Your body has dozens of hormones doing a lot of work in your body 24 hours a day. Many of the functions of your hormones are automatic and help your body function properly. All of our hormones, however, are receptive to input we give our body. Hormones that cause belly fat, specifically visceral fat, are not different.
This is a quick explanation of how two key hormones, cortisol and insulin cause belly fat. I also give a a couple of important tips that will help you bring these hormones back into balance again, helping you lose belly fat.
How Your Hormones Cause Belly Fat
For a moment, picture a thermostat…maybe the one on your wall. On warm days, you set the thermostat to a lower temperature so it doesn’t get too hot in your home. On cold days, you set it to a warmer temperature, so it’s not too chilly inside.
One in a while, though, thermostats - or the heating and cooling system in your home - break. When this happens, it’s can get uncomfortable, with temperatures getting too high or too low. If the thermostat is broken for too long, bigger problems can arise. Pipes freeze and burst in the winter, and overheating can be catastrophic in the summer.
Your body operates a lot like a thermostat. In this analogy, the only difference between the thermostat and your body is the way it malfunctions.
The thermostat on your wall typically malfunctions because of mechanical reasons.
The thermostat in your body, however, malfunctions largely because of the feedback you give it.
The feedback you give your body, in the form of the foods you eat, the way you sleep, how you handle stress, how much water you drink, etc., are received by little chemical messengers called hormones.
There are numerous hormones that send signals triggering belly fat. But the two most common are insulin and cortisol.
Here is a brief explanation of how excessive cortisol leads to an insulin reaction.
Cortisol to Insulin Reaction
Let's say you're driving to work when you hit some traffic. You have an important meeting in 20 minutes, but traffic is going to make you 10 minutes late. You feel your heart rate rising and frustration brewing. You begin looking for small holes in traffic that will allow you to get there on time. Then you find yourself driving behind someone who seems to be the slowest drive on Earth. By the time you get to work, your blood is boiling and it takes some time to settle into the rest of your day.
This is a perfect example of how cortisol rises as a result of feedback we send our body. If you're the drive in the above scenario, the moment you felt your heart rate rise and frustration kick in, cortisol was going to work.
When cortisol levels begin to rise, it knocks on your liver's front door and asks for sugar. Your body needs extra sugar in your blood to help manage the thing that's causing stress - whether it's real (a bear chasing you) or perceived (traffic-induced stress). When sugar hits your blood, your pancreas receives the signal to send out insulin to help bring blood sugar levels back down to normal.
When insulin gets called into action, your body stores fat - and preferentially through your belly area causing something called visceral fat.
This is what that feedback loop looks like:
Tips to Control Cortisol-Related Belly Fat
The key thing to remember is that cortisol reacts in your body whether the threat you're experiencing is real or perceived. When a threat is real, it's important for your liver to send sugar out into your body so you can flee the situation. If you run into a bear, for example, you need to move - and fast! The extra sugar in your blood and muscles will give you the energy to do so.
When the threat is perceived, such as experiencing frustration related to traffic, you're still going to get the same rush of sugar to your blood, but it will end up getting stored as fat.
Teach yourself to control your reactions to less significant things (traffic, the sound of people chewing with their mouth open, an annoying friend who talks too much, dealing with a telemarketer, etc.). While we always have to deal with less than desirable circumstances, unless it's a real threat, don't waste your energy.
One thing you can do is breathe deeply. Breathing deeply tones your vagus nerve that activates the "rest and digest" part of your nervous system, having the opposite effect of cortisol. Ten slow, deep breaths a day will activate this part of your nervous system, so take your time and try to tune out unwanted stressors.
Insulin to Cortisol Reaction
The insulin to cortisol reaction is similar. The only difference is it doesn't start by a stressor, like traffic. The insulin reaction usually comes into play by either eating foods with too much refined carbohydrates and sugars, or by eating too much in general. This is still stressful for your body to manage, so cortisol still comes into play. When insulin levels rise as a result of eating too many sugary foods or too much food in general, your adrenal glands receive a signal to release cortisol. Cortisol comes in to rescue your body from this stressful, over-sugared situation. This reaction instantly puts your body on a blood-sugar roller coaster that can be really hard to get off.
Tips to Control Insulin-Related Belly Fat
If the feedback loops begins from a rise in insulin, not cortisol, then you need to take an honest look at your diet. If you're eating too much sugar, or if you're eating too much food in general, you'll trigger a greater insulin response in reaction to high blood sugar levels.
- Read ingredient labels and avoid any food product that has 12 or more grams of sugar per serving.
- Don't drink your calories! Drink water, herbal teas or sparkling water instead.
- When you eat, don't eat to capacity. You stomach can hold somewhere around 400 calories. Eating much more in one sitting won't necessarily benefit you. Eat small, regular meals throughout the day, and snack only when you're hungry.
- Make sure that you're eating healthy fats, including nuts, unsweetened nut butter, avocados, avocado oil, olives, olive oil, etc.
- Get lots of fiber in your diet. Fiber takes longer to break down and is an amazing source of nutrition for your body.