When extra pounds and excess fat accumulate in your abdomen, it not only gives
you an unsightly tummy bulge but it also increases your risk of heart disease,
stroke and other serious health problems. The best ways to pare down that unhealthy
apple that is misshaping your middle? Intelligent eating, consistent exercise...
and effective stress relief.
Spare tire, love handles, beer belly: Whatever the nickname, an abdomen enlarged by excess fat used to be a mostly masculine phenomenon, just as a large derriere and heavy thighs were something mostly seen on women. But in a world that’s now experiencing an unsettling rise in obesity rates, one can see more and more women who carry most of their extra weight in the middle. And it’s that growth in mushrooming midsections—what’s now generally known as an apple shape, as opposed to the bottom-heavy pear shape—which is the most worrisome: Excess abdominal fat has been linked to a variety of chronic illnesses, including heart woes, cancer and diabetes. In fact, the rapid increase in diabetes “is one good indicator” of the increase in abdominal fat deposits, according to British nutrition expert Marilyn Glenville, PhD, author of Mastering Cortisol (Ulysses Press). “The other major worry is that people do not have to be overweight to have fat around the middle—we see youngsters with a ‘muffin top’ over the waistbands of their jeans.”
High-calorie diets coupled with low rates of physical activity have fueled the escalation in all kinds of obesity. But bulging bellies are also partly caused by high stress levels, and the link is a hormone known as cortisol.
How Stress Packs on the Pounds
Any potential hazard—a man-eating tiger, an aggressive oaf on the highway—can activate the stress response. The pituitary, the body’s master hormone controller, releases ACTH that travels to the adrenals, two glands atop the kidneys, which in turn pump cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream. Adrenaline creates the short-term effects of rapid heartbeat and expanded blood vessels, which lets you dodge either the tiger or the oaf. Cortisol, though, hangs in there for the long haul, affecting blood sugar, fat and protein metabolism to support a more extended fight-or-flight reaction.
If all sources of stress were straightforward, cortisol wouldn’t pose a problem—the threat would end and cortisol levels would return to normal. But because modern-day stressors are never-ending (the job, the house, the bills. . .you get the drift), cortisol can remain elevated for long periods of time. Because cortisol affects glucose levels, it can cause the carbohydrate cravings that draw you to candy, cake and cookies like a magnet. What’s more, cortisol tries to keep extra energy on hand (for response to the “threat”) by storing fat in an easily accessed spot—and your midsection, close to all your vital organs, will do quite nicely. This “toxic fat,” as Glenville calls it, spits out a slew of chemicals that increase blood pressure, make blood more clot-prone and provoke inflammation—none of which bode well for your body. For example, one research team has found that breast cancer patients with higher concentrations of midsection fat are more likely to die of their disease (Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention 10/15/06).
While both sexes are subject to the unhealthy effects of abdominal obesity, women are more negatively affected by stress. “We tend to worry more,” explains Glenville. “So many women are always trying to be everything to all people—juggling the demands of work, family life, housework and caring for elderly relatives—which is virtually impossible and therefore very stressful.”
Slowing Down Cortisol
If you fit the highly stressed/apple-shaped profile, have your cortisol levels measured. Complementary health practitioners often recommend testing saliva samples, which are taken throughout the day, versus a one-shot blood test to get a better picture of how your cortisol levels fluctuate over time. The next step, according to Glenville, is to “look at the stress in your life and see what you can control.” She suggests tackling the onerous tasks promptly (so don’t start doing your taxes at 11 p.m. on April 14) and delegating responsibilities to others (even if they couldn’t possibly run things as well as you). Do some deep breathing throughout the day—it really does work. Most importantly, learn to manage your cognition, specifically that internal worrywort/nag/scold who keeps you up at night.
Certain supplements have shown themselves to be useful in supporting healthy cortisol levels. Richard Weinstein, DC, in The Stress Effect (Avery) recommends pregnenolone, which he says can help indirectly regulate ACTH—the substance that prompts cortisol production—if saliva testing indicates a need for it. He also uses phosphatidylserine, “noted to improve cognitive function and reduce depression.” (It’s best to work with a trained practitioner in designing a supplementation program.) Herbal remedies known as adaptogens help the body deal with stress more easily; these include both Korean and American ginsengs (Panax ginseng and P. quinquefolium respectively), eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and rhodiola (R. rosea).
