The Link Between Stress, Hormones, and Belly Fat

belly fat

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I’m often asked to help my clients lose the excess weight that can come during perimenopause. Especially the stubborn belly fat that can settle around the torso in our middle years.

While my approach is to focus on whole body health and balance, with self love and body acceptance, losing weight is often a side effect for the women who work with me to balance perimenopause and post-menopausal issues. 

A question I was asked recently was, “how can I shift this annoying heaviness and thickness that has settled around my middle? Is it just a matter of eating less and exercising more? Or is there more to it?”

“Great question,” I replied, “and yes, there is more to it!”

Eating a little less is helpful, especially in the evenings.

We all tend to overeat at times, (me included!)  It’s important to not indulge too much during peri-menopause as our digestive power is often less at this time. Especially if there is stress in your life too.

It takes conscious awareness to notice your true appetite, and serve yourself according to your current needs, rather than what you have been habitually and automatically eating.

Making sure there is some exercise in the week is also important.

But, there is more to it! 

There is an intimate connection between your stress levels, your hormones and the belly fat that settles around your middle.

Often, by the time we reach our perimenopause years, anywhere from 40 to 48 or so, we already have tired adrenals.

exercise pushing on

In both Ayurveda and Chinese medicine our kidneys and adrenals are considered to be the root or the powerhouse of the energy in our body.  When kidney energy is low then our overall health, essence of vitality, (Ojas or Jing), immunity and energy is also low.

We often call this adrenal depletion or in the extreme cases adrenal fatigue.

How does this relate to belly fat and overall weight gain?

Our endocrine glands secrete hormones, and when our stress hormones, cortisol and adrenalin, are too high for too long, all endocrine glands are at risk. They are not bottomless reserves.

When there is ongoing high cortisol, all of our endocrine glands have to work harder to elicit the normal response that their hormone secretions trigger. This puts them under enormous pressure and wears them out. 

If you have no congenital/hereditary weakness of a particular endocrine gland, then, all women tend to go through the sequence of depletion outlined below. 

Adrenal fatigue

First our adrenals become depleted and have trouble keeping up with the demands for the stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol which are needed to manage the stress in our lives.

Adrenal depletion happens when we’ve kept pushing on and not listened to our body’s little cries for rest. Our adrenals have pumped out so much cortisol that it becomes unable to do so anymore leading to the low cortisol symptoms of:

extreme tiredness,

lowered immune system

dry skin

poor sleep

susceptibility to respiratory illnesses

craving salty foods. 

Pancreas and Blood Sugar Struggles

Secondly, if the first scenario continues and is not addressed, then the insulin secreting part of the pancreas becomes adversely affected.  This affects our ability to metabolise sugars and leads to:

poor sugar digestion and processing,

changes blood sugar levels and

that stubborn weight gain around the middle that is so common in women around the ages 40-55.  

Cravings carbohydrate is a sign that the pancreas is under pressure.

Unfortunately, carbs turn to sugars in your body which puts more stress on the pancreas thus perpetuating this cycle.

Many of the efforts that we do to shake of the excess belly fat end up having the opposite effect.

Excess exercise and pushing ourselves registers in the body as more stress and perpetuates the issue.

Protein shakes and cold smoothies weaken digestion which creates more weight gain.

You can support your pancreas by supporting Agni, your digestive enzymes. It is important to eat regularly in a rhythm that suits your constitution. It helps to eat easy to digest warm foods, with good amounts of protein and fats to stabilise blood sugars. Also avoid processed sugars.

Long term high cortisol will also impact your immune system, which, over time affects thyroid function which is the third endocrine organ in this sequence of events.

Thyroid

When the thyroid experiences fluctuations in its functioning it can, depending on the individual, becomehyper (high) or hypo (low).

Hyperthyroidism creates:

Anxiety,

heart racing,

loss of weight,

sensitivity to noises and heat,

insomnia and feeling weak and shaky.

Hyperthyroidism may also lead to Graves disease, and/or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease where the body is attacking itself, tends to create hypothyroidism.However, for some may swing between hypo and hyper thyroid function. 

Hypothyroidism creates:

Slow metabolism,

weight gain,

chronic fatigue,

feeling cold,

stiffness of the joints and

brain fog.

Your liver also plays an important role in supporting your thyroid health. The majority of the Thyroid hormone T4 is converted into T3, its active state, in your liver. During Perimenopause the liver is working hard to adjust and metabolise the changing levels of your hormones. It is common to have a sluggish liver at this time which then affects both weight gain and thyroid function.

How your lymphatic system is flowing, and cleansing your body, also has an affect on both your liver and your thryoid’s functioning. Which ultimately comes back to how well you are digesting your food and removing your waste.

Ultimately, a wholistic approach of assessing and supporting digestions lymph flow, stress management and adrenal health, and thyroid health works best! We can’t isolate any of these processes as they are all connected!

Any time in this sequence of events from tired adrenals, to weight gain, to hypo or hyperthyroidism we can stop the progression and bring the body back into balance.

When cortisol has been high for too long, Ojas (essence of vitality) becomes low, and our endocrine organs need replenishing.

self care and love, meditation

In our younger years we have plenty of reserves to deal with whatever life may serve us.  Having less reserves of energy as we age is ok as we no longer need to bear and nourish another, but we do still need to nourish ourselves.

So, yes!  There is more to losing weight in mid life than just eating less and exercising more.

Stress, hormones and belly fat are intimately connected.

To support good health, stable weight a smooth transition into our Wisdom Years we need to support our adrenals by managing the stress in our lives; take care of our digestion and our nervous system.

It’s a wholistic approach!

Yoga, walking in nature, unplugging, creating boundaries and learning to say NO, taking care of our digestion, and doing what bring us joy are some of the ways you can tune in and support your transition in a healthy way.

If you would like support with your perimenopause journey, reach out for a free clarity call to explore how I may be of service to you and your future health.

Let me know in the comments if this has been helpful!

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