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July 2008 Issue

Exposure to chronic stress could lead to increased abdominal fat.
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Chronic Stress Can Add Inches to the Waistline

Published July 2008

Take a vacation. Put the cell phone down. Stop getting upset over the little things.

Easier said than done. But "de-stressing" might be the key to keeping belly fat in check. And staying slim around the middle could also reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Yvonne Ulrich-Lai, PhD, research assistant professor in the psychiatry department’s stress neurobiology program, says repeated exposure to stress has negative effects on the body.

During stress, she says, the body produces hormones called glucocorticoids.

"Glucocorticoids are produced when psychological or physical stressors activate a part of the brain called the ‘stress axis,’" says Ulrich-Lai.

"These hormones help the body cope with stress in the short term, but prolonged increases in glucocorticoids during chronic stress can increase visceral fat—body fat in the stomach area.

"Abdominal fat poses even greater health risks than fat stored in other parts of the body."

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health suggests waist measurements of no more than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women.

So what can you do to de-stress?

"It’s generally accepted that stress that is either unpredictable or uncontrollable—like a natural disaster or losing one’s job—is worse than stress that a person can anticipate or control," says Ulrich-Lai. "So people may be able to lower stress by preparing for an unexpected event."

For example, she says, keep a few days’ worth of water and food in the house in anticipation of a disaster, or maintain an emergency reserve of money just in case financial situations change unexpectedly.

"Exerting control over a situation and/or preparing for unexpected events may help you cope with the stresses of everyday life," adds Ulrich-Lai.

To alleviate day-to-day stressors, the American Heart Association recommends:

  • Sitting quietly each day for 15 to 20 minutes and allowing yourself to breathe deeply.
  • Trying to learn to accept the things you can’t change and look for the positive in bad situations.
  • Engaging in regular physical activity to alleviate tension.
  • Limiting alcohol consumption, quitting smoking and avoiding overeating.
  • Talk to your doctor or seek professional help if you are affected by chronic stress.

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