Stress, Cortisol and your Stubborn Belly Fat: How to lose fat from your abdominal region!

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Everybody wants to know how to lose that stubborn belly fat. For so many people it seems that no matter how many crunches or HIIT circuits they do, that little bit of fat on their stomach won’t budge. Why is this fat so stubborn and difficult to lose?! If you’re eating right and training hard but can’t lose stomach fat, the answer may lie at a hormonal level. Let me introduce you to a little demon called cortisol…

Cortisol is known as the ‘stress hormone’, and is released in your body in response to different types of stress. Cortisol has an important role to play in regulating the body, but prolonged elevation of cortisol can cause a number of negative effects such as sleep disruption, decreased muscle mass, lowered immune response and an increase in abdominal fat storage… (no thanks!). People who have high stress levels (myself included) and/or put their body under a lot of physical stress are likely to have elevated cortisol, which could result in any or all of the aforementioned problems.

The kinds of stress that causes release of cortisol is probably much broader than what you imagine. Stress can be mental, physical, emotional or chemical. Below I explain the different types of stress on the body and how you can manage them to help reduce your cortisol level.

Physical stress – refers to intense training and/or overtraining (overtraining is training in excess and not recovering adequately). Training at a high intensity is certainly still a good thing, provided you aren’t overtraining. However you can help reduce the spike in cortisol after an intense workout by taking the following supplements within 30 minutes of finishing a workout.

  • Vitamin C:
    You can get vitamin C through food like oranges, capsicum, berries and dark leafy greens like kale and spinach or you can take it in supplement form.
  • L-Glutamine:
    Glutamine is an amino acid than manages cortisol levels in the muscles. It can be found in foods like cheeses, or taken in supplement form ideally as a post workout to reduce cortisol that is produced in response to a tough training session. Add it to your post workout shake!
  • Essential Amino Acids:
    Some studies have suggested that taking an essential amino acid supplement (rather than BCAA’s which just contains the branch chain amino acids) after a workout can reduce the negative effects of cortisol and increase protein synthesis. Although I’m not sure how conclusive these studies relating to cortisol are, but taking an EAA shake post workout can improve protein synthesis, glycogen synthesis and muscle recovery so it has a number of positive benefits that should help to counter the negative effects of cortisol regardless.

 

 

Mental stress – when you are overwhelmed by tasks such as assignments, exams or work that is causing you to feel pressured or under the pump.

  • Sleep more – some studies show that when you sleep for six hours instead of the recommended eight you will have 50% more cortisol in your blood stream. So work out when you need to get to bed to get the eight hours you need and make sure you do it! I also take a melatonin supplement to help me sleep because getting an unbroken nights sleep has long been an issue for me, but for most people it’s just about making sure they get to bed at a reasonable time.
  • Meditation – meditation can help you relax and therefore help to reduce your cortisol levels. There are some great guided meditations online if you are new to meditating and want to get started! They talk you through every step and help you to learn how to switch off your mind, which can be difficult for a lot of people.
  • Go for a walk or read a book – anything that helps you to relax can have a positive impact on your cortisol levels. Everyone is different, so just indulge in an activity that helps YOU to de-stress!

Emotional stress – There are many causes of emotional stress – sadness, depression, anxiety or relationship breakdowns to name a few.

  • More Green Tea, less Coffee!
    Green Tea contains L-Theanine, a nutrient that causes relaxation. Although caffeine usually increases cortisol levels, because of the l-theanine in green tea it has been found to actually reduce cortisol! So try switching your coffee for green tea. (Note that I’m still struggling with this one! :P)
  • Again meditation, walking, reading or other relaxing activities will be of benefit to anyone who is experiencing emotional stress.

Chemical stress – when your body is exposed to toxins present in both what you’re eating and the environment. Although it’s not completely avoidable given the world we live in, it can certainly be minimized.

