Neglect this one major cause of fat storage and you'll undo all your hard work!
When you've been consistently sticking to your workout plan and eating like a saint, there's nothing more frustrating (and confusing!) than that midsection fat that won't budge.
But here's the thing - struggling to lose the bulge around the belly could simply come down to stress.
When we're overtraining, under-recovering, stressed out and running around all sleep deprived, we mistakenly expect the fat to melt off - but this couldn't be further from reality.
Why do we store fat?
As annoying as it is to us now, fat storage is one of many mechanisms that kept humans alive in earlier times. Although stress today tends to come from work, finances, relationships, and even our internal dialogue… stress is historically associated with times of food scarcity, such as floods, famine and war.
To prevent us from starving to death, our amazing bodies have interconnected systems that respond to external threats to our survival.
Unfortunately for us, the stress from a work deadline or an intense workout results in the same physiological response as the stress from a natural disaster or war.
You may know this as ‘flight or fight' - the response of the Sympathetic Nervous System, which stimulates the production of Cortisol and Adrenaline. Although the role of Cortisol is to adapt our bodies to stressful situations, it has become known as the fat-storage hormone.
Why on the belly?
Just as Cortisol is the fat storage hormone, HSD-type-1 is the body's fat storage enzyme. It resides deep within the fatty tissue throughout our bodies but is found in much higher concentrations in abdominal fat tissue.
As part of the stress response, HSD-type-1 converts inactive cortisone into the active form of cortisol, which explains why cortisol concentrations are as much as 400% higher around our bellies.
The effects of stress are cumulative, which means the more stressed out we are, the more we overtrain, sleep poorly, and under-recover - the more cortisone will be converted to cortisol, resulting in more fat over our abs.
"So, if training harder and eating less isn't the answer - what can we do?" Here are 8 ways to finally lose that midsection fat!
1. Recover as hard as you train
Make sure the exercise you're doing is exercise you can recover from.
There is no point in doing an incredibly intense workout if you're unable to walk or function for the rest of the week.
Intense exercise is good, but you must be able to recover within a day or two.
Focus on gradually increasing the intensity so that you can recover well and maintain a good workout frequency.
On your rest days - rest! Get massages, meditate, take a long bubble bath - relax and recover as hard as you workout to help your nervous and endocrine systems find balance.
2. Prioritise sleeping well
Growth Hormone (GH) is Cortisol's opposing hormone. This means that anything that increases GH will help to lower Cortisol.
As GH is activated during sleep, improving the quantity and quality of your sleep will lower your Cortisol and shift your body into a state where it's happy to lose fat.
Conversely, lack of sleep increases the production of Cortisol, which inhibits the production of GH - impairing the body's processes for recovery and repair.
3. Get daily sunshine
Like sleep, getting enough sun will lower Cortisol and make fat loss much easier.
More specifically, it's the top up of Vitamin D we get through sun exposure that lowers cortisol.
So head to the beach - every day if you can! However, if you struggle to get out in the sun each day - supplementing Vitamins D3 & K2 will have the same effect (minus the tan!).
4. Relaxing Movement
Activities such as yoga, stretching, meditation and casual swimming activate the body's Parasympathetic Nervous System, AKA the ‘rest and digest' response, restoring a state of calm.
When we train hard to improve our strength, fitness and body composition, these workouts engage the Sympathetic Nervous System (fight or flight) and add to the accumulated level of stress in our bodies.
This is why it's so essential to counterbalance with relaxing movement, and to connect with the breath. Long walks, for example, are one of the best forms of exercise for lowering Cortisol and reducing belly fat.
5. Nutritional strategies
When it comes to stubborn fat, many people tend to blame carbohydrates - when in fact, this vital macronutrient helps to balance out insulin and cortisol levels. However, it is important to get the majority of your carbs from whole-food sources.
This is because processed foods are perceived by the body as a stress, and can contribute to chronically elevated Cortisol. Increasing Potassium intake will also help to maintain hormonal balance - so opt for coconut water as a hydrating pre-workout drink, and include bananas, potatoes and other potassium-rich foods in your refuel meals.
Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF) is the neurotransmitter that helps regulate blood sugars when you're in a fasted state (between meals or asleep). IGF also triggers the production of GH, while supporting the parasympathetic nervous system through the processes of recovery and repair.
If we're grazing or snacking all day long, we never give our bodies the chance to produce IGF and trigger the production of GH - which we now know leads to elevated Cortisol levels and persistent fat storage. The solution? Stick to 2-3 full meals each day and let the body get a rest from constant digestion.
6. Use supplements and adaptogens
Remember the fat storage enzyme, HSD-type-1? Liquorice extract can be taken as an adaptogen to inhibit the production of this enzyme. Citrus flavonoids, grape seed extract and hesperidin will all have a similar effect.
We can also use adaptogenic herbs such as Ashwagandha, and natural supplements such as Vitamin C at strategic times (after workouts, for example) to reduce high Cortisol levels when we need it most. Here are another 10 Adaptogens To Help With Stress.
7. Focus on gut health
Poor gut health can have a long-term effect on our Cortisol levels. If you've been struggling with fat that won't budge, low energy, brain fog and bad digestion - the first thing you need to do is get your gut right.
Our micro-biome thrives with a diet rich in whole plant foods - so make sure you're eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, fermented foods, as well as lots of herbs and spices.
8. Create a stress-free environment
There are a lot of different things that can cause stress in this world - but let's focus on what we can control.
For the most part, we do have some control over our environments. We CAN stay away from toxic people who bring us down and choose to surround ourselves with positive, supportive people. If we're in a stressful living environment, we CAN prioritise seeking an alternative.
If we have a job that's causing us an unhealthy amount of stress, we CAN start thinking about some different options. The ideal stress-free life isn't an overnight job, but if we keep making adjustments towards improving our environment - we'll get there.
Fact: You can't force fat off.
If your body senses that it needs to hold on to fat to protect itself, then it will - no matter how clean you eat or how hard you train. Many people think that to become healthy, they must lose some weight, when in fact - the opposite is true. In order to lose unwanted fat, we must become healthy first.
The secret is to put your body in a place where it doesn't feel under threat, and losing fat isn't perceived as dangerous. Only once our nervous systems signal safety, will our bodies respond as expected to exercise and healthy eating. A healthy, hormonally-balanced body doesn't want to store fat!