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Hormonal belly: what is it and how to reduce it

Struggling with "stubborn" belly fat? Discover how hormonal imbalances like cortisol might be the cause of "hormonal belly"and learn practical ways you can help reduce it.

Beth Tripp
Beth Tripp
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Hormonal belly: what is it and how to reduce it

You may have come across the term 'hormonal belly', whether it was in a magazine or a diet site, or maybe you’re seeing it for the very first time now. It's a phrase that's been gaining a lot of traction, even though it's not an officially recognised medical term, and little evidence surrounding it, especially in humans. In today's world, where tips and advice about weight loss are abundant, it can be quite challenging to separate fact from fiction.

In this article, we're going to delve into the ‘'hormonal belly.' We'll explore what it means, talk about what might cause it, and most importantly, provide guidance on how to tackle this type of weight gain in a healthy, sustainable way. 

Understanding your body and the factors that contribute to weight gain is a crucial step toward achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. So let’s get stuck into the topic of 'hormonal belly' and discover how we might manage it effectively.

What is a hormonal belly?

So let’s start with what is a ‘hormonal belly’. 

As I already mentioned, it’s not a medical term, but when we are referring to a ‘hormonal belly’ people are talking about a type of weight gain that shows up as stubborn fat around the stomach area. This might differ from a person’s usual pattern of weight gain. It's important to understand what a 'hormonal belly' is, especially if you're looking for effective ways to manage and reduce belly fat because it works differently to the ‘usual weight gain’ we can often reduce with lifestyle changes.

The main culprit behind a 'hormonal belly' is, as the name suggests, hormones! 

A few key ones play a role here, including insulin, cortisol, estrogen, and thyroid hormones. These hormones significantly impact how our bodies metabolise food and store fat. If any of these hormones are out of balance, it can lead to weight gain or a shift in where your body stores fat. For example, when women go through menopause and their oestrogen levels drop, their bodies might start storing fat around the stomach instead of the thighs.

The role of cortisol and thyroid

Hormones that are said to play a particularly large role in the ‘hormonal belly’ are cortisol and thyroid hormones. Cortisol is a stress-related hormone. When we're under stress, our bodies release more cortisol, which can lead to more fat being stored around the stomach. The same goes for thyroid hormones. 

If these are out of balance, for instance, in hyperthyroidism when the thyroid gland is overactive, it’s believed to disrupt our metabolism and cause weight gain around the stomach.

Hormones have a massive influence on where our bodies store fat. They can even change the locations of fat storage when they're out of balance, as we have already touched on. In the case of a 'hormonal belly,' the consensus is that certain hormones signal the body to store extra energy in the stomach.

How to spot a “hormonal belly”

So what does a 'hormonal belly' look like? 

Well, it often shows up as a rounder stomach area due to increased visceral fat around the internal organs - you might hear this described as an apple-shaped body type. 

While society often tells us a protruding belly is something to be feared in terms of the way we look, there's a far more serious concern: this type of visceral fat storage is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and other health issues like insulin resistance. So it's really important to take steps to minimise this type of fat storage.

The Stressed Hormonal Belly

Let's delve a bit deeper into cortisol's role in creating the 'hormonal belly.' 

Now, we're all familiar with stress and how it seeps into our daily lives, affecting our health in various ways like ageing, sleep quality, and heart health. However, we often overlook its impact on weight gain, particularly around the abdomen. To understand the occurrence of the 'hormonal belly,' it's crucial to understand the relationship between hormones and stress.

The relationship between hormones and stress

Cortisol, the stress hormone, is produced by our adrenal glands when we encounter stressful situations. This is part of our body's fight-or-flight response, which, while being an healthy evolutionary mechanism, can have detrimental effects when stress becomes a chronic part of our lives. 

One of cortisol's effects is to increase the body's metabolic rate, providing more fuel to handle the stressful situation. If the body is continually in stress mode, the unused energy gets stored as fat in the stomach region, so you can see how this causes weight gain.

If we can learn to identify the signs of a stress-induced 'hormonal belly,' such as abdominal obesity, increased waist circumference, and regular bloating, we may be able to prevent it by managing our stress levels. The stress response can also lead to cravings for sugary and high-fat foods, further exacerbating the issue. So, watching out for increased food cravings too.

How to prevent a hormonal belly

So how do we stop this stress-related 'hormonal belly'? 

Firstly, it's important to remember that weight gain is never usually due to one simple hormone, and there aren’t healthy strategies that target weight loss in one specific area. That being said, here's 3 things that'll help you on your way.

1) Manage your stress.

Incorporating more stress-reducing activities into our daily routine can be incredibly beneficial. The type of activity varies from person to person - it could be as simple as daily meditation, yoga, or even a nature walk.

2) Move more throughout the day.

Regular physical activity is not only good for overall health but also helps reduce cortisol levels. Try to stay active throughout the day, minimise sitting time, and incorporate cardiovascular exercises and strength training into your weekly routine.

3) Get better sleep.

Finally, never underestimate the power of a good night's sleep. Aiming for 7-9 hours of sleep a night really can make a world of difference and can help regulate cortisol levels, support the body's natural stress response, and contribute significantly to overall health

Just remember, abdominal weight gain can be quite stubborn, so shedding it might take some time. Patience and consistency are key!

