We are a bundle of hormones - the little chemical messengers that tell our body what to do from the inside out, including regulating body temperature, mood and where our body stores fat. In a perfect world, all of our hormones sit in perfect harmony...something called homeostasis. But since none of us are perfect, whether for genetic or lifestyle reasons, our hormones can get a little funky and out of whack. Hormonal belly fat can affect women when a few key hormones start to send signals to the body to behave in such a way that makes it really easy to store fat in the one place we need it least: the midsection.
There are potentially dozens of hormones that could play even the smallest role in fat storage (or fat loss) in the body, but for today, I'm going to focus on three of them: estrogen, cortisol and insulin. You're probably familiar with them, and I'd like to explain how you can better control them to help your body find more balance...and hopefully lose some unhealthy hormonal belly fat!
Hormonal Belly Fat: What You Need to Know
When I set out to write The Belly Burn Plan, I wanted to not only explain how hormones can cause fat storage in different parts of the body, but also give readers the tools to lose the fat through effective meal plans and workouts. The combination worked. In the years since the book published I've helped all four body types: apple, pear, hourglass and inverted pyramid.
The apple-shape body, though, is the most critical to address.
Why? The apple-shape person stores most of their belly fat through the midsection. The type of fat that affects the belly area is called visceral fat. Visceral fat is hormonally active, and places unwanted stress on vital organs, like the heart, kidneys, spleen and liver.
Don't get me wrong, anyone can store belly fat. Hormonal belly fat, on the other hand, is typically the type of fat that women refer to throughout their peri-menopausal or menopausal years.
One of the easiest ways to control hormonal belly fat is to know which hormones are the key players in creating it in the first place. From there, you work to balance the hormones that are making your body pack on the fat where you don't want it!
I'll explain all of this by getting into the nitty gritty of three of my favorite hormones: estrogen, cortisol and insulin. They're my favorite because they are much easier to manage than most people realize! So if you have hormonal belly fat, take a breath, relax and keep reading!
Estrogen and Belly Fat
When we think of the hormone estrogen, we usually thing of just one hormone when in fact, estrogen is a group of three hormones: estriol estradiol and estrone. In women, estrogen is mostly produced in the ovaries. Smaller amounts are produced in a woman's adrenal glands and fat cells.
Estrogen levels fluctuate from woman to woman before menopause. The same is true for women who begin to transition through menopause, a period that can last up to four years. However, after a woman is fully transitioned through menopause, estrogen levels drop dramatically. This is where the door opens for hormonal belly fat.
Low estrogen levels do not inherently mean immediate belly fat, however, low estrogen levels are closely tied to decreased insulin sensitivity. Decreased insulin sensitivity creates a blood sugar roller coaster, calling insulin into action far too often. Remember, insulin is the anchor that pulls rising blood sugar back down to a normal level. When insulin is engaged too often, belly fat gets stored and the risk for type 2 diabetes increases.
In what ways can you manage estrogen?
The best thing for you to do is manage your insulin levels. This sounds terribly elusive, I know, so here is what you can do!
Know the difference: normal hunger vs "hanger"
Normal hunger, or the desire to eat something every 3 to 5 hours after eating something healthy, is perfectly normal. In this state, blood sugar levels are lower, but not too low. Eat a snack or a small meal, and you'll be good for a while! Keeping blood sugar and insulin in harmony keeps metabolism running well and is much less likely to store belly fat!
Feeling hangry, or the need to eat something because you've become shaky, extremely irritable or even lightheaded is a sign that your blood sugar levels have dropped too low. Usually, in the hangry state, people want to grab either a lot of food or something with lots of sugar to boost them back up. While this may be a quick fix, it sets your body up for another ride on a blood sugar roller coaster - causing blood sugar levels to plummet faster than what they would have if you ate a smaller amount or something with less sugar.
Cut out refined sugars
If you eat a lot of refined sugar, or anything with more than 12 grams of refined sugar a day, you're going to have a harder time getting things under control. Whether you feel it or not, refined sugar is the air in the balloon that floats your blood sugar levels up too high. We all have a different idea of how much refined sugar is too much. Let me tell you that your body doesn't need refined sugar, so less is more! It's not like your body's cells are dying for more high fructose corn syrup. Your body really doesn't work like that.
Sugar is a carbohydrate, and your body definitely needs carbs! Just eat the right kind of carbs. You don't have to be a detective or read books to understand the difference between a good carb and a bad carb. Just eat (mostly) foods that don't require a factory to make them! It's really that simple.
If you're trying to break the sugar habit, opt for a couple pieces of dark chocolate, sparkling water with a splash of juice or a piece of fruit to get you over the hump. You may struggle with this for months, but I promise you, eventually the cravings for bad sugar go away! And your belly will thank you for it.
Cortisol and Your Midsection
Stress is odorless, colorless and tasteless...but wow...does it ever contribute hormonal belly fat. Cortisol is a hormone released from your adrenal glands. When you wake up in the morning, cortisol is at its highest, and when you go to sleep, cortisol is at its lowest. This makes sense because you need to be more alert through the earlier hours of the day, then less alert as the day comes to an end and you need to get ready for bed.
