Stress, Cortisol and Belly Fat

Fat serves many functions in the human body – energy storage, protection of vital organs, vitamin and mineral storage, thermal insulation, is an essential component of certain hormones (including the sex hormones and steroidal hormones eg cortisol and adrenaline and lastly fats helps the body produce make cell membranes and the fatty nerve insulation called myelin.

There are fat cells all over the human body, although the distribution varies from person to person.  The fat cells lying just under the skin are called subcutaneous fat cells, whilst the deeper fat cells which wrap around the inner organs are called visceral fat cells.  The majority of people are worried about the subcutaneous fats as this can be seen – however the more dangerous fats are those deeper in the body which are the visceral fats.

Visceral fat cells produce cytokines which trigger low grade inflammation in the body.  Chronic inflammation has been linked to a whole array of illness including cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, diabetes and even dementia.  Indeed of all the visceral fat areas, the most dangerous for health are said to be those around the abdomen – the “beer belly” or more correctly central obesity.

So what can be done to reduce this dangerous fat storage?  Exercise and diet is often inadequate to shift these fats.

It is now thought that central obesity is the result of chronic stress which activates the HPA axis (a cascading chain of hormones) that ultimately leads to cortisol production.  Cortisol once produces remains in the body for days and has the effect of encouraging fat storage in the abdominal area (in a organ called the omentum).  Vigorous exercise and dieting can even cause the body to lay down more fats in this area, as these can often stress an individual more!!  In essence active but stressed people may develop belly fats they find almost impossible to shift.

Recent research would seem to indicate that more gentle activities (ie those that reduce stress in individuals) may be more effective than exercise or diet alone.  Positive results have been produced with gentle Yoga, breathing exercises, meditation, guided relaxation and Tai Chi in addition to good diet and a healthy level of daily exercise/activity

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