Fat Around the Middle- The Hormone Connection
Fat around the middle, or belly fat, is a common middle age complaint I see in the clinic. It creeps up around the time of the perimenopause in women and the andropause in men. It is also not purely related to calories in and calories out. I wish it was that simple! No, it is related to HORMONES. To check your own waist size click here.
Fat tissue accumulates and starts to act like another endocrine, or hormonal organ. Fat can affect our hormones and our levels of internal body inflammation. Belly fat can contribute to ageing, disease processes, sleep and hormonal imbalances. Fat around the middle is not just something that is an issue of vanity, it is an issue of health and wellbeing.
The fat tissue is where we carry out hormonal conversions. The male hormone, Testosterone is converted to the main female hormone, Oestrogen via a process called aromatisation. In men, excess fat can cause more aromatisation and more conversion of the male dominant hormone, testosterone to the female hormone. This excess oestrogen in men creates a cycle of more fat being laid down in male breast tissue and around the belly. It can also lead to issues with erectile dysfunction, low drive and low mojo. This is exactly what men do not want!
In women, as peri-menopause starts, the body tries to maximise its production of oestrogen as the ovarian reserve declines. Oestrogen can be made and stored in fat tissue. So, women’s bodies can naturally start to lay down a little extra layer of fat to try and keep the hormone balance in check. I have seen women who have naturally been lean all their lives and exercise regularly, literally hit a wall in their 40s or 50s where they cannot shift the excess weight around the middle.
A woman will commonly tell me that her diet has not changed, she is still working out, but the belly fat is getting bigger and bigger and she feels exhausted. That is because it is a hormone balance issue, which quickly turns into a vicious cycle linked to the stress hormone cortisol. At this stage, the thyroid gland can also commonly become involved.
As ovarian function declines in women in their 40s, lack of ovulation causes a lack of the second female hormone, progesterone. This is the hormone which counter balances oestrogen. Progesterone is needed for calming and supports our responses to stressful and anxiety provoking situations. Now, most 40/50 something women I see in clinic need a good reserve and resilience to deal with anxiety provoking situations. Unfortunately, at this time of or lives, our hormonal resilience is probably at its lowest. So, the common problem I see around the time of the belly fat, is an increase in insomnia and anxiety. This then fuels more hormonal imbalances including ones around food and ones around sleep. The situation can influence appetite control and feelings of being satisfied with food. It does not take much to push the hormonally imbalanced into carb craving and quick fix nutritional choices. Hormones and food and VERY related to one another.
So, what are the top 5 tips nutrition and lifestyle actions for this situation?
1. Mindful Eating. Slow it down, plan ahead, include proteins to keep you feeling more satisfied. Avoid multi-tasking while you eat and emotional eating.
2. Eat more fat burning foods. Less processed foods, less sugary foods and more foods with a low glycaemic index like oats, vegetables and fibre. These keep our metabolic rate steadier and avoids yoyo dips of energy.
3. Consider Meal Spacing. You have to do what is right for you. Have at least 12 hours in a day which are meal free. This might mean eating earlier in the evening, or for some people, skipping breakfast. It has to be suited to your own personal preference but giving your body this 12 hours of fasting will help metabolic processes. Some people like a 5:2 diet, invented by Dr Michael Mosely. If hormonal balances are not first identified and corrected it can be a stress inducer, especially in women.
4. More Sleep and Less Stress. Getting to bed earlier and trying a 10-minute mindfulness or gratitude meditation daily will undoubtedly help with hormonal balance and belly fat as our sensitivity to appetite hormones can be improved.
5. Add in Boosters for Metabolism. Try Matcha tea instead of cappuccinos. Eat cayenne pepper, nuts and seeds. Anti-inflammatory foods such as fresh ginger and turmeric can be good too.
Find an exercise regime that suits you. I often see patients who are over exercising 5-6 days a week of intense cardio. This can stress the body and induce further hormonal imbalance. Find a regime that suits you personally, be that yoga, HIT, running or cycling. Do not forget working small muscles which can help metabolism and fat fighting.
Finally, consider having hormone testing to see what is happening for you personally and then getting your hormones realigned for a happier and healthier you.