The so-called ‘muffin top’ is a culprit to joy and satisfaction with our body for so many of us, and you don’t even need to be overweight to experience this issue. Even otherwise fit individuals may struggle with stubborn belly fat, and the main reason for that is the lack of understanding of the root cause of the problem. We’ve all heard about cortisol, but hormones and systems never work in isolation in our body, so we can never blame just one hormone for our belly fat troubles. Here, I will provide you with a deeper understanding of the issue, so you can tackle it in no time!
Not only does excess cortisol, our long term stress hormone, increase appetite and cravings, but it also causes a loss of memory, muscle mass, libido, and bone density. Stress causes abdominal fat – even in people who are otherwise thin. Hundreds of studies have established the link between high cortisol and more belly fat, as well as increased storage of abdominal fat. In my 20 years of medical practice, I have seen that most patients, unfortunately, adopt behaviors that only serve to make the problem worse. This is especially true for women 30 – 70 years of age who, more often than not, miss meals or excessively restrict calories, over-exercise (too long, too hard, too often) and tend to choose the wrong types of exercise like spinning, running or bootcamp classes, which spike cortisol and further muscle loss. Cortisol can also rise from missing the essential mid-afternoon protein-rich meal, and with complete avoidance of starchy carbohydrates or fruit, like Keto-Dieter’s do, as well as any form of intermittent fasting that is repeated daily (i.e. the 16-8 approach).
High cortisol is linked to depression, anxiety, sleep disruption and simply feeling dissatisfied or overwhelmed.
These concerns and mental states seriously add inches right around our waistline. Also, If your blood sugar levels are on a rollercoaster all day, you can bet your cortisol is as well. I tell my patients that it is almost impossible for me to restore their cortisol balance if they skip breakfast (I encourage them to eat within an hour of rising), and continue to miss a protein meal between 2 – 4 pm. Their last meal in the evening should be finished by 7 p.m.
High cortisol causes belly fat because it increases insulin resistance and makes you more at risk of weight gain – especially with too many carbs or the wrong carbs for you. You will know when you are in this hormonal and metabolic state because you will be constantly hungry and craving. Cortisol also causes a drop in growth hormone; is linked to low testosterone in men; and inhibits the function of thyroid hormone, the master of our metabolic rate. And the final bad news about cortisol: it is proven to make us hungry for high-fat, high-carb comfort foods that perpetuate belly fat, even after we are full.
Released mostly in response to the carbohydrates in our diet, it is one of the main reasons why carbs fuel more belly fat with age. Weight gain around the abdomen, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, low good cholesterol, food cravings and difficulty losing weight are all associated with high insulin. It’s a catch 22 – because the higher your insulin levels, the greater your accumulation of belly fat and extra fat around the waist in turn increases your risk of diabetes and heart disease (and of course, an expanding waistline). Your belly fat makes you carb sensitive. So, if you suspect your insulin is imbalanced, increase your healthy fat and protein intake while lowering your intake of all starchy carbohydrates – which should be restricted to your evening meal and a serving about the size of your fist.
Just as too much estrogen is known to fuel weight gain, so does a dip in estrogen too. Menopausal women are more weight gain due to a number of hormonal changes at this phase but some studies suggest the body reacts to the loss of estrogen from the ovaries by trying to produce more estrogen from fat cells. In order to make estrogen, the cells have to store more fat, which in turn triggers fat gain. According to researchers from the University of Maryland, an enzyme that breaks down fat into its separate components for uptake by fat cells was more active in postmenopausal women compared with peri-menopausal women. Another cause of stress belly in older women – serotonin the happy hormone becomes less effective in the brain as estrogen declines. That increases carb cravings and belly fat.
Testosterone levels decrease in men as their excess abdominal fat causes it to be converted to estrogen and also if they are under high stress. As estrogen levels rise, so does the tendency to accumulate more abdominal fat, fueling the situation. Testosterone levels tend to taper off with aging, obesity and stress, but today men are experiencing testosterone decline much earlier in life. Men with low testosterone are more likely to develop a potbelly and other body fat.
