Do you look bloated no matter how many gym classes you book or meals you prep? Experts say it might not be from a lack of sit-ups or smoothies after all.
You’re eating all the right things, aiming for a minimum of eight hours of sleep at night, crushing your training goals and your tummy hasn’t quite gotten the memo.
When you look at it it seems bloated and no matter how many sit-ups or crunches you do it just won’t budge. While there are many factors at play, one you may have overlooked is stress. Your bloat might indeed be a cortisol belly.
Even though there’s never just one thing that will magically flatten your stomach a cortisol belly is becoming more common and is often overlooked. As a meditation teacher I’ve noticed within myself and others that when adopting a regular meditation practice and supporting yourself to process stress, people report less bloating and feeling lighter overall.
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And there’s science to back it up. But before you drop everything and run away on a meditation retreat, it’s important to understand what the cortisol belly is and what’s causing it.
According to nutritionist Steph Low from The Natural Nutritionist, “Cortisol is a stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to an actual or perceived threat.” And therein lies the issue for most of us in our modern sedentary lifestyles, actual or perceived threat. You might be a genius but your body will struggle to tell the difference between a lion chasing you in the jungle and a looming deadline.
Your nervous system has two main responses. Rest and digest (parasympathetic) or fight or flight (sympathetic). The fight or flight response was designed to help you survive. Handy if you find yourself in the jungle with a lion chasing you down. The problem nowadays is our lions have become deadlines, 1000 notifications, relationship issues, parenting, lack of sleep, road rage, financial pressure… the list goes on.
We are bombarded with lions 24/7 and our poor bodies don’t know how to tell the difference between someone cutting you off in traffic and imminent danger. This means most people are living in their sympathetic nervous system as their everyday experience of life which can cause weight gain around the midline as well as a myriad of other health issues.
When your body is in a constant state of fight or flight, it will hold onto sugars and store them as fat. One of the stress hormones responsible for this difficult-to-shift weight is cortisol.
Cortisol is part of the sympathetic nervous system which, when out of balance, overrides your “rest and digest” or parasympathetic nervous system.
“Stress interferes with the signals sent by the nervous system to the digestive organs. A common outcome of stress is a decreased production of gastric acid, which helps to break down our food. This commonly leads to symptoms including indigestion and bloating, which are misinterpreted as a food intolerance, but can often be attributed to sympathetic dominance,” Low explains.
Turns out it might not be the burrito you ate for lunch but perhaps your unresolved stress that’s causing the bloat.
“Excess cortisol leads to sugar being dumped into our bloodstream by the liver, as an evolutionary mechanism to escape any potential threat. This impacts weight loss as the sugar suppresses any fat burning and instead promotes fat storage.”
If this is something that sounds familiar you might be experiencing a cortisol belly. This means your body is storing fat around the midline as visceral fat and can increase your risk of chronic lifestyle-related diseases including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
‘Deep breaths’ I hear you say as you feel your stress levels rise now knowing this. Fear not. There’s plenty you can do to help manage stress in daily life.
Here’s where meditation comes in. The benefits of meditation go far beyond helping you to relax and feel calm. A regular meditation practice helps to take you out of fight or flight and into rest and digest. When done consistently it also helps you to recover from the years you’ve already spent living in fight or flight, repairing the damage done to your nervous system. A 2017 Meta-analysis study found that meditation helped to reduce cortisol levels. This means that adopting a consistent meditation practice could be the answer to helping you reduce cortisol belly.
Your digestive system functions optimally when you are relaxed. Meditation not only helps with lowering cortisol levels but studies have shown that meditation helps create more mindfulness around what you choose to eat and can help control binge eating.
With regular meditation practice, you are teaching your nervous system to become responsive, not reactive. This means suddenly those deadlines and road rage drivers don’t cause a cortisol response in your body. It’s not to say meditation makes the ‘lions’ go away, it simply increases your capacity to respond to them rather than switch straight into a full-blown stress response.
If you’re looking to get started with meditation YouTube or Insight Timer has some great free options. But as with any practice, it’s always more effective to learn with an experienced teacher that you resonate with.
Emma Maidment is a meditation and yoga teacher, writer, speaker and co-founder of Flow States Collective and the host of The Flow Lane Podcast. You can also follow Emma on Instagram here.