  • Eat your greens!
    Eating lots of green vegetables helps to detoxify your body. You can even get some great “Supergreens” shakes now to increase your intake of greens. Although real food is always the preferred alternative, these shakes can help you make sure you are meeting your nutrient requirements, and you can get some with little to no artificial additives.
  • Avoid packaged foods
    The less artificial crap you put in your body, the less your body has to work to try and detox from them. Eat a variety of whole foods like meat and vegetables cooked yourself instead of packet options.
  • Avoid BPA plastics and microwaving your food in them
    Water bottles and Tupperware can leach BPA into your food. Drink from glass water bottles and avoid microwaving your food in plastic – put it in a bowl first!
  • Avoid parabens and harsh chemicals on your skin
    Switch to natural and/or paraben free products that are more gentle on your body.
  • Avoid alcohol
    We all know alcohol is toxic to the body, so it’s just an added chemical stress that your body doesn’t need! Cut out or at least try and reduce your alcohol consumption.

Since taking all of the above steps to try and reduce my cortisol I have been able to see a dramatic drop in my abdominal fat storage. I’ve always trained hard and eaten healthy food, but struggled to reduce the fat on my stomach region. Since making an effort to reduce my stress levels and associated elevated cortisol, I finally have some visible abs!

If you feel like you’re doing everything else right but not getting the results you’re after in terms of abdominal fat loss, then give some of the above tips a go – it may just be what your body needs to finally strip that abdominal fat away!

And remember – stress less gorgeous! 🙂

With love,
B.xx

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Cardio – and why you DON’T need it.

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There is a common misconception – particularly amongst females – that you have to do more cardio if you want to lose weight. Coupled with the other big misconception that ‘lifting weights will make you bulky’ has led many females to turn into cardio bunnies who either won’t lift weights at all or only use light weights. Big mistake!

What if I told you steady state cardio can actually stop you from losing weight? It can, by the way. Over time, performing hours of steady-state cardio can actually cause your metabolism to slow down. The effect of this is doubled when combined with a low calorie diet. Unfortunately this seems to be the recipe of choice for most girls trying to lose weight – low calorie diet, high cardio program.

The worst part is that this will work at the start, lulling you into a false sense of security. Then your body will start to adapt to it and cause your metabolism to slow down. In order to keep getting results, you will have to keep increasing your cardio and decreasing your calories. That doesn’t sound very fun to me.

The good news is weight training actually increases your metabolism by building lean muscle mass. The more lean muscle mass you have, the greater your ability to metabolize fat. Long duration cardio can actually counteract these efforts by burning into the muscle mass you already have. So, dropping the hours of cardio for some shorter sessions of heavy lifting (whatever is heavy for you) will actually make you leaner. And don’t worry, unless you have crazy high levels of testosterone as a female, lifting weights WILL NOT MAKE YOU BULKY!

I’ll be honest, I used to do hours upon hours of cardio and wondered why I still couldn’t lose stubborn body fat, having always eaten relatively healthy and been highly active. I would try to eat less and run further, but I was burning myself out. Now, I have focused on reversing the metabolic damage I caused myself by focusing on lifting heavy weights in lower rep ranges. I NEVER do cardio, and I can EAT MORE food than I did before WHILE GETTING LEANER! That’s a lifestyle I want to live – a healthy, happy and fulfilling one rather than an extreme, restrictive and depriving one.

If you do cardio because you enjoy it, then that’s an exception. I still enjoy going for a walk with friends occasionally, but it’s more of a social thing than for exercise. The occasional run or walk won’t hinder your weight loss efforts, and some cardio may still have a place in your program particularly if you have a lot of weight to lose. But doing hours and hours of cardio will cause you nothing but pain and metabolic damage. It’s painful and ineffective, so why submit yourself to that?

The exception to this is of course HIIT (or high intensity interval training) cardio. This is where you alternate work-rest intervals to raise and lower your heart rate. You can do HIIT cardio on the treadmill, cross trainer, rower, or doing a circuit of body weight/weighted exercises (think burpees, kettlebell swings, push ups). HIIT has amazing fat-blasting potential and you only need to do it for 20 minutes to maximize its effects.

Check out this article for more on HIIT training and an example of how to do a HIIT workout:

http://www.builtlean.com/2010/06/04/high-intensity-interval-training-hiit-best-cardio-to-burn-fat/

Make the change today! You will thank me for it 🙂

With love,
B. xx