There’s plenty of research on the health hazards of belly fat when it comes to coronary artery disease and cardiovascular issues, and researchers believe the association might be related to blood sugar processing and inflammation.
But it isn’t only your heart and arteries that can be affected by those changes in your abdominal region — your brain could be struggling as well.
Researchers recently looked at whether obesity — defined by body mass index (BMI) and waist-to-hip ratio — affected the amount of white and gray brain matter, as well as overall volume, in various parts of the brain.
Examining data from nearly 10,000 people with an average age of 55, researchers compiled physical measurements, health surveys and MRI results. They found that after adjusting for factors that may affect brain volume — such as age, smoking, exercise levels and high blood pressure — those who had a high BMI and a high waist-to-hip ratio had the lowest volume of gray matter.
Interestingly, those with a high BMI but normal waist-to-hip ratio had more brain volume, but still not as much as those with both a normal BMI and a normal waist-to-hip ratio.
That means those with more belly fat tended to have the least brain volume of those studied, according to the study’s lead author, Mark Hamer, PhD, of Loughborough University in England.
Why would fat around the belly area be more dangerous than, say, fat around thighs? It’s because the way belly fat works is different than what’s in other locations around the body.
“Abdominal fat produces a substance called cytokines,” Hamer says. “These are small proteins involved in cell signaling and immune response, and when you have too many, it can increase inflammation.”
This inflammatory response has been shown to have a detrimental effect on neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and glutamate — as well as insulin, glucagon and C-reactive protein. All of this can add up to changes in brain function that can affect mood, hunger signals, stress response and much more.
Also, the recent study highlights the fact inflammation may lower brain volume, and that could have an effect on how your brain operates. Hamer says there’s a strong link between declining brain volume and memory loss, and inflammation is one of the areas doctors look at when diagnosing dementia.
There’s a reason health experts consider reducing belly fat to be the “number 1 priority” for wellness.
Although there’s no such thing as “spot reduction” when it comes to decreasing belly size, there are many strategies you can consider that can shrink that area — and lower your inflammation levels along the way.
“Maintaining a healthy weight is linked to many important health outcomes, and that includes brain health,” Hamer says. A good starting point is through healthy eating that emphasizes real foods, good fats, less sugar and plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Exercise is also crucial, Hamer says, and there’s a wealth of research linking better brain function to higher activity levels. Also, he adds, people who get more activity regularly also tend to have better habits that make the brain happy, such as moderate alcohol use, a healthy diet, blood pressure control and not smoking.
Another big component is lowering stress levels. According to North Carolina-based dietitian Molly Devine, RD, tension and stress cause the body to take glucose out of your system to use it for perceived threats. When that happens, she says, insulin gets released to deal with all that glucose, and insulin’s favorite storage facility is your abdominal fat.
As anyone who deals with chronic stress knows, the brain can also get frazzled, so focusing on better stress-management techniques is a win for both belly and brain. Devine suggests a good first step for this is creating regular sleep habits, which go a long way toward helping you slay that stress monster.
Obviously, belly fat is tricky to whittle, which is why a Google search on “reduce belly fat” comes back with 169 million results. But focusing on eating healthy, moving more and sleeping better can get you started on a smaller-belly track.