For women and men alike, failed attempts to get rid of increased belly fat can be extremely frustrating, i.e., when it seems like you have done everything possible to eliminate the spare tire around your waistline...exercised, eaten properly, tried every dietary approach imaginable....yet it still persists, and given the slightest provocation, it grows!
To understand why it happens, one needs to examine the interactions between female hormones and belly fat. Yet, remember estrogen is not just for women, and testosterone's not just for men!
Back to Basics... Hormones that Cause Belly Fat.
Insulin - Though it's not specific to females, there is no way to talk about hormones and belly fat without discussing insulin, i.e. our most basic means of storing energy as either glycogen or fat.
When our blood sugar rises after eating our insulin levels also go up, so as to move the energy into our tissues, where it is burned or stored. Since, for virtually our entire time on Earth our biggest problem has been not enough to eat, insulin provided a way to feast when we had food, and store some of this energy for later. (Cavemen didn't have refrigerators!) So, this is what our genes are set-up for and expecting. Yet, after we feast for years on end, with no prolonged fasting in between, this storage signal gets worn out, and we become less sensitive, or "resistant" to insulin's message.
Great, you might think! So I will store less energy. Yet, what actually happens is that the more insulin resistant you become, the more of this hormone your body produces to try and compensate. As the insensitivity progresses, less energy gets pushed into places where we want it, such as your muscles, and more into places that we don't, i.e. fat storage. But you can take some refuge in understanding that as far as your genes are concerned, this is a good thing because it means you are more likely to survive, (...as you store even more fat!)
When the levels of insulin in our blood stream remain high for extended periods, we can start storing a particularly hazardous kind of abdominal fat around our organs, known as visceral fat, and accordingly our midsection begins to bulge and expand.
The problem is that whether it is located under our skin, or around our internal organs, fat produces inflammation! This sets up a vicious "feed forward" cycle, i.e. inflammation worsens insulin resistance, so we produce more. The more insulin we produce, the more fat we store. And the more fat we store, the more inflammation we produce...and around and around we go, as we embark on the (reversible) path to becoming diabetic.
To make matters worse, in this process we often also become resistant to the message from a master metabolic switch...a hormone called Leptin.
Leptin is produced by fat cells. The more fat you have, the more leptin you produce.This provides feedback to your brain conveying how much energy your body has in storage.
As leptin rises, this sends a dual message to the brain, telling it #1, that you have enough energy, so you don't need to be hungrily seeking more food, and #2, that it is OK to joyously burn some of your stored fat off, providing you with plenty of energy in the process!
Yet, just like insulin, when we produce too much leptin for too long we can become insensitive to its message. Then we ravenously keep eying the refrigerator....(even though we are full, we are not satisfied, so keep seeking more to eat), and our body holds on to our fat stores for dear life!
Enter Estrogen and Belly Fat! The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly...
Estrogen can either help or hinder our plight for a trimmer waistline...it's all about balance!
In a quest for slimming, the "good" thing about estrogen is that it is directly involved in supporting our ability to burn off fat and energy by protecting and supporting the function of our cellular furnaces called mitochondria (1). Hence, when women go through menopause, and their estrogen levels fall, this can greatly slow down metabolism, thereby reducing energy levels and activity, and producing greater insulin and leptin resistance, followed by the all-too familiar waistline bulge, AKA "menopause belly".
On the other hand, if we have too much estrogen, especially relative to the other central female hormone called progesterone...(a situation known as estrogen dominance)...this can elevate insulin levels by causing the pancreas to make more. So, in our modern setting of constant energy excess, estrogen dominance can lead to insulin-resistance, throwing one back into that vicious cycle of fat accumulation.(2)
This situation can be further perturbed by foreign molecules in our environment that fit into estrogen receptors, and mimic its effects...so called xeno-estrogens.(2) This added estrogenic influence comes from chemicals in plastics, such as BPA and other bisphenols, or from herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, etc.
