You’re looking in the mirror.
You’re frustrated that your abs aren’t as defined as you deserve them to be - considering that you work out regularly, have a healthy enough diet and always make time for some crunches.
You have a layer of fat covering your abdominal muscles and it just won’t shift.
This is a common complaint, even among the most committed gym goers.
It can lead to a lack of motivation and an unhelpful body image. These negative feelings promote the production of cortisol, the ‘stress’ hormone, which may be the very reason you can’t get rid of that fat in the first place.
What is Cortisol?
In scientific terms, cortisol is a hormone produced in the adrenal glands as part of the stress response system, called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). When you feel mentally or physiologically stressed, an area in your brain called the hypothalamus sends a message to the pituitary gland, from where a message is then sent through our blood to the adrenal glands telling it to secrete cortisol.
This process is an evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ response which is triggered when faced with immediate threat, which was a beneficial survival mechanism for our ancestors to quickly produce enough adrenaline to run from danger or to fight the threat.
However for most people, immediate threat is unlikely so the intense chemical reaction of cortisol production causes undesirable effects in the body. That being said, small increases of cortisol help to regulate glucose metabolism, insulin release for blood sugar maintenance, improvements to memory, increased energy and inflammatory response, amongst other things. So clearly cortisol is a beneficial hormone.
But what happens when levels of cortisol are elevated over sustained periods of time?
Excessive stress causes the body to continually be in ‘fight or flight’ mode which puts the body in a compromising physiological environment: increased blood pressure, decreased bone density, blood sugar imbalance, lowered immunity and inflammatory prevention and the promotion of fat mobilization.
Fat mobilization is the breaking down of the adipose (fat) cells to move the triglycerides (fat molecules) into the bloodstream to use as energy during the process of a ‘fight or flight’ response1.
Breaking down fat sounds good right? Unfortunately not in this context. We are rarely actually in situations of immediate threat so we do not need the excess energy to fight or for flight (even if it feels like we do). So instead of burning the triglycerides, cortisol causes them to be redeposited in the fat tissue surrounding the stomach as visible subcutaneous and visceral fat2.
So What Can I Do?
You may be told to eat better, train harder and sleep longer to burn that extra fat, which of course are all beneficial but so often unattainable considering the pressures of daily life. Getting a minimum of 8 hours sleep a night and eating whole foods attune to a specific macronutrient proportion are commonly de-prioritized in the face of your social life, your relationship, or your job.
The inability to control these variables can lead to mental or physiological stress; mentally stressed about your missed workout or a lunch with too much processed food, or maybe your body is in a state of physiological stress due to your five hour night of sleep and three double espressos to get you through that meeting.
Stress = cortisol production
Excessive cortisol production = fat storage in the abdomen
Fat storage in the abdomen = stress
And so the cycle repeats...
So rather than focusing solely on the variables you so often cannot change, it is better to focus on what you can change: your reaction to and management of stress and thus the production of cortisol.
Ideally, stress would be kept to a minimum, but for the majority of us it is unavoidable and so learning to manage it is the key.
1. Be Present
While reading this, you’ve probably been distracted by other thoughts running through your mind.
Where is my phone? Did I remember to email my boss with the figures? Did I remember to pay my rent? Did I spend too much last weekend?
Too much time and focus spent on thinking about variables we do not have power over are ultimately stress inducing and detrimental to our mind. Mindfulness training is becoming ever popular as more people are experiencing the benefits to their performance, mental state and productivity.
Taking some time out of your day to clear your mind and focus on the present can be a powerful
Stress management technique: Each time you have a thought that concerns the past or future, acknowledge it and let it pass without giving it energy. You can deal with it when it needs to be.
2. Practice Yoga
Yoga is not just for women. It increases flexibility, improves muscle tone, increases respiration and protects from injury. The ancient practice of yoga focuses on the breath, it helps to lower blood pressure, reduces muscle tension, lowers your heart rate and the essential reduction of cortisol levels3.
Stress management technique: Practice yoga weekly, whether it is in your room or at a class. Focus on learning to control your breathing, a technique you can use when a stressful situation arises.
3. Improve Sleep
Sleep is a crucial human function to allow our brains to recharge, muscles to repair and memory to consolidate4. Lack of sleep is one of the main contributors to physiological stress in particular.
Though you may mentally feel fine, your body is having to work hard to maintain energy levels by producing more cortisol.
Research also suggests poor sleep can lead to weight gain, for a number of reasons: you are less likely to work out effectively if at all on a bad night’s sleep and you are actually more likely to overeat (on average 300 calories a day!5) due to hormonal imbalances that increase appetite and decrease feelings of fullness.
Stress management technique: Set a daily alarm on your phone at the time you need to go to bed to get enough sleep and turn off your phone when the alarm rings. When this is done over the course of a few weeks, you will have created a ‘shutting down’ habit which your brain will start responding to without needing the alarm.
4. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
Everyone knows the benefits of exercise: increases endorphins (the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters), reduces fatigue, improves sleep, improves and stabilizes mood, improves alertness and concentration and enhances overall cognitive function6.
High intensity interval training (HIIT) is particularly beneficial at tackling raised cortisol levels and cutting stomach fat.
HIIT causes an oxygen deficit causing ‘excess post-exercise oxygen consumption’ (EPOC) which essentially means you will continue to burn calories at a fast rate for as long as 48 proceeding the workout.
This causes a chain of unique metabolic changes in the body such as increased insulin sensitivity, which in turn causes the body to take up blood glucose faster. This initiates the ‘hormone sensitive lipase’, which is a complex chemically structured enzyme that acts as a catalyst for the hydrolysis of fat i.e. it breaks down body fat stores quickly.
So not only will you be decreasing cortisol production and decreasing stress, you will also be increasing the fat burning enzymes!
Stress management technique: For a minimum of three days a week, try and incorporate HIIT training into your workout. This could be in the form of treadmill sprints: 30 seconds on (at full power) and 30 seconds off for 10-15 rounds, or if running isn’t for you, try kettlebell swings 45 seconds on 15 seconds off for 10-15 rounds.
The idea is to work at your full capacity for a short amount of time with intermittent rest periods.
To cut that last bit of stomach fat, you need to stop cortisol being excessively produced in your body.
It causes fat to be stored around your stomach which will cover your abdominal muscles, regardless of how many crunches you’re doing.
So learn to manage it effectively and enjoy the results.
- [Cortisol and The Stress Connection. John R. Lee, M.D. and Virginia Hopkins Virginia Hopkins Health Watch, One-to-One Inc., 2009]
- Epel, E.S., B. McEwen, T. Seeman, et al. Stress and body shape: stress-induced cortisol secretion is consistently greater among women with central fat. Psychosomatic Medicine 62:623-632, 2000]
- National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.). What happens when you sleep? Retrieved from http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/how-sleep-works/what-happens-when... .
- A LIFETIME APPROACH TO COMORBIDITY IN SLEEP, MOOD AND ANXIETY DISORDERS. SLEEP DISTURBANCES PLAY A ROLE IN THE NON-REMISSION OF PANIC DISORDERS
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America