Long-term stress can do a number on your body in so many ways. For many who are over 40, it causes that stubborn belly fat that we can’t ever seem to get rid of. And when chronic stress and belly fat join forces, diabetes can often result. If your blood sugar has been creeping up, here’s why your stress is the root of the problem, and what you can do to reduce your risk of developing diabetes.
It’s no secret that stress is bad for our health. A stressful day at work or a phone call with some bad news hits us right in the stomach, or it can leave us with a pounding headache. In extreme cases, it can also spike our blood pressure and trigger a heart attack or stroke.
That feeling of stress that we all know – the heart racing, hands shaking, fast breathing, is caused by a rush of hormones that are meant to protect us when we sense danger. It’s the “fight-or-flight” response that allows us to run away from something that can harm us. Except, we can’t run away from work deadlines, or bills we’re having trouble paying, or family problems.
Cortisol and the Stress Response
One of the hormones that’s involved in the stress, or fight-or-flight response, is cortisol. Produced by the adrenal glands, it’s an important hormone that helps keep us awake, alert, and it regulates many functions in the body, including how and when to use carbs, protein, and fat to survive. When we’re under stress, it works to free up extra glucose in our body and minimize the action of insulin, the hormone that gets glucose from our blood and into our cells. Cortisol also pulls triglycerides out of the liver in case the body needs some extra fat for fuel. It makes sure everything is in place, and our body is set to run from the stressor.
Except, for most of us, there’s little if any, running, and lots of sitting and worrying.
The Link to Belly Fat and Diabetes
When stress levels remain high for long periods of time, cortisol also stays too high for too long. And that’s where the problem starts.
- With all that extra glucose floating around, blood sugar levels slowly creep up
- Our body is producing insulin, but it’s not working – we become insulin-resistant and our cells are starving for sugar – even though there’s plenty available
- The unused triglycerides go back into storage, but this time they get stored in visceral fat cells, which are located deep within the abdomen (not the cosmetic but pretty harmless pinch-an-inch belly fat we all carry by our 40s)
- That extra belly fat we begin to carry makes us more insulin resistant
- The more insulin resistant we become, the more we tend to crave sugar and carbs – which drives blood sugar levels up more
- Those extra calories from sugar and carbs are stored as fat. You guessed, it – in the abdomen
- And here’s the kicker. Visceral (abdominal) fat has more cortisol receptors than fat that’s located just under the skin
So as long as there’s stress, the cycle continues…
How to Break the Cycle
It’s easy to say don’t let the stress get to you, but it’s truly the best thing you can do to break the cycle. If you’re easily affected by stress, work on ways to Let. It. Go. The following things might be helpful:
- Talk to a therapist who can help you find ways to put your stressors into perspective and make them more manageable
- Every time you feel stress, stop, breathe deeply, redirect your negative thoughts and focus on gratitude and the positive things in your life
- Take time out of every day or at least every week for some self-care. Get a pedicure; schedule a weekly hike or walk with friends; have a massage…
- Try yoga and meditation. There are lots of free apps and videos but a weekly class can be a wonderful distraction
- Make sure you get a good 8 hours of sleep (and maybe a bit more when you’re especially stressed) every night
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Boost Your Defenses and Minimize Belly Fat
High cortisol levels can also do a number on your immune system. Boost it up by eating a clean, healthy, low sugar diet. Eating better also makes you physically and mentally stronger, so you’ll be able to bounce back from stress.
- Work on getting enough protein at each meal and snack, from fish, chicken, eggs, Greek yogurt, legumes, and tofu or tempeh. Also, load up on fruits and vegetables every time you eat. This helps minimize any cravings for sugar and refined carbs, keeps your glucose in check, and floods your body with disease-fighting antioxidants
- Take some extra vitamin C, D, and B-complex, which may be depleted faster when you’re under stress; omega-3 which can help reduce inflammation in your body; and magnesium, which can have a calming effect, especially if you take it at night
- Consider taking an adaptogenic herb supplement like Ashwagandha, Holy Basil, or Rhodiola. They help your body adapt to stress more easily. Several research studies have found that Ashwagandha can reduce cortisol levels.
- Take time each week to plan your meals and snacks, and stock your fridge with healthy, low glycemic-index ingredients. A grocery delivery service can help if you’re pressed for time. Having a plan in place and food available makes healthy eating easier, and eliminates the stress of “what’s for dinner”
- Limit caffeine and alcohol. Both can elevate cortisol levels
- Don’t skip your exercise! Not only does exercise help to reduce stress, but also it helps to minimize that harmful, deep belly fat, and it lowers your blood sugar. In addition to cardio, aim for 2-3 good strength training sessions each week. It will help to reduce insulin resistance and boost your metabolism
If you’ve been under lots of stress for a while, make sure you keep an eye on your blood sugar. If you’re in the prediabetic range (between 100 and 125 mg/dL fasting), make sure you’re doing everything you can to eat better, cut out the extra sugar, exercise more, and manage your stress.
Are you a Type A person who’s bothered by stress? What do you do to de-stress?