Targeted exercises for hormonal belly fat

While exercise is a cornerstone of any fitness journey, targeted exercises are particularly crucial for addressing hormonal belly fat. 

Tailored workouts focusing on the abdominal area can significantly contribute to reducing excess fat. We explore effective exercises to target abdominal fat and emphasise the importance of incorporating a holistic approach to fitness for comprehensive hormonal belly reduction.

As we have already mentioned, there isn’t a way of simply controlling where we lose fat on the body. That said exercise in general is great for reducing ‘hormonal belly’ fat.

Carrying out regular activity is great for keeping our hormones balanced, which as we know is the proposed cause for this ‘hormone belly’. You may have heard the term exercise releases endorphins. 

Well, exercising, and as such the release of endorphins can actually counteract stress hormones and help balance your hormones - so this can help combat the hormone belly. Also, incorporating a mix of cardio and strength training exercises can help burn overall body fat and it may even target the stomach in the process, just remember this is the most stubborn area, so it might come off other places before it comes off there.

We do have some exercises that may target the abdominal area, a little more than others. 

Try HIIT (High-intensity interval training)

There is some evidence to suggest high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can reduce visceral fat, which is the type of fat we see with the ‘hormonal belly’. 

HIIT, as the name suggests, combines short bursts of intense exercise with periods of rest. Additionally, core-strengthening exercises such as planks, twists, and leg raises specifically target the abdominal muscles, so it can help with fat loss and toning the stomach

As much as exercise does play a role in helping weight loss, and ‘hormone belly’ reduction, we need to make sure we are adopting a holistic approach and making sure we prioritise sleep, stress reduction, and a healthy diet.

4 other ways to get rid of hormonal belly

As we go through this blog I hope it’s clear that a healthy lifestyle is crucial for our overall health, not just for losing 'hormonal belly' fat. It's important to ensure that any lifestyle changes are sustainable long-term, rather than just for a few weeks. This applies to exercise, stress management activities, sleep habits, and nutrition.

While there's no magic food cure for the 'hormonal belly', there is some nutrition advice we can implement to promote hormonal balance and general fat loss, which may support 'hormonal belly' fat loss.

1) Increase fibre intake

Fibre is a beneficial nutrient for many reasons. Consuming fibre-rich foods such as beans, fruits, and vegetables can leave us fuller, improve digestion, and offer numerous other health benefits.

2) Reduce processed foods

Processed foods tend to be high in calories and low in nutrients. Minimising these can help prevent weight gain. Common examples include store-bought bread, cakes, crisps, and ready meals.

3) Balance your meals

A balanced diet ensures you're getting the right amounts from each food group, preventing overeating and supporting weight loss. Additionally, a balanced diet promotes hormonal balance, which may help prevent a 'hormonal belly'. Aim for half a plate of vegetables, a quarter of carbohydrates, a quarter of protein, and a small amount of healthy fats.

4) Limit caffeine

Caffeine can disrupt sleep and increase cortisol levels, which are said to be associated with 'hormonal belly'. While you don't need to cut out coffee entirely, try to limit it and avoid drinking caffeine after midday to prevent sleep disruption.

These are just a few nutritional tips that may help combat 'hormonal belly'. However, it's important to focus on building sustainable habits for long-term results and overall well-being.

Our thoughts on the hormonal belly and weight loss

So there you have it. 

A breakdown of what people mean when they refer to the ‘hormone belly’ and how we might be able to prevent it, based on its proposed causes. 

However, I hope from reading this it’s clear that the ‘hormone belly’ isn’t widely accepted in the medical world, and there are plenty of other reasons why weight may be stored a little more centrally.

When we are talking about the 'hormonal belly' we are talking about weight gain around the stomach, primarily due to imbalanced hormones. Stress, diet, sleep, and physical activity significantly influence it. While managing a 'hormonal belly' can be challenging, it's possible to alleviate symptoms through a combination of stress management, regular exercise, adequate sleep, and a balanced diet. 

Remember that as with all weight loss, it’s a journey, and you cannot expect results overnight, particularly as this type of fat storage can be a little more stubborn to shift. It's essential to focus on making sustainable lifestyle changes for long-term results and overall well-being. 

This is something that our health coaches at Embla can help you to implement, and with their guidance, you can finally start achieving results that last.

References

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Du, F. M., Kuang, H. Y., Duan, B. H., Liu, D. N., & Yu, X. Y. (2019). Effects of thyroid hormone and depression on common components of central obesity. Journal of International Medical Research, 47(7), 3040-3049.

Fogelman, N., Magin, Z., Hart, R., & Sinha, R. (2022). A longitudinal study of life trauma, chronic stress and body mass index on weight gain over a 2-year period. Behavioral Medicine, 48(3), 162-170.

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Lee, J. H., Choi, S. H., Jung, K. J., Goo, J. M., & Yoon, S. H. (2023). High visceral fat attenuation and long‐term mortality in a health check‐up population. Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle.

Proietto, J. (2017). Obesity and weight management at menopause. Australian family physician, 46(6), 368-370.

Shaw, K. A., Gennat, H. C., O'Rourke, P., & Del Mar, C. (2006). Exercise for overweight or obesity. Cochrane database of systematic reviews, (4).

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Beth Tripp
Beth Tripp
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