Growth hormone is essential to maintaining healthy bones, skin and hair, as well as strong, lean muscle mass. Beyond a natural decrease with aging, conditions like sleep deprivation, diabetes, hypothyroidism, some cases of osteoporosis, anorexia or insulin resistance can cause levels to decline more rapidly. By the time we’re 40 nearly everyone is deficient in growth hormone, and at 80 our levels have diminished by at least 90%. Low growth hormone is linked to abdominal fat in both men and women, while replacement of low levels has been linked to an increase in lean body mass and a decrease in belly fat.
Other Physiological Factors Related to Stress Belly
All aspects of gut health impact your ability to lose stress belly and to achieve optimal hormonal balance. Digestive factors include: bacterial balance (microbiome), fiber, probiotics, inflammation of the gut lining, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, leaky gut syndrome, etc. Check out 7 Little-Known Solutions To Improve Digestion
Related to any cause emotional, physical, financial, spiritual, etc…and any real or imagined stress causes the exact same reaction – cortisol levels rise.
Compromised liver function
Such as fatty liver, elevation of liver enzymes, which indicates inflammation and insulin resistance. Keep this in mind: your liver is your major metabolic organ because it is one of the places insulin does its work and it is directly involved in fat metabolism.
Linked to breast implant disease, autoimmune conditions, inflammation, allergies and other signs of immune disruption.
Inflammatory and allergenic foods: dairy products, citrus foods (except lemon and lime), red meats, processed meats, deep fried foods, all bad oils (we remove these forever because of inflammation), anything containing corn, and peanuts and peanut products (peanuts should be removed good because of bad oils and aflatoxin)
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Eat lean protein, low-glycemic carbohydrates, fibre and healthy fats. Following this rule keeps your blood sugar stable, your energy up and boosts the glucagon that burns fat (and works opposite to insulin – which signals the body to store fat and increases appetite and cravings). Adding fibreto meals also increases adiponectin (the hormone our body releases when we exercise that boosts fat). Taking in a steady supply of protein throughout the day is also important because it boosts the hormones that help us burn fat (glucagon) and those that control our appetite and make us feel full (like PYY in the gut), every time we eat it. Furthermore, essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein are necessary to produce thyroid hormone, serotonin, dopamine, melatonin andgrowth hormone, which cannot be manufactured by the body, so they must be a vital component of our diet.
Avoid a starchy carb at breakfast. If you stick to a high-protein breakfast, it increases thyroid hormone and sets your dopamine levels for the day – which means that you will enjoy better appetite control and be craving-free while also avoiding that mid-afternoon slump. This means breads, cereals, bagels, etc. are off limits. The first few days may feel challenging, but I promise it will quickly become second nature after that.
Have your starchy carb after 4:00 pm, in your evening meal. The concept of eating your carbs early in the day because you will have a better chance of burning them off could actually be setting you up for cravings all day long. Eating a starchy carb – like potatoes or beans – early in the day creates cravings for them later in the day. So I suggest you eat only one in your last meal. At this point in the day, that carb will raise your serotonin levels, which help with sleep. And sleep is one of the best fat-burning activities when we create the optimum conditions for it. Consuming at least one starchy carb per day also helps to maintain testosterone. A diet free of starchy carbs drops testosterone and serotonin and increases stress hormones. Lastly, don’t forget the benefit that eating starch only in the evening meal has on boosting adiponectin during the day: this can increase greater weight loss and seems to be easier to follow. And we all know: any diet you stick to is the one for you.
Boost T3 thyroid hormone by having a “cheat meal” once a week. Continuous, extreme caloric restriction is not an effective long-term fat-loss solution – because it is simply not sustainable. The short-term victories achieved with this type of eating are always followed with rebound weight gain because, whether we like it or not, hormones will kick in to return the body to its status quo. From a physiological standpoint, this meal serves to increase your thyroid hormone (particularly the conversion of T4 to T3), to lower levels of Reverse T3 (which can block the action of T3) and generally to boost your metabolism. Remember that the human body is an adaptive machine: when you reduce overall calories, the body adapts and lowers your metabolism as a survival mechanism. Believe it or not, introducing a weekly cheat meal keeps your metabolism guessing and actually increases your long-term success. It prevents hunger and cravings,and refuels your muscles’ energy stores, particularly its glycogen, which helps to maintain your strength and endurance for your workouts.
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