Why Belly Fat Is More About Hormones Than How Much You Eat

Functional Medicine Practitioner By William Cole, D.C., IFMCP
Functional Medicine Practitioner
Dr. Will Cole, D.C., IFMCP, is a leading functional medicine expert who specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Cole is also the bestselling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.

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Weight loss is a struggle that many people deal with their whole lives, often with little to no success. The problem is getting more serious by the day; with nearly two-thirds of Americans considered either obese or overweight, our society's weight problems account for almost 21 percent of all health care costs in the United States.

We can see evidence of this rising epidemic through the ever-increasing amount of fad diets claiming to be the magic solution for all our weight loss troubles. Unfortunately, contrary to what conventional medicine may tell you, weight loss is more than just a matter of "calories in, calories out," and restricting your food intake is not necessarily the key to losing weight. For the majority of people, sustainable weight loss is anything but a simple formula.

Weight gain is way more complex than we think.

Over the years we've thought about weight gain as the cause of health problems, but an inability to lose weight is often a symptom of an underlying health problem that has yet to be addressed. In other words, a person's inability to lose weight could be a side effect of poor health instead of the cause. To put it simply: We must get healthy to lose weight, not lose weight to get healthy.

When it comes to stubborn weight loss, one of the biggest complaints I hear about is the extra fat that shows up quickly around the midsection—and then never wants to leave. This type of fat is known as visceral fat. Unlike subcutaneous fat, which is stored just under the skin and can be found in other areas of the body, visceral fat is located around your midsection all the way inside the abdominal cavity.

Due to its location closer to vital organs of your body, this type of fat greatly increases your risk for serious health problems. Since visceral fat cells are released directly into your blood, they end up making their way into your liver, pancreas, heart, and other vital organs—which is a problem considering these fat cells contain excess triglycerides that end up pumping harmful free fatty acids into cells that are not designed to store fat. It's vitally important to reduce this type of fat as much as possible.

So how do we go about this? As I mentioned before, losing this type of fat takes more than just eating like a rabbit and restricting how much food you consume. There are a few key things that, when out of whack, can greatly affect how well your body burns fat, specifically visceral fat. One of them is your hormone health.

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Why your stress hormone is causing belly fat.

Your hormones are the messengers of your body, sending instructions from one area to the next so your organs can properly perform their necessary functions. Needless to say, when one hormone goes awry, it can inhibit your fat-burning ability. After years of studying and clinical experience, I have seen one hormone imbalance correlated time and time again with a person's amount of visceral fat: cortisol.

Cortisol is your body's main stress hormone. It's released by your adrenal glands and starts out high in the morning to help wake you up and slowly tapers off throughout the day. Your "sleepy time" hormone, melatonin, is inversely proportional to cortisol, starting off low in the morning and increasing in the evening to help you get to sleep. Cortisol imbalances are a common hormone problem that throws off this natural daily rhythm, causing cortisol to be high when it should be low, low when it should be high, or always low, or always high.

Studies have looked at this relationship between cortisol and weight extensively and have found a significant link between cortisol levels and increased weight, specifically that stubborn visceral fat in both men and women. In fact, one study looked at the cortisol levels of 41 women and found that those with high levels of visceral fat had significantly greater cortisol spikes during times of stress as well as for a full hour after the stressful event had passed. Yikes.

How to balance your hormones for a healthier midsection.

Now that we've turned everything you've ever known about traditional dieting and weight loss on its head, it's time to take actionable steps to finally achieve sustainable long-term weight loss and say goodbye to the belly weight for good.

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1. Run labs.

The first step in tackling any sort of health problem is to find your baseline. That way, you can determine the best course of action. In my clinic I run a urine and salivary adrenal fatigue test, which looks at your brain-adrenal function and cortisol patterns throughout the day.

2. Get adaptogenic.

These plant and herbal medicines are rock stars at restoring balance to various areas of the body. Some of my favorites for rebalancing cortisol and easing HPA-axis dysfunction are licorice root, ashwagandha, schisandra, and cordyceps. Find these in powdered form and add to your teas, smoothies, or coffee.

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3. Go keto.

This popular diet focuses on a high-fat, moderate-protein, and low-carb plan in order to reach a state of ketosis—where your body uses ketones instead of glucose for energy. When your body is starved of a glucose source, it turns to fat to produce ketones. Now more and more studies are showing that a ketogenic diet can help manage blood sugar, keep metabolism stable, and alleviate HPA-axis dysfunction to help regulate cortisol. If you decide to go keto, I suggest a clean, plant-centric ketogenic diet, not loads of meat and dairy like the typical conventional keto diet you see on social media. 

4. Lower stress.

You can be eating the cleanest plant-based keto meal and taking adaptogens galore, but if you're not managing your stress, you will not manage your stress hormone. A study published in Biological Psychiatry found that chronic stress alone can spike cortisol, slow your metabolism, and increase cravings enough to make you gain up to 11 pounds every year! When you're stressed, your body holds on to fat as an emergency resource, which can make weight loss feel nearly impossible.

William Cole, D.C., IFMCP
William Cole, D.C., IFMCP
Will Cole, D.C., IFMCP, is a leading functional-medicine expert and a Doctor of Chiropractic. He...
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