Squeezing the Apple
You’ll also have to rethink your eating habits. “It’s not enough to stuff any old thing into your stomach to relieve the sensation of hunger,” as Weinstein puts it. “The goal is to provide your body with the correct balance of nutrients.”
“Eat little and often” is Glenville’s advice: “The idea is to convince your body that food is abundant, that it does not need to store extra fat.” That means eating breakfast every day—no running out the door with a cup of java. The next step? “Eliminate all sugar and refined carbohydrates from your life”; swapping whole-grain breads and pastas for their pallid, bran-stripped cousins can slow the blood-sugar surges and crashes that spur cortisol release. Vegetables (except for potatoes) are another source of complex carbs, as are fruits (exceptions: bananas, dried fruit, grapes, juice). And “always buy organic produce whenever possible because the nutritional value is higher and you will be putting fewer toxins into your body,” says Weinstein.
Glenville also advises eating protein with each meal “because it slows down the rate at which the stomach empties,” which also serves to brake the glucose rush. She recommends beans, eggs, fish, nuts and seeds, all organically sourced whenever possible. Water is the best beverage (caffeine and soft drinks are big no-nos). Don’t eat on the run, which tells your body “that you are under pressure and you are stressed.” And if the whole idea of eating differently stresses you out?
“You need to start thinking of food in terms of your lifestyle so that healthy, enjoyable eating becomes a habit,” Glenville says. “Talk to yourself in positive terms—the mind believes what it hears.”
Carry over that positive approach to exercise, both aerobic (walking, dancing, jogging, biking, swimming) and resistance (weights)—doing endless stomach crunches isn’t going to help. Work your way up to four 30-minute aerobic sessions weekly, including interval training—breaking into a jog during a walk, for example. You won’t need as much resistance activity—two or three sessions a week is plenty. Hit the weights before doing your aerobics so that you’ll have the strength to do each exercise in proper form (a personal trainer can help).
In addition to advocating intelligent eating and exercise, Glenville supports supplementation: The proper nutrients “can help you to lose that apple shape more quickly than you would with just changes in your diet alone.” Some of the most important supplements are the most basic. Take vitamin C, for example: Not only will your adrenal glands function poorly without it, but researchers have found that apple-shaped people have less of this crucial nutrient than other folks (AJCN 12/05). The B vitamins—also known, tellingly, as the “stress vitamins”—are high on Glenville’s list of needed nutrients; vitamin B5 is especially important for adrenal support.
Fat-busting requires the right minerals. Chromium assists the hormone insulin in regulating glucose and helps control sugar cravings. A lack of hormone-building zinc can impair insulin’s action; Glenville says that getting enough zinc “is crucial if you want to change your body shape.” And calcium has recently been found to promote fat burning—especially in the midsection. SierraSil, a natural mineral composite, contains all three of these minerals along with others essential to maintaining a healthy metabolism; it also helps fight the inflammation that abdominal obesity can promote.
Other nutrients play vital roles in metabolism management. According to Glenville, omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish and flax seed oils, have been found to make cell membranes more responsive to insulin, and another fatty acid, CLA, has reduced body fat in studies. She says that both coenzyme Q10 and green tea extract help burn fat; green tea also promotes the kind of relaxing alpha brain waves associated with reduced cortisol levels. Glenville recommends other aminos known as branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, to counteract cortisol and build muscle. And kelp, a brown seaweed, contains a substance called fucoxanthin that appears to target abdominal obesity.
Tackling that toxic fat can work wonders. “Many of my clients have lost up to three inches off the middle over three months,” Glenville reports. “Some patients have avoided medication for diabetes because they have controlled the problem with diet and supplements. The other biggest benefit is that clients get their energy back and feel so much better about themselves.”
So don’t be appalled by your “apple.” Knowing how to break the cortisol-tummy bulge bond can let you pare down your middle—and your risk of serious disease.