To top it all off, when our body goes to metabolize estrogen to get rid of it or store it, "unfriendly" estrogen metabolites can be produced, which add to inflammation. As discussed above, this inflammation makes you more insulin and leptin resistant. Hence unfavourable estrogen metabolism makes you more likely to pack on the pounds, not to mention experiencing many of the issues associated with PMS or Menopause.
Last, but certainly not least, when talking about hormones and belly fat you have to address stress hormones like cortisol, not to mention thyroid hormones. Yet to sum it up, these are again simply the outcomes of the body trying to protect itself against the food shortage our genes know is coming...but never does.
(In our stressed-out world, to directly lower stress hormones like cortisol you may want to consider enlisting the help of certain natural aids like the amino acid L-Theanine, the herb Rhodiola, or a blend called Relora. Together these comprise the ingredients in Optimum Health's Opti-Calm formula.)
So what's a woman, (or a man), supposed to do about this ever-spiralling tendency to store energy as fat?
Improve your insulin function, and in the process your leptin sensitivity.
This means engaging in exercise and activity, eating a nutritious diet rich in fresh, unprocessed foods and nutrients, and if more help is needed, adding appropriate supplements such as a high quality multivitamin, magnesium, chromium, omega 3-'s, L-carnitine, and alpha lipoic acid, etc. You can also consider adding botanical combinations such as Opti-GlucoBalance. This formula not only supplies insulin sensitizing herbs such as Cinnamon, Bitter Melon, Green Tea, and especially Berberine...(which not only drops blood sugar , but is also very anti inflammatory)...yet it also includes an ingredient known as Irvingia gabonensis (African Mango), which is one of the few substances shown to increase leptin sensitivity. (3,4)
Another interesting fact is that the so-called "male" hormone, testosterone, not only governs the sex drive of both genders, but it is also a driver of metabolism! (5) Yes ladies you heard that right. You can not only achieve better libido, but also boost your energy and metabolism, and tendency to shed pounds by raising your testosterone levels! (5).
Though actually taking testosterone is one option, I would say a better option is to have your own body produce it by using extracts from botanicals such as Fenugreek.
Women are often pleasantly surprised by the effects raising testosterone can provide them! Yet, most testosterone in the bloodstream is bound-up by a protein called Sex-Hormone Binding Globulin (SHBG), and only free testosterone is available to perform the hormone's actions. So how do you free-up more testosterone? Well, besides exercise, which generally benefits virtually every bodily function (!!!), ladies and men can take DIM, (Diindolylmethane), which according to Michael Zeligs M.D. has been shown to increase levels of free testosterone in the blood.(6) In turn, one of the outcomes of balancing low testosterone is to reduce insulin resistance /improve sensitivity.(7,8)
DIM's better known function is to favourably alter estrogen metabolism, moving it toward forming the less reactive and inflammatory estrogen metabolites. And once again, reducing inflammation clears the way to better insulin, leptin, and other hormonal sensitivity, including thyroid function(9).
So if you are one of those people feel like they have done all the other things right, for example:
- You exercise regularly
- You ensure your nutrient intake by eating wholesome organic foods, including a lot of vegetables, adequate protein, and appropriate supplements, while avoiding added sugar, excess carbohydrates, processed foods and technologically manipulated fats, (while paying attention to the amount of sugars like fructose in the fruit you are eating).
- You practice good sleep habits and hygiene.
- You fast intermittently, going without food for at least 16 hours, (including sleeping hours) at least twice a week.
- You limit your feeding window to 8-10 hours (e.g. breakfast at 8am, supper at 6pm.)
- You actively reduce stress with practices like mindfulness, meditation, breathing, or yoga.
- You actively attempt to reduce inflammation...
But you still fight the battle of the bulge, then one more extremely important area you likely need to address is balancing your hormonal health with some of the ideas presented above.
Until next time, be well!