Did you know your waist circumference matters more than what you actually weigh?
What you weigh can matter, but only to a certain extent and a lot of us have had a unhealthy relationship with our scales. This can lead to yoyo dieting, low self-esteem, body dysmorphia, depression, hormonal disruptions and anxiety.
Lets delve a little deeper on why these measurements are so important from a medical viewpoint.
Waist Circumference (AKA “Belly Fat”):
Do you remember the fruity body shape descriptions being like an “apple” or a “pear”? The apple is kinda round around the middle (you know – belly fat-ish, kinda beer belly-ish) and the pear is rounder around the hips/thighs.
Do you know which shape is associated with a higher risk of sleep apnea, blood sugar issues (e.g. insulin resistance and diabetes) and heart issues (high blood pressure, blood fat, and arterial diseases).
Yes –it's that apple!
And it's not because of the subcutaneous (under the skin) fat that you may refer to as a “muffin top”. The health risk is actually due to the fat inside the abdomen covering the liver, intestines and other organs.
This internal fat is called “visceral fat” and that's where a lot of the problem actually is. This “un-pinchable” fat that can be a health issue because it releases fatty acids, inflammatory compounds, and hormones that can negatively affect your blood fats, blood sugars, and blood pressure.
Apple-shaped people tend to have a lot more of this hidden visceral fat than the pear-shaped people do.
So you can see where your fat is stored, is more important that how much you weigh.
Stress is a major cause of this increase in visceral fat. Modern living and stress seem to go hand in hand and it may be no surprise to you that the effects of stress can have a significant impact on mental wellbeing as well as our waist measurements. The effects of stress can impact other body systems potentially hindering the achievement of health goals such as losing weight or improving digestive function, so it is important to understand what the stress response is and how it could affect you.
Fight or Flight – the Ancient Coping Mechanism
The stress response is an evolutionary strategy to cope with immediate dangers, such as an approaching lion! In response to an external threat, the chemical messengers, adrenaline, cortisol and noradrenaline are released from your adrenal glands, which enables you to either stand and fight or flee as fast as you can.
In modern times, the feeling of being under constant stress, whether from work, family or financial pressures is interpreted by your body in the same way and can therefore lead you to be in a permanent state of emergency. This is significant as stress may be the underlying reason for a seemingly unrelated bodily imbalance, such as an inability to digest well when you are under pressure.
What is Stress Doing to Your Body?
A chronic state of stress can have widespread negative effects, such as:
• Poor digestion – reduced digestive secretions can lead to bloating, abdominal pain and reflux.
• Irregular blood sugar control – cortisol signals the release of sugars into the bloodstream in anticipation that muscles will need fuel to help you run away. These sugar spikes can lead to weight gain if the sugars are not utilised as muscle fuel and instead converted to fat.
• Hormonal imbalances – lack of libido, menstrual irregularity and fertility issues can all arise when your body switches to making stress hormones in preference to sex hormones
How does this affect my Waist Measurement?
Cortisol (a major stress hormone) is produced by your body’s adrenal glands, which are located just above your kidneys, as a safeguard against emergencies.
Cortisol is released into the body in response to stress and low blood sugar levels. When it’s first released by the adrenals, its goal is to suppress inflammation and make blood sugar levels rise, so your body is prepared to battle whatever is stressing it.
An excess of cortisol circulating in the blood is good for emergencies but very bad when it circulates for a long period.
iThe high blood sugar levels caused by a constant onslaught of cortisol promote the storage of fat in the abdomen. High cortisol levels also causes gluconeogenesis, which means your body breaks its protein reserves into glucose (carbohydrates) to be used as fuel or for storage. It also mobilises the fat from its storage elsewhere in the body and moves it to the fat abdominal reserve.
When you’re constantly being plowed with stress, it’s easy to see how you body would start to accumulate fat in the belly.
Am I an apple or a pear?
It's pretty simple to find out if you're in the higher risk category or not. The easiest way is to just measure your waist circumference with a measuring tape. You can do it right now.
Women, if your waist is 80 cm or more you could be considered to have “abdominal obesity” and be in the higher risk category. Pregnant ladies are exempt, of course.
For men the number is 94cm.
Remember that in this case "size does matter" and this isn't a stand alone diagnostic tool. A lot of other factors need to be taken into consideration such as muscle mass and height etc. There are lots of risk factors for chronic diseases. Waist circumference is just one of them.
If you have concerns definitely see your doctor or health professional.
Tips for helping reduce some belly fat:
There are a number of lifestyle changes you can employ to help manage your stress and optimise your wellbeing and reduce your belly fat
Eat more fibre. Fibre can help reduce belly fat in a few ways. First of all it helps you feel full and also helps to reduce the amount of calories you absorb from your food. Some examples of high-fibre foods are brussel sprouts, flax and chia seeds, avocado, and blackberries.
Add more protein to your day. Protein reduces your appetite and makes you feel fuller longer. It also has a high TEF (thermic effect of food) compared with fats and carbs and ensures you have enough of the amino acid building blocks for your muscles.
Remove added sugars. This means ditch the processed sweetened foods especially those sweet drinks (even 100% pure juice).
Move more. Get some aerobic exercise. Lift some weights. Walk and take the stairs. It all adds up. Exercise is a fabulous stress buster, it helps burn up excess adrenaline whilst releasing the ‘feel good’ chemical messengers, the ‘endorphins’
Get more sleep. Try making this a priority and seeing how much better you feel (and look). Get enough sleep (seven to eight hours) – practice good ‘sleep hygiene’ techniques such as no TV or computer time for at least half an hour before bedtime and avoid caffeine in the afternoons. You can learn more about sleep hygiene here.
Meditate – particularly helpful if you cannot “switch off” your brain at night. There are numerous techniques available to help calm an overactive mind, such as transcendental meditation, mindfulness and creative visualisation.
Herbs and Nutrients to help reduce stress
There are several nutrients and herbs that can help calm an overactive stress response, which may be hindering you from achieving your health goals.
For example, magnesium is essential for the nervous system by supporting the appropriate functioning of your brains chemical messengers, the ‘neurotransmitters’. Magnesium also produces energy, helping you resolve the fatigue that may come with being stressed.
In addition, the B vitamins (often taken as a complex) work as a team with magnesium to support your nervous system as well as play a role in energy production themselves.
A class of herbs known as ‘adaptogens’ may be helpful to increase your body’s physical and mental capacity to cope with stress. Traditional adaptogenic herbs include Withania, Rehmannia and Rhodiola.
If stress makes you uptight you may also need anxiolytic herbs. These help reduce feelings of anxiety and promote more restful sleep so you can handle the challenges your day has for you more easily. Passionflower, Zizyphus, Kava (my fav) and magnolia are all anxiolytic herbs that have been extensively studied for their mild sedative and calming effects.
Stress is an inevitable part of modern lifestyles, but it needn’t get the better of you nor keep you from reaching your health goals. Speak to your Practitioner today about strategies and supplements you can use to regain control over the stress in your life