Christina Carreau BA, ND
Hormones are critical “chemical messengers”, that relay information and instructions from one group of cells to another. They influence almost every cell, organ and function in the human body. They are responsible for regulating our growth and development, metabolism, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, the way our bodies use food, the reaction of our bodies to emergencies and even our moods. Hormone balance plays an extremely vital role in our health and overall wellness.
While diet and lifestyle have a huge impact on weight and body composition, hormones also play a significant role when it comes to body fat. I am sure that many of you are familiar with the scenario whereby you are eating clean and exercising regularly but you just can’t seem to lose that extra weight?
While everyone carries weight differently, the most common places to store excess fat are the belly, hips, butt, ‘love handles’, chest, thighs, triceps, and back. Hormones determine where we store fat, and the location that fat is stored often further exacerbates hormone imbalances.
For example, high cortisol may be responsible for the extra weight you are carrying on your stomach and that excess weight then leads to excess insulin secretion which further drives the accumulation of belly fat. So one hormone imbalance often leads to another which means that the odds are often stacked against us even when we try to break the cycle of weight gain.
The issue of weight gain and obesity is a growing concern for North Americans and something that I see quite frequently in my practice. In this article I have focused specifically on belly fat however there are a number of other hormone imbalances (not discussed here) that are responsible for fat storage on different parts of the body. These are the most common hormone imbalances that are responsible for belly fat.
1) Low Estrogen
Estrogen isn’t one hormone, but rather a group of hormones and their metabolites. Estrogen hormones and their metabolites compete with each other to bind to estrogen receptors. This hormone is produced primarily by the ovaries although it is also produced and secreted by the adrenal glands and by fat cells to a lesser degree.
Too little estrogen, which is common in menopausal women, can lead to an accumulation of belly fat. This is related to the fact that estrogen enhances insulin sensitivity. Therefore lower estrogen levels are often responsible for higher insulin levels, which in turn encourages your body to store unused glucose as fat, rather than burn it as fuel. So over time this does lead to abdominal weight gain. While menopause is the most common cause of low estrogen, other causes include smoking, high stress, low fat diets, and excessively low body fat.
2) High Estrogen
Too much estrogen (also called estrogen dominance) is also a risk factor for abdominal weight gain. Too much estrogen implies an imbalance in the ratio of estrogen to progesterone or in the ratio of healthy estrogen metabolites to unhealthy ones. This is a fairly common problem as there are a number of factors that contribute to high estrogen including stress, impaired liver function, poor digestion, alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, lack of sleep, nutrient deficiencies, a high fat diet, use of the birth control pill and exposure to xenoestrogens.
Xenoestrogens are synthetic compounds which your body processes as estrogen. They are present in pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, plastics, fuels, car exhaust fumes, dry cleaning chemicals, meat that is not labelled ‘hormone-free’, cleaning products and personal care products, etc.
There are a number of mechanisms by which estrogen dominance increases belly fat. For one, it causes abdominal tissues to retain water thereby causing bloating. Also, too much estrogen will cause you to hold on to food calories, storing them as fat, rather than burning them for energy. This imbalance slows thyroid function which is responsible for metabolism thereby leading to weight gain. Finally, because fat cells are responsible for producing estrogen, the more fat cells that you have the more estrogen that is released into the body, the more fat cells that grow…and the vicious cycle perpetuates itself. However, not only does high estrogen cause weight gain, it is also implicated in a number of other health issues including depression, mood swings, PMS, endometriosis, fibroids, breast cysts, breast, ovarian and uterine cancers, PCOS, hypothyroidism, and more.
Not only is this an issue for women, but this is often an issue for aging men as well.
3) High Testosterone in Women
Testosterone is an androgen which means it is a ‘masculinizing’ hormone. It is produced by the ovaries in women, by the testes in men and by the adrenal glands in both sexes. When in balance, this hormone enhances muscle mass, strength, fat burning and much more. In women, high testosterone is usually the result of over production by the adrenal glands due to prolonged stress. This has a number of side effects including acne, increased growth of facial hair, hair loss, infertility, polycystic ovarian syndrome, increased resistance to insulin, weight gain and increased abdominal fat.
4) Low Testosterone in Men
If normal testosterone levels in men promote muscle mass and fat burning, then it goes without saying that low testosterone leads to increased abdominal fat and muscle loss. Testosterone levels generally decline with age and with stress. Similar to environmental toxins that impact estrogen levels, testosterone levels are negatively impacted by pesticides and phthalates (common in plastics, cosmetics and soaps). Low testosterone is associated with insulin resistance and increased risk of both diabetes and obesity. Low testosterone in women will also lead to increased body fat but not specifically abdominal fat.
5) High Cortisol
Cortisol is an important hormone that is secreted by the adrenal glands in response to both good stress and bad. Chronic stress often results in higher cortisol levels in the blood which leads to weight gain and abdominal fat and it also suppresses immune and thyroid function, increases risk of osteoporosis and high blood pressure, and impairs cognitive function and memory. High cortisol increases risk of insulin resistance, diabetes and obesity. This is one of the many reasons why it is SO important that we keep our stress levels in check.
6) High Insulin
Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas. Its role is to regulate carbohydrate and fat metabolism at a cellular level. After every meal, the carbohydrates that you eat are broken down into glucose (sugar). Once sugar reaches your bloodstream, insulin is secreted in proportion to the amount of sugar present (i.e. more sugar = more insulin). The sugar is either used immediately for energy, or it can be stored in the liver and muscles for future use as an energy source. However, if you do not need the sugar for immediate energy and your muscle and liver storage is full, then this sugar is stored as fat.
So not only does too much insulin promote fat storage of excess glucose, it also makes it very difficult to burn stored fat as an energy source. Hence the importance of reducing and limiting your intake of high glycemic index (high sugar) foods if you are trying to lose belly fat. Over time high insulin leads to insulin resistance (whereby your cells do not respond to insulin) leading to elevated blood sugar levels, weight gain and potentially Type II diabetes and obesity.
There are a number of causes of high insulin but generally this is a result of eating a diet high in processed foods and sugar, not eating enough protein, fat and/or fiber, chronic stress, not exercising enough or exercising too much without properly ‘refueling’, poor liver function and exposure to toxins.
Clearly, there are a number of hormone imbalances that contribute to the issue of abdominal fat. Belly fat is of particular concern because it is often associated with increased risk of a number of different diseases. The reason for this is that generally fat stored on your thighs, hips, back, butt, arms, etc., is subcutaneous fat or ‘superficial fat’. Whereas belly fat is often visceral, meaning it is inside the abdominal cavity and surrounding your internal organs (liver, stomach, intestines, kidneys, etc.). Our organs each play a critical role in terms of detoxification, digestion, absorption, and maintaining overall wellness. Therefore surrounding them with excess fatty tissue can potentially impede their function.
As always, my goal is to educate, not to overwhelm, confuse, or fear monger. A successful program to get rid of stubborn fat must include proper diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep and addressing any underlying hormone imbalances. Losing weight is not just about image. It is about preventing disease and enhancing quality of life. The choices that you make on a daily basis will either help or hinder you. Set yourself up for success…it is an invaluable investment in your future!