Jade Teta ND, CSCS
Estrogen, progesterone, menses and fat burning
A discussion of hormones would not be complete without examining how the female sex hormones determine fat loss or fat storage. It is easy to see how these hormones strongly impact not only how much fat the body burns, but also where on the body fat may be stored. The hallmark of a female body is the curves of the breasts, hips and waist. The female form is known for a small waist and bigger hips and thighs. This female form is the result of estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen primarily impacts the body’s ability to store fat in the lower body. This is why women will tend to be heavier in the legs then men. Both hormones make their mark by keeping the waist thin. Both hormones also impact the size of the breast tissue. Cortisol and progesterone have a relationship of direct opposition to one another with each one blocking the action of the other. When progesterone levels are adequate and in a balanced state with estrogen and cortisol, the waist will stay small relative to the hips and thighs. Progesterone is one of the primary hormonal influencers of a small waist in women. This is obviously different than a man who relies more strongly on testosterone for this job.
Estrogen and progesterone are tightly regulated during the female menstrual cycle and it would make sense from an evolutionary perspective that these hormones would impact reproduction and fat storage. Obviously the ability to conceive and bare a child is directly related to the nutritional status of the mother and the amount of extra energy she can supply to a baby. To understand fully how these two hormones impact fat burning physiology it is useful to briefly discuss the female menstrual cycle. Shortly after the end of menstruation, estrogen levels rise relative to progesterone levels. This is a time where the uterine lining is growing and thickening. It is also a time where the body burns more fat during exercise, but has less capacity for enhanced fat burning at rest. This makes sense since the body wants to make valuable sugar available for the growing tissues while also slowing fat release in case the body becomes pregnant. Somewhere around two weeks from the start of the menstrual cycle ovulation occurs and the egg is released. At this time, the uterine lining undergoes changes that will help a fertilized egg implant. This is a time where progesterone and estrogen rise together, but with progesterone being more dominant. At this time, the body’s ability to use fat at rest is enhanced. Again this makes sense since a growing fetus will need the valuable energetic resources fat can supply. If the egg goes unfertilized menses occurs and both estrogen and progesterone fall with the cycle starting over again. As you can see, the relative ratio of these hormones has much to do with fat burning and metabolism in general.
By paying close attention to the signs and symptoms during the menstrual cycle, a woman can get a good idea about her balance of estrogen and progesterone. The time of ovulation is a key indicator. Many women will develop symptoms during this time due to a relative deficiency of progesterone compared to estrogen. What many will notice is a change in mood with irritability and emotional instability being pronounced. They may also experience breast tenderness, fatigue, foggy thinking, and hot flashes. Some of these symptoms share commonality with what occurs in menopause and the point just before menopause. While many doctors have described this as an issue of estrogen reduction, it is more clearly related to an imbalance in the estrogen progesterone ratio. This delicate female hormone system is a key indicator of the metabolic fat burning potential of a woman.
There are many environmental factors that enhance estrogen activity while suppressing progesterone. This is obviously a state women will want to avoid since fat storage will be enhanced not too mention risk of reproductive related cancers. Stress is a major factor here. After menopause the ovaries no longer are able to supply the female with the sex steroids. This is when the adrenal glands and fat cells take over. The adrenal glands are able to make small amounts of estrogen and progesterone and the fat cells, through an enzyme called aromatase, can continue to make estrogen. But here is where the problem comes in. Stress is an ever constant in the modern world and when the body encounters stress it increases the production of cortisol. This is not a good thing for a women past menopause because in order to make cortisol, the body will use progesterone. This effectively increases the estrogen dominance of a woman. In addition, cortisol levels are now unopposed by adequate progesterone allowing fat gain around the middle to continue unabated and strongly impacting insulin related fat storage. This is why many menopausal women complain of sudden weight gain around the middle. Add to this the fact that plastics, pesticides, and many common foods also have weak estrogen activity and it is easy to see why menopause is so closely related to a change in fat burning metabolism.
However, there is a way out of this mess and it involves making choices that balance out the estrogen and progesterone ratio. Contrary to popular belief, this can be done without hormone replacement therapy and in a way that addresses all the concerns of aging women like losing bone and reproductive cancers. Resistance training is the key vital behavior that is able to reverse the fat accumulation around the middle that plagues so many women as they age. It has this effect because it is able to release testosterone and HGH, which both will block the action of cortisol at the belly and enhance fat burning all over the body. Long distance running cannot accomplish this because it raises cortisol further without the benefit of testosterone and HGH. This is why many women become increasingly frustrated by standard exercise prescriptions as they age. In addition to resistance training, eating a diet that is rich in vegetables (especially cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage) and fruit will act to lower estrogen production through special molecules present in them that help the liver breakdown strong estrogen into weaker ones. These foods also have large amounts of fiber to help remove hormones from the body and a vast array of phytochemicals many of which have been shown to be inhibitors of the aromatase enzyme that makes estrogen in fat cells. Adding good quality lean protein to the mix will lower insulin and control cortisol levels. Only taking an approach that addresses the underlying hormonal mechanism is able to deal with fat loss effectively. Low calories dietary advice and aerobic exercise prescriptions will only leave most women frustrated with little body change.
For more info on this topic see my past post on The Female Fat Loss Formula