Nora is a writer and consultant working with sustainable brands to make an impact. In 2022, she founded Mossy Copy, LLC, a full-service copy studio based in Austin, TX. Her master’s in English is from NYU, and her bachelor’s in the same is from Sewanee. Areas of expertise include wellness, nutrition, style, and beauty.

Stress isn’t just in your head; it’s also in your body. We know that high-stress levels can have numerous impacts on our health, some of which we can see. One way chronic stress might show up is in the form of “stress belly.” 

This type of abdominal fat that accumulates around the midriff could have less to do with your diet and exercise routine and more to do with how your stress hormones are doing. If high-stress levels has have been a daily thing, you might notice more excess belly fat as a result. And stress doesn’t just appear due to deadlines and bills—or even intense emotional states like grief and pain. There are also environmental stressors, from pollutants in the air to artificial light to the amount of noise we might experience. 

Health is not determined by your waistline. Still, it’s safe to say that we’d all like to chill out and be less stressed, with less internal inflammation, and hormones that are working for, not against, us. Read on for 6 things to know about stress belly, the biological causes behind stress-related weight gain, and how to manage manifestations of stress in your body.

1. What is stress belly?

Stress belly is another name for the abdominal fat that builds up as a result of chronic stress. This type of weight accumulation is due to the hormonal imbalances that an ongoing stress response creates in your body. Prolonged stress causes elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, along with an increase in blood sugar and blood pressure. Over time, this may show up in your midriff.

What is belly fat, anyway? There are two kinds: subcutaneous fat, or the kind just beneath the skin, and visceral fat, the kind that’s found around your liver and other internal organs. This visceral fat contains a higher number of proteins that cause inflammation, like cytokines, or proteins that can lead to insulin resistance. In turn, both inflammation and insulin resistance can result in adverse health conditions like diabetes, so it’s best to address signs of chronic stress from the get go.

2. What causes stress belly?

We can’t talk about stress belly without talking about cortisol. When you’re stressed out, your sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for fight or flight mode, tells your adrenal cortex to make cortisol and adrenaline. The stress response starts in the brain, where the amygdala sounds the alarm, and the hypothalamus sends word to the rest of the body to focus attention on the perceived threat and deprioritize other functions. Heart rate, blood pressure, and energy increase. 

A little stress is a healthy thing. It means your body is able to perceive danger, or to focus when you need to be motivated, say when you’re on a run or in an interview. Chronic stress, however, means that your stress response is working in overdrive and your elevated cortisol levels remain steady, leading to side effects like excess weight gain around your middle. 

Because the brain and gut share a special link known as the gut-brain axis, the gut is in on the action when the brain triggers a stress response. Decreased blood flow, increased permeability, and increased presence of “bad” bacteria and unchecked inflammation decrease the numbers and diversity of the beneficial bacteria in your gut—another way cortisol can affect your belly stomach.

Stress eating can also be a component of stress-related weight gain. That’s because stress is linked to a hunger hormone called ghrelin, which increases your appetite. This might cause you to reach for more snacks when you’d normally feel full. 

You should eat and indulge in the foods you want, but from a place of balance and happiness, not stress. If you’re finding yourself unable to kick the symptoms of stress in your life, SuperYou® is a daily stress management supplement that can help reduce cortisol levels by 24% to get you back to center. It combines 4 potent adaptogens—Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Shatavari, and Amla—to help your body adapt to stress and return to a place of homeostasis.

Because the brain and gut share a special link known as the gut-brain axis, the gut is in on the action when the brain triggers a stress response.

3. Signs it’s stress belly

If you’re noticing more belly fat than usual, even if you’ve been sweating regularly and eating a balanced diet of nutrient dense, whole foods, ask yourself these questions to see if stress might be the cause. 

Are you experiencing high levels of overwhelm lately? Finding it hard to unwind? Have you been struggling with difficult life decisions or circumstances? It’s common for us to feel stressed out in the age of constant communication and information fatigue, and changes in physique can be an indicator symptom of chronic stress.

