The Stress Out Belly: How Stress Could Be Making You Gain Weight

While there are many different factors of weight gain that you can control, like your diet and exercise, there are some things that are a little less easy to manage.

Take stress, for example. 

We tend to spend a lot of time stressing out - about work, money, family, and everything in between - and it turns out that all that stress could be the reason that your pants are fitting a little tighter around the waist. 

Here’s how stress could be causing you to gain weight, and how you can break the cycle. 

The Stress Out Belly

A little bit of occasional stress is a natural human reaction. But if you’re constantly frustrated, angry, or nervous, your metabolism starts to change, which can lead to an undesirable weight gain. 

When you’re stressed out, your body releases a surge of cortisol, otherwise known as your “stress hormone.” Under normal circumstances, cortisol helps you respond to a stressful and/or potentially dangerous event by giving you a quick burst of energy - this is part of your “fight or flight” response. 

Unfortunately, if you’re stressed out all the time, those changes that give you quick bursts of energy can quickly become a problem. Higher cortisol levels mean that your body makes less insulin, a hormone that helps cells store energy. When your insulin levels are low, the sugars from your diet can’t go into your cells to be used for energy, so they stay in your bloodstream instead to be used for quick energy. But since we usually don’t literally run away from the problems causing us chronic stress as the response intends, those free, unused sugars start getting stored as fat. 

That weight gain isn’t always going to be equally distributed, either, since stress can actually lead to more fat storage around your middle. So even if you’re trying to stay healthy by keeping your diet clean and getting regular exercise, stress can still cause you to gain weight. 

Of course, it also doesn’t help that stress can lead to other consequences that aren’t ideal for managing your weight. For example, constant mental stress can lead to:  

  • Overeating, especially to satisfy the stress cravings for sugary and high-fat foods 
  • Interrupted sleep, which can mess with the release of weight-related hormones 
  • Less exercise because you have less time, energy, and/or motivation 

All these factors compounded can make the weight gain even worse. 

Is My Weight Gain From Stress or Perimenopause? 

So stress can obviously have a huge impact on your weight, but elevated cortisol levels aren’t the only thing that can cause a mysterious weight gain. Other hormonal imbalances could also be to blame.  

Take perimenopausal weight gain, for example. Many women experience weight gain, especially in their bellies, when they reach perimenopause, a condition that comes with a whole host of hormonal changes. Specifically, perimenopause means that your estrogen and progesterone levels are starting to fall. This hormone imbalance can then lead to a host of uncomfortable side effects including weight gain in your midsection

It also doesn’t help that perimenopause can be a stressful time for many women, which could contribute to chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels. 

So if you’re feeling stressed out and are experiencing other potential perimenopausal symptoms like irregular periods, hot flashes, night sweats, or brain fog, you could be dealing with a stress-out belly or a menopause belly - or maybe a little bit of both. 

Lower Your Stress, Naturally 

If you want to fight off a stress out belly, it means finding ways to get a handle on your stress levels in a healthy and constructive way. 

You can only control so many of the situations and events that might be causing you grief, but there are definitely some natural ways that you can help to cope with your stress and minimize the effect it has on your weight. 

Move your body. 

Exercise is one of the best natural sources of stress relief. You might not necessarily feel like heading to the gym when you’re stressed or upset, but getting exercise has been proven to help you release endorphins, which are more commonly known as your “feel-good hormones” which can help combat the effects of chronic stress. 

Even better, low-impact exercise (think walking and moderate resistance training) has been proven to help reduce your cortisol levels

Spend a little more time outdoors. 

Speaking of “natural,” a stressful day could see some major improvements by heading outside and getting a little sunshine. 

Spending just twenty minutes a day out in nature can significantly reduce your cortisol levels - and it’s always a good idea to spend some time reconnecting with the great outdoors to destress! 

Watch your caffeine. 

It might be tempting to reach for the second (or third, or fourth) cup of joe to help you cope with all the things on your plate, but it’s a stimulant that could leave you feeling more jittery and anxious - so it’s not the best idea if you want to get to the root cause of your stress. 

Consider drinking green tea instead: it has a gentler amount of caffeine to keep you alert but not wired, and it’s also been proven to lower your cortisol levels.  

Find other coping mechanisms. 

If you find that you’re reaching mindlessly for the snacks or prefer to zone out in front of the TV to cope with your stress, it’s worth finding other hobbies and coping mechanisms to help you deal with it more productively. 

Talk to someone. 

Whether it’s a licensed professional or a trusted love one, having a good vent session is a great way to ease some of your burdens. Plus, being with your friends and family might lead to a little bit of laughter, and there’s a reason that they always say that laughter is the best medicine! 

Another great option for talking it out is to join a menopause community where you can chat with peers who are going through menopause right along with you. These groups are a great place to share tips and tricks to cope, as well as a safe space to have a little bit of fun with it - it can be alleviating to be around people that get you, even if it’s virtual! 

Try out some meditation.

Meditation is a lot more than just sitting in peace and quiet for a moment (although that definitely helps!) 

Regular meditation has been proven to help lower your cortisol levels naturally, making it a great option to help you unwind and practice some mindfulness even in the midst of your most hectic days. 

Conclusion 

Stressful situations and circumstances might be a given in life, but the resulting weight gain doesn’t have to be. 

We can’t always control the things that are stressing us out and affecting our bodies, but we can always equip our bodies to better deal with the consequences by managing our stress levels in a healthy, productive way.