But thanks to stress from certain beverages we drink and other lifestyle variables, that's now always the rhythm of cortisol!
Cortisol gets called into action like a group of soldiers primed to go into battle when you experience stress. When stress is high, whether for real or perceived reasons, belly fat may follow.
Let's say you're out for a long walk and you run into a lion. It's ferocious, you're scared, and remember, this is just a story. The lion is in front of you. You see it with your eyes and your eyes send a signal to the brain saying, "fight or flight". When your body goes into fight or flight, cortisol surges, then knocks on your liver's door. Your liver has extra sugar stored for when you need it most. Your liver immediately releases sugar to your arms and legs and lungs...a few of the areas that can help you either fight the lion or get out of there.
Now, let's say that there was no lion, but something happened that really got you upset. Maybe it was a disagreement with a coworker or your spouse. Maybe you were in a fender bender or running late to pick up your kids from school. Regardless, you're stressed.
Your body still responds in the same way! But because you won't be fighting or running away, the extra sugar in your blood needs to get regulated.
Guess what gets called into action? That's right. Insulin.
Insulin goes to work, bringing down higher blood sugar levels that were jacked up because it thought you needed help.
How can you control cortisol?
Manage your stress, of course. Far too many of us learn to manage a high level of stress. Even though there are plenty of circumstances where dialing down stress might be impossible, there are almost always holes in our lives where we can reduce it, even a little bit.
Cut Back on Caffeine
Cut back or cut out caffeinated beverages. Very few people want to hear this, but it's worth understanding. Caffeine naturally elevates cortisol. If you're someone who needs a 3 o'clock coffee, think about this! Cortisol was naturally at its highest earlier in the morning after you woke up. Late afternoon coffee throws it back up, making your body think there is some sort of threat - and cortisol's chain of events goes into action.
So even if what you're drinking has no calories at all, it can still contribute to hormonal belly fat. I always tell people to try to limit caffeine intake to one or two cups (legit cups - not 16 ounce jumbo size cups), and stop caffeine consumption by 9 or 10am. In some instances, people get the best (and fastest) results by cutting it out altogether. You might be surprised.
Research has shown that when people are fatigued and struggling to stay alert because they didn't get enough sleep, cortisol levels are elevated in an attempt to compensate for the lack of energy. I know a full night of sleep isn't always possible, but when you can, aim for seven to eight hours a night. Turn off screens at least an hour before bedtime so your brain can send signals to release melatonin (blue lights from screens inhibit melatonin from being released).
Don't Overextend Yourself
It's good to be helpful, but it's never a good thing when you're always the go-to person. The stress of added responsibilities that feels more like a burden is a lot like burning the candle at both ends. You've got to leave a little room for relaxation and rest for yourself. And taking 10 or 15 minutes (or much more) for you-time is 100% not selfish, it's needed.
Meditation, mindfulness or simply sitting quietly for several minutes is not just a great way to clear the cobwebs from your head, but it also lowers cortisol levels. When you're stressed, your sympathetic nervous system - the side of your nervous system that's responsible for fight or flight - is activated. When you meditate, you lessen the activation of your sympathetic nervous system, and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the side that's responsible for the rest and digest response.
Insulin and Visceral Fat
Finally, we're here! This hormone, friends, is probably the most important one for you to appreciate and show love to...especially if you want less hormonal belly fat, want to live a life without type 2 diabetes, and steer clear of heart disease.
Insulin is necessary to keep sugar that enters your blood in a good place. When it's too high or too low, we run into problems.
The easiest and most effective way to manage insulin and blood sugar levels is to eat fewer refined sugars, including sodas, store-bought juices, energy drinks, cookies, candies, etc. You always want to make sure that you're pairing foods like pasta, rice, potatoes and breads with healthy fats and protein to stabilize blood sugar levels that might rise if those foods are eaten alone.
As mentioned earlier, it's not just foods or drinks that affect insulin; it's stress and other lifestyle factors that can contribute as well.
It's important to remain sensitive to insulin. In other words, when you have a can of soda, it's not a bad thing to feel like junk shortly afterward. Higher insulin sensitivity means that your body is using the sugars in your cells more efficiently. Low insulin sensitivity, or insulin resistance, is a red flag that shows up in the form of higher triglycerides, a larger waist circumference and lower good cholesterol.
How can you keep insulin in its place?
Watch your diet
I know that there is a lot of information, and very often misinformation, about what we should eat and what we should avoid. But it's universally agreed by all schools of thought that sugar is a really big problem. It's not just the sweet tasting stuff. It's the foods that convert quickly to sugar once you've eaten them, such as pretzels, plain bagels, pizza, etc. Keeping your diet in check is the single best way to manage your insulin levels and lose hormonal belly fat.
Get more fiber in the foods you eat
Fiber is a great blood sugar stabilizer because it helps to slow down the digestion/break down of food. Most people don't get nearly enough fibrous food in their diet. Try to aim for a minimum of 35 grams of fiber a day. It may take some time to work up to, but it's well worth it! Here is a good resource for you if you want to know which foods have the most fiber in them.
The added bonus of a higher fiber diet is that people who eat are inherently eating healthier and have a smaller waistline!