Let's talk about hormones! More specifically, let's talk about the connection between estrogen and insulin resistance, and how that combo affect belly fat through midlife, menopause, and beyond. One of the most common problems women face as they age is an increase in belly fat, or visceral fat. This type of fat is not just unsightly; it's also dangerous for our health, as it has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. In this blog post, I'll explore why hormonal changes can trigger weight gain and visceral fat accumulation, and what we can do to keep them at bay.

Estrogen, Insulin Resistance and Belly Fat

First, let's understand the role of the big hormones in our bodies. Estrogen is the female hormone that plays a crucial role in regulating our menstrual cycle, maintaining bone density, and keeping our skin and hair healthy. As we approach menopause, our estrogen levels start to dip. This drop can trigger a number of different symptoms, including hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, and weight gain through the belly area. When our estrogen levels drop, we can become insulin resistant, meaning that our bodies are less able to process glucose (sugar) efficiently.

Why Do Lower Estrogen Levels Increase the Likelihood of Insulin Resistance?

As mentioned, lower estrogen can lead to insulin resistance. But how does this happen? Estrogen happens to naturally buffer blood sugar levels. When you eat something that elevates your blood sugars, the cells in your muscles and fat cells do a great job absorbing the extra sugars thanks to signals they receive from insulin - a very important hormone released from your pancreas.

Perimenopause can lead to vacillating estrogen, which means blood sugars can become unstable. Menopause means that your ovaries simply stop producing a vast majority of a very important form of estrogen called estradiol. Without the normal production of estradiol, the cells in your muscles and fat stop "listening" for when blood sugars come knocking at their door. The sugars in your blood get ignored, which prompts more insulin to get released into your system. Insulin tries to make your cells aware of sugars that need to get absorbed. Ultimately, cells keep ignoring sugars when they come knocking. They resist opening up to let sugars in. This is insulin resistance.

Make sense? It's important because it can affect any one of us.

Insulin resistance is a major risk factor for belly fat accumulation. Eventually, your muscle cells don't store sugar, but your fat cells will...specifically, the fat cells through your deep belly area, causing visceral fat.

When this happens, our bodies start to produce more of the stress hormone, cortisol. Excess cortisol can contribute to weight gain around the midsection.

Hormones tend to cause a chain reaction.

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What About Cortisol and Weight Gain?

Cortisol elevates in two ways. Our body's natural cortisol rises about an hour after we wake up. It works in opposition of melatonin, your bedtime hormone that should be closing down shop in the morning. This hormonal response is perfectly natural and good.

But when we experience stress - whether we're being chased by a bear or feeling alarmed because we're running late for an appointment, cortisol artificially elevates. Cortisol goes over to your body's sugar warehouse, your liver, and asks for some sugar to come out. Cortisol wants to get you out of the stressful situation. The best way to do this is to move sugar to your arms and legs so you can flee the stress fast.

Unfortunately, most of us don't need to run from the stressful messes we make in our own lives...so that sugar sits in our blood until insulin gets released to send signals to our cells to absorb the extra sugar that our liver sent out to help up.

This is how you can accumulate belly fat without eating anything at all.

Lowered estrogen levels make our body less able to manage stressful situations, which is a part of the reason why anxiety and mood disorders tend to peak during these hormonal changes.

What Can We Do to Balance Estrogen, Insulin...and Keep Belly Fat In Check?

Sleep, Insulin and Blood Sugars

First and foremost, we need to prioritize our sleep. Sleep is when our bodies repair and regenerate, and when we don't get enough restful sleep, our cortisol levels go up, and our hormones become imbalanced. Do your best to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. Create a relaxing bedtime routine that involves turning off screens, dimming the lights, and doing some reading or meditation.

When you sleep, your body releases human growth hormone (HGH), which helps to regulate insulin levels, improve fat metabolism and take care of all the wear and tear that's happened to your body throughout the day. It's a reset for your body. Even in the absence of as much estrogen, sleep is a great benefit to your body.

When you don't sleep enough, your body knows it. Some research suggests that without enough sleep, your body "fights" to stay more alert. This increases cortisol, which naturally leads to an increase in blood sugars.

Do whatever you can do to maintain healthier blood sugars, including sleep, to lessen the likelihood of developing insulin resistance.

Exercise and Estrogen

Another key factor in hormonal balance is exercise. Physical activity helps to reduce stress, boost our metabolism, and improve insulin sensitivity. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per day, such as brisk walking, cycling, or yoga. Strength training can also help to build lean muscle mass, which burns more calories than fat and keeps our metabolism revved up.

Another beneficial thing exercise does is temporarily increase estradiol estrogen. And even though cardiovascular exercise has been shown to boost estrogen, strength training has been shown to boost it even more! Not only will the increase in estrogens related to exercise improve your body's ability to manage blood sugars, but you'll also get the bone-protecting effects of estrogen, too! This is part of the reason why exercise is recommended to all people to maintain healthier bone density.

Diet, Hormones and Belly Fat

In terms of nutrition, you need to focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods that provide plenty of fiber, protein, and healthy fats - especially omega-3 fatty acids. Avoid processed, high-sugar, and high-fat foods that can wreak havoc on our blood sugar and trigger inflammation. Aim for a diet that includes plenty of leafy greens, colorful veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and lean protein sources such as chicken, fish, and beans. Limit your alcohol intake, as it can disrupt our sleep and increase cortisol levels.

The easiest way to address all of your needs in one simple meal plan is to download my Menopause Meal Plan to get six full weeks of meal planning, recipes and all the advice you need to help you along. 

What About HRT?

Lastly, have a conversation with your healthcare provider about hormone replacement therapy (HRT). HRT can be a helpful tool for managing the symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and mood changes. It can also help to prevent bone loss and reduce the risk of chronic diseases. However, HRT is not for everyone, and it comes with some risks and side effects, including blood clots and breast cancer. Your doctor can help you weigh the pros and cons and decide if HRT is right for you.

Hormones can be both our best friends and worst enemies as women. While they play a crucial role in our health and wellbeing, they can also wreak havoc on our bodies as we age. By staying active, eating well, sleeping soundly, and seeking support from our healthcare providers, we can keep our hormones in balance and prevent belly fat from taking over. Remember, our bodies are our homes, and we deserve to treat them with kindness, respect, and care.