When your stress levels are off the charts, you may start to notice physical symptoms like tension headaches, tight shoulders, or sleeping issues.
And if you’re dealing with chronic stress, you may even start to notice some weight gain — especially around your midsection (a.k.a. the dreaded “stress belly”).
Increases in cortisol — the stress hormone released as part of your body’s fight-or-flight response — can increase fat storage.
If you’re wondering how to get rid of stress belly, these five healthy lifestyle changes can make a big difference.
1. Mix and Match Your Stress Relief
Your first line of defense is to manage the stress that’s causing that natural response. Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially right now.
After all, it’s not like you can magically eliminate all the stress in your life. And the last thing you need is to be stressed about being stressed.
Your best bet?
Try a variety of stress relief techniques to see which ones work best for you.
“What’s making you feel stressed is unique to your set of circumstances, so it makes sense that what alleviates that stress will also be tailored to you,” says Sharon McDowell-Larson, Ph.D., exercise physiologist and coach at the Center for Creative Leadership.
“Start playing around with different options and be aware of what works and what doesn’t,” McDowell-Larson adds. “Often, it takes a combination of strategies.”
Here are a few to try:
- Spend time outside in the morning. Natural light in the morning may help improve your mood and increase your sleep quality.
- Try deep breathing techniques. Research suggests a regular practice of deep, controlled breathing may have significant effects on your sense of comfort and relaxation.
- Cut back on caffeine.
- Take more breaks during work.
- Limit social media usage.
- If you’re working from home, create a “clock-out” time for work.
2. Create a Consistent Sleep Routine
Stress and sleep are intertwined. A lack of sleep can make you more vulnerable to stress, but it’s hard to doze off when you’re stressed.
And if you’re burning the midnight oil fairly often, sleep deprivation is associated with higher levels of the “hunger hormone” ghrelin.
This can lead to stress eating.
A healthy sleep routine can help. That includes establishing a consistent bedtime, so your brain learns when it’s time to wind down.
“When you go to bed only when you’re tired, you’re introducing too much unpredictability into your sleep schedule,” says Mia Finkelston, M.D., family practice physician. “That can catch up with you.”
According to the National Sleep Foundation, spending 5 to 10 minutes on a calming routine — like deep breathing or guided imagery — can also help relieve stress before bed.
3. Boost Your Fiber Intake
For women ages 31 to 50, the recommended daily fiber intake is 25.2 grams per day; for men in the same age group, it’s 30.8 grams.
High-fiber foods like beans, bran cereal, and chia seeds can help you hit this goal.
If you don’t normally eat a lot of fiber, ramping up your intake too dramatically may lead to gas or bloating, says dietitian Tamara Duker Freuman, R.D., who specializes in digestive health. So be sure to add it to your diet gradually.
4. Stick to Your Workout Schedule
Bad news first: There’s no such thing as spot reduction, so you can’t lose weight only from your belly.
The good news is that you can build muscle and reduce overall fat — including stress belly — by maintaining a consistent, full-body workout routine.
So, what are the best exercises for burning fat?
The one you’ll do consistently, but research suggests that a combo of strength training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is one of your best options.
5. See Your Doc
If you’ve consistently put these strategies into play — de-stressing, getting quality sleep, eating a balanced diet with plenty of fiber, and exercising regularly — you’ll likely see a difference after only a couple of weeks, Freuman says.
But if your stress belly seems especially stubborn, or if it’s accompanied by any uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms, it could be worth a visit to your doctor.
“It’s not normal to always be bloated, or to feel digestive distress every day,” Freuman says. Your doctor can help you pinpoint any digestive issues, offer stress management advice, and figure out how to get rid of stress belly once and for all.