Now that you’ve learned the basics of fat loss nutrition as well as how to exercise your abs, it’s time to learn about some of the non-obvious ways to build a flatter belly. Today we’re going to talk about stress.
Stress causes your brain to produce a hormone called cortisol. Now, cortisol is popularly known as a “stress hormone,” but that’s only half the story. At normal blood levels, cortisol helps you stay alert, burn calories, and maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Since it raises your blood sugar and makes you more alert, your cortisol levels are supposed to be high in the morning and low in the evening.
That said, if you experience too much life stress, you’ll have too much cortisol. Chronically elevated cortisol levels lead to a weakened immune system, weaker bones, difficult sleeping, and- you guessed it- excess belly fat. When a person has a large belly despite not being particularly fat overall, cortisol is very often the culprit. (FYI- If it’s not cortisol, it’s usually alcohol)
So how do you control your cortisol levels and prevent excess belly fat storage? Here are five strategies to fight stress and keep your cortisol in the normal range.
Strategy 1: Work Hard, Play Hard
This strategy is most appropriate if your stress mainly comes from your job, but you honestly want to work hard, either for financial reasons or because you truly love your work. The idea here is to work hard, while at the same time using high-energy, exciting leisure activities to blow off steam.
What that means is that you can’t spend all of your free time reading books and vegetating in front of the TV. For this to work, you have to be good at managing your energy level, and you have to have the desire and/or willpower to spend your free time doing things like rock climbing, wind-surfing, night clubbing, or going on adventure vacations. “Play hard” means just that, and it’s a requirement for this strategy to work.
Strategy 2: Sleep More
This one is simple- get an extra hour of sleep every night. Studies show that the average person needs 7-9 hours of sleep a night for optimal health. However, some people need more, and there’s ample evidence that people who exercise significantly more than average also need more sleep.
If you’re sleeping less than 8 hours a night most nights, try getting to bed an hour earlier, or waking up an hour later.
When you sleep more, your hormonal environment will improve- in particular, testosterone goes up and cortisol goes down, which means you’ll build muscle more easily and your body won’t try so hard to hold onto its fat stores.
Strategy 3: Meditate
Meditation has been shown to reduce stress and cortisol levels, as well as improving overall well-being. It’s also a very simple habit to build.
Forget about sitting cross-legged like a Buddhist monk- just sit in a comfortable chair somewhere quiet. Set a timer for three minutes. Close your eyes. Breathe slowly and deeply into your diaphragm, allowing your belly to expand outward on each breath. Focus on your breathing. If other thoughts start to intrude into your mind, just gently dismiss them and bring your focus back onto your breathing.
That’s it. Do this for three minutes a day to begin with- even that much can have measurable benefits after a few weeks. But for the best results, you should gradually expand your daily meditation habit to ten or twenty minutes over the course of several weeks.
Strategy 4: Quit Caffeine
Caffeine raises your heart rate and stress levels, and also makes it harder to sleep. You can significantly lower your cortisol levels, and improve sleep quality, by quitting caffeine. Quitting cold turkey will get you the fastest results, but if that’s too hard, you can also reduce your daily intake by one caffeinated beverage- or about 50 mg- per day every 2-3 days. Better yet, follow my step by step process for quitting caffeine in one week.
Once you’ve quit caffeine altogether, it takes about two weeks to completely get over your caffeine addiction and reset your tolerance. After that, you can consume up to 100 mg a day- about one cup of strong coffee, two cups of low-caffeine tea, or two cans of soda- without building up a tolerance again.
Strategy 5: Kill Stress At The Source
Most advice on dealing with stress focuses on ways to manage stress as it comes in. Things like meditation, or “work hard, play hard” fall into this category. And they’re effective… but only up to a point.
If strategies like these don’t work, your next recourse needs to be cutting off stress at the source. That might mean quitting a stressful job, cutting back on the number of commitments you have, or hiring someone to take a source of stress off your hands- having a maid clean your home, for example. At some point it isn’t enough to simply deal with stress, and you need to actually solve your problems at the source.