What the Heck is a “Stress Belly”?

A “stress belly” is a nickname for that stubborn abdominal distention that causes the appearance of a gut, but which is still relatively firm and doesn’t react to intense exercise. It is formed primarily through a combination of high cortisol levels, a diet high in fructose sugar, and internal fermentation.

When the body is under a lot of stress, either through fatigue, sleep deprivation, pain, or anxiousness, it releases a stress hormone called cortisol. This is similar to adrenaline, but instead of allowing for quick bursts of energy, this provides a longer lasting stimulation that last throughout the day. In normal circumstances, the cortisol level peaks in the morning (providing the energy to transition from sleep to being awake) and then tapers throughout the day, and finally hits its low point around bed time. When a person is under stress, however, levels stay high throughout the day, partially because of this hormone’s anti-inflammatory effects, which help reduce pain and discomfort. Unfortunately, these high cortisol levels also increase the body’s appetite for fructose.

Fructose is a more refined form of sugar that naturally exists in high levels in staples such as fruit and alcohol, and is often added as a preservative and flavoring agent to all sorts of other, more unexpected foods like breads, condiments, and snacks. In fruit, it has less of an impact because of the fiber present, but in most other foods, there is more fructose than the body can use. When cortisol levels are normal, an excess of fructose in the diet will often cause diarrhea and stomach cramps. When cortisol levels are high,in comparison, the body will keep the fructose in the small intestine where it ferments. This fermentation increases the gas (mostly carbon dioxide) and pressure in the intestine, which then pushes outward against the abdominal muscles, giving a distended appearance.

There are multiple ways to deal with “stress belly” including exercises, supplements, and diet therapy, but some of the simplest (and cheapest) solutions are making minor lifestyle changes. The first thing to do is to lower cortisol levels, which will then lower fructose cravings and make the dietary changes easier to implement. One of the primary causes of high cortisol levels is fatigue, so making an effort to get adequate rest and an effective amount of sleep every night will have a big impact. Also, easing back on stimulant use – coffee, caffeinated teas, energy drinks, etc – will also make effective rest and sleep easier to achieve.

Also, since the primary gas responsible for the bloating is one that our body already has a method of expelling (the primary reason for breathing is to expel carbon dioxide and replace it with oxygen), low intensity aerobic exercise can be very helpful. So instead of trying to sweat away the calories through huffing and puffing, doing an activity that raises the heart rate but allows for normal, unconstrained breathing (such as walking or biking) will help reduce the abdominal pressure and allow the digestion to function more efficiently, by speeding the absorption and elimination of the offending gasses.

Finally, once the other steps have been implemented, the patient should notice a reduction in his or her sugar cravings. This is the now the time to start looking at dietary changes. Avoiding things like daily alcohol consumption of more than one drink a day, refined and/or processed foods (including commercial fruit juices), snack foods that have ingredients that can’t be pronounced, and staples like bread which have sugar added to them will all lead to lower fructose levels in the diet. This means there will be less material in the intestines to ferment, further increasing the ability of the body to get the most out the food that is eaten while decreasing both the abdominal discomfort and the size of the “stress belly”.