Another sign to look for is increased hunger in your day-to-day. Of course, hunger levels change throughout the month for people who menstruate. But because stress is linked to hunger hormones, if you’re feeling hungrier all the time even though you’ve been eating regularly, this could signal that stress is doing its thing. And if your abdominal weight gain is also accompanied by other signs of hormonal imbalance, such as acne around your chin, it could point to chronic stress as the culprit. 

Finally, if you’re moving and sweating often but exercise seems to make you gain more body fat, stress might be behind the increase in weight. Exercise is a great tool for stress, but working out too frequently and too aggressively for your body can be a recipe for elevated cortisol that may wreak hormonal havoc. Be sure and listen to your body. If you’re feeling puffiness, anxiety, or exhaustion, then maybe a high intensity workout isn’t giving you what you need at the moment. Find a form of movement that promotes a relaxation response from your body and let adaptogens support your recovery while you rest.

4. Other signs of a stressed gut

A tummy in turmoil can have many symptoms. Aside from weight gain, stress belly might also call out in the form of digestive problems such as bloating, gurgling, stomach pain, stomach cramps, or irregularity. 

When you’re constipated, gut bacteria have more time to feed on what's in your colon, creating gas that's hard to pass and making you bloated.

Bloating can happen for a number of reasons, but constipation and PMS are two of its most common causes. When you’re constipated, gut bacteria have more time to feed on what's in your colon, creating gas that's hard to pass and making you bloated. When PMS kicks in, fluctuating sex hormones cause changes across the body—including water retention.

5. Why a stressed gut is also a stressed you

Just as your stress can affect your belly, your belly can also lead you to feel more stressed. It goes both ways. The rich ecosystem of bacteria that resides there is responsible for keeping our bodies healthy by keeping inflammation in check and promoting mood regulation and optimal brain function. Indigestion can cause you to sleep poorly, while biochemical changes have a negative impact on mood.

6. How to manage the effects of stress on your body

The key to maintaining a healthy weight isn’t just the foods you eat and how often you move. Managing your stress and your cortisol will lead to hormonal changes that support your body as well. 

You can support healthy weight loss and weight management in your body with supplements that target both stress and other gut issues like bloating and constipation. Supplements and vitamins for stress like SuperYou® in the AM and Magnesi-Om® in the PM are the perfect foundational ritual. Ashwagandha powder is also an excellent addition to your stress management routine.

Adaptogens, or gentle herbs and plants that help your body adapt to stress, work by resisting the negative effects of cortisol in your adrenal system. So if chronic stress and cortisol are leading to abdominal weight gain, adaptogens like those in SuperYou® could be a key player in helping reset hormonal homeostasis. 

Magnesi-Om® is your pink nightcap that supports relaxation, sleep, and regularity. First, Magnesium Citrate, an organic acid form of Magnesium, helps draw water into the bowels to stimulate movement. Gluconate and Acetyl Taurinate, two chelated forms of Magnesium, help ease muscle spasms that can cause cramping, gas, bloating, and diarrhea.

Along with help from these stress supplements, It’s a good idea to consume anti-inflammatory foods, like cherries, turmeric, garlic, and ginger, to help mitigate any flare-ups in the body. These natural stress relief methods can help you to reduce your overall stress levels while promototing a healthy lifestyle. A whole foods diet with plenty of soluble fiber from plants will also help balance out blood sugar.

7. How to be preventative when it comes to stress

To prevent stress and keep your endocrine system in a place of homeostasis, some lifestyle changes might be in order. Whatever you can do to faciliate stress reduction in your life will be key. Take some time to reflect on what’s overwhelming you and what support could look like, whether it’s more help from loved ones or a regular session with a trusted therapist. Proper sleep is crucial for all biological processes including stress support and weight management, so be sure and get your nightly 7-9 hours.

As you make efforts to limit the lifestyle and environmental stressors in your life, acknowledge that some stress including perceived stress and psychological stress is inevitable, and arm yourself with a daily defense in the form of adaptogens. 

Our bodies are excellent at sensing threats, a useful and life-saving instinct that’s hardwired in us for good reason. The problem becomes when the stress won’t budge, and our physiology pays the price. Chronic stress usually doesn’t reverse itself overnight, but with the help of proper sleep, adaptogenic stress support, and some extra debloating, you can keep stress from dominating your daily life.