Is Stress Making Your Muffin Top Mountainous? Why Stress Can Make You Gain Weight and What To Do About It

The Posture Project

Are you piling on a few extra pounds and don’t know why?

Are you eating low calories but you can’t shift that belly fat?

Has your waistline disappeared completely and been replaced by a Mount Everest of muffin tops? 

If I had a £ for every woman who said to me, ‘I just want to get rid of this middle bit’ whilst grabbing a handful of flesh from the midriff I’d be very rich indeed.

It’s the common complaint of almost 90% of the women who come to my classes or sessions. It’s tough, women who’ve never had a weight problem in their lives suddenly start to see this shift in body-fat composition. Everyday fat cell in your body seems to up camp and join the in the mid-section party, it’s like the equivalent of Glastonbury Festival for fat cells.

Ok, there’s lots going on here, particularly around the shifting balance of female hormones, as the balance between progesterone and oestrogen shift, and gradually start to decline.

But, here’s a thing most women don’t consider…stress.

When we were young we were told we could have it all, the kids, the top job, the car, the house…everything was ours for the taking. We could be like men, why should the small matter of producing children stop us from succeeding? However, there is a catch, physiologically we’re not at all like men, and those physiological differences really start to make themselves known when women hit the peri-menopause (the time before menopause when some symptoms start to appear).

Women of a certain age are also the ‘sandwich’ generation. Often we have kids who still depend on us, and increasingly we have ageing parents who demand more of our time. Add this into the mix of the job, the car et all, with the declining hormonal cocktail then ‘Houston we are going to have a problem’! 

Let’s look at one of the most significant hormones, our stress hormone Cortisol. This hormone is our best friend and also our worst enemy.

Cortisol is what gets us up and out of bed on a morning, it’s an immediate responder in times of danger, it’s what makes us slam the brakes on our car, jump out of the way of a train or run away from a tiger.  Its intentions are good, it saves our lives and wants us to get up every morning.

After the danger has gone Cortisol acts like a road sweeper, and a natural anti-inflammatory to calm everything back down and reverse the damaging effects of stress.

When things go wrong however, are when Cortisol is elevated over a long period of time, chronic stress (real or perceived). Over time it’s efforts to reduce inflammation actually stall and dampen our immune system leading to more colds and flu viruses getting into the body. It can damage our bodies, knocking all our hormones out of kilter and damaging our gut micro biome. It turns into ‘The Terminator’. 

It can also lead to rapid ageing, depression, burnout and feelings of loneliness. If you ever want to see the effects of chronic stress and ageing just look at any Prime Minister over their 4 year tenure.

How does stress make your muffin top mountainous?

There are 3 ways cortisol makes you pack on the lbs. 
  1. Visceral Fat – this is the type of fat stored around our organs. Cortisol triggers a fat storing enzyme in those fat cells causing increase in belly fat. Belly fat seems to attract cortisol too. In times of stress your body wants to protect its vital organs, so there’s an evolutionary aspect behind this too (isn’t there always?).
  2. Cortisol raises your blood sugar levels and keeps them high (again evolution- you need a leading accessible sugar to fight that tiger). This creates insulin resistance. Glucose can’t get into cells the way it normally would so it gets stored as fat.
  3. Cortisol raises your appetite Particularly for sugary, high carb foods. During menopause the bodies reduced ability to control the spikes of cortisol with its effects of reduced insulin sensitivity is also what contributes to night sweats, hot flushes, weight gain, mood swings, anxiety and more. 

As you can see Cortisol plays a huge role in your health.

Cortisol is also catabolic which means it reduces lean muscle mass (something I’m always on a mission to increase) and it breaks down tissue. This is why stress is also a major contributor to back and joint pain…there’s a whole other article in that! 

What can you do to reduce Cortisol?

Any women who comes to me to lose weight, one of the first things we look at is stress levels and how to reduce them. Stress can hit the body in many ways and we look at things you can control and those you can’t.

Here’s some of my top tips for reducing cortisol;

  1. Sleep, you need to be getting enough for your body. Check out my article here to read more about this.
  2. Exercise – but remember too much and the wrong types of exercise will increase cortisol because exercise is a stressor. Pilates is a perfect balance of cortisol reducing exercise, and para-sympathetic response inducing breathing exercises.
  3. Have fun, come to one of my classes for that! Get out with friends, have a laugh, do something different that maybe you’ve not tried before.
  4. Get outside more – just being in nature can reduce cortisol (as long as there no tigers about). The trees, the sun, the fresh air, just being outside will help you 
  5. Eat healthy food – dark chocolate has been proven in two studies to reduce the stress response! Whoop I’m always a fan of any chocolate based research.
  6. Foster healthy relationships, now’s the time to get rid of any toxic people that no longer serve you or you no longer serve them.

Once you get a grip of your chronic stress response (and remember short term stresses a good thing as it’s what keeps you alive), and start to adopt techniques to reduce stress and let the Cortisol clear from your system, you will find that your body starts to melt the fat away from the middle.


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