Female Hormones: Estrogen (Oestrogen) & weight loss

Many people are confused by estrogen and its action on body fat. Does it store fat? Does it burn fat? Does it matter if you are taking birth control or HRT? What about its supposed effects on thyroid? Why do women suddenly gain belly fat at menopause? I heard estrogen makes female lower body fat more stubborn, is that true?

These are all great questions, and you are going to quickly find out that the answers are far more complicated than you may have thought. One of the main reasons for confusion is the simplistic view that hormones have one single action in the body. In fact, that is not true at all.

Hormones behave differently depending on which tissue they are acting in. For example, estrogen may have one impact in the brain, another in the uterus, and still another in your fat cells. Hormones also never work in isolation. Other hormones may accentuate or block estrogen’s actions. For example, a large amount of testosterone may decrease estrogen’s impact on female fat storage.

The story of estrogen can be a little confusing, but if you showed up here and are reading this blog, you are likely tired of the oversimplified explanations that dominate the web. So here are some of the major things to understand about estrogen, complication and all.

Estrogen & the Menstrual Cycle

  • Estrogen rises steadily during the first 14 days of the menstrual cycle (called the follicular phase).
  • Estrogen sensitizes progesterone receptors and progesterone sensitizes estrogen receptors. This means low estrogen or progesterone will have a negative impact on the other hormone as well.
  • Estrogen and progesterone have opposite effects in many tissues. In the uterus, progesterone has a thinning effect on the uterine lining while estrogen has a thickening effect.
  • Estrogen has a growth promoting effect on reproductive tissue and will cause the uterine lining to thicken.
  • Estrogen peaks in the first half of the menstrual cycle and then dips before rising again.
  • During the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle (day 1-14) estrogen is elevated without progesterone.
  • During the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle both estrogen and progesterone are elevated together with progesterone more dominant.
  • Before menses both estrogen and progesterone fall abruptly.

Estrogen & Female Fat Distribution

  • Estrogen increases the number of alpha-adrenergic receptors in the lower body of women. These receptors slow fat release. This is one reason why many women have a gynoid or pear shape fat distribution.
  • Some evidence hints that when estrogen levels are higher, the activity of the alpha-receptors are greater suggesting that training in low estrogen states may speed fat release from more stubborn estrogen impacted areas (like the lower body).
  • Estrogen also makes women store fat more in the subcutaneous areas (fat just under the skin and in the arms and legs), versus the deep belly fat in the middle of the body.
  • Estrogen may have a different impact on deep abdominal fat, either not impacting it at all or speeding its release. This may be one reason why menopausal women who have lost the influence of estrogen see their fat distribution switch to the belly.
  • Women have about 9 times more alpha-adrenergic receptors in the lower body than do men.

female fat burning pyramidEstrogen, Insulin, & Cortisol

  • In animal studies, estrogen sensitizes the body to insulin and aids fat loss. These effects are not always seen in humans.
  • Estrogen seems to have an anabolic effect (helps women build muscle) compared to progesterone. This may be related to its insulin sensitizing effects.
  • Estrogen has an anti-cortisol effect, another mechanism by which it may control fat storage at the belly.
  • Insulin and cortisol have far greater impacts on fat metabolism compared to estrogen and progesterone. This is important to understand and the reason why hormone replacement therapy does not suddenly result in weight loss. The stronger effects of insulin and cortisol wash out any positive effects from estrogen.

Estrogen & Thyroid

  • Females have larger thyroids than men largely because estrogen has an anti-thyroid effect.
  • Thyroid hormone and the adrenal catecholamines (aka adrenaline/epinephrine & noradrenaline/norepinephrine) are higher on the fat burning hierarchy than estrogen and progesterone. This is another reason why hormone replacement is not a recipe for fat loss and could even contribute to fat gain in some women.

Estrogen & Progesterone (estrogen dominance)

  • Estrogen and progesterone need to be in balance as they both enhance the action of the other as well as offset the action of the other.
  • Estrogen dominance is a term used in complementary & alternative medicine where estrogen action is greater than progesterone.
  • Estrogen dominance refers to a relative deficiency of progesterone compared to estrogen. This can be the case whether both hormones are high, low, or normal.
  • We live in an environment that is swimming in estrogens. Phytoestrogens (plant estrogens) and xenoestrogens (environmental estrogens) are now ubiquitous (i.e. found everywhere).
  • Stress negatively impacts progesterone production.
  • Animal foods, most notably dairy, can have significant amounts of estrogen and progesterone in it.
  • Human fat cells, through an enzyme called aromatase, make and secrete estrogen. This is not true for progesterone.
  • Common sources of environmental estrogens: fatty meats, milk products, caffeine containing foods, pesticides, plastic, cosmetics.
  • Most common sources of plant estrogens include soy and flax, but there are many others with smaller amounts HERE.
  • Estrogens can vary slightly in their chemistry with some being stronger in activity than others. Some believe that the 4 and 16 hydroxy estrogens have more negative effects while the 2-hydroxyestrogens are protective. Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, etc) may increase the 2 and decrease the 4 and 16-hydroxy estrogens.
  • Common conditions believed to be related to estrogen dominance are: fibroids, fibrocystic breast, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, breast cancer, PMS, and PCOS.
  • A high fiber diet and regular bowel movements help decrease estrogen exposure since estrogen is removed through the body when the gallbladder releases its contents into the GI tract. However, improper elimination can cause estrogen to be reabsorbed.

Estrogen Contraceptives & Hormone Replacement

  • OCPs (oral contraceptive pills), HRT (hormone replacement therapy), hormone releasing patches, and IUDS use estrogen compounds that are NOT identical to estrogen made in the body (unless you are specifically taking bioidentical hormones).
  • These hormones can have weaker action in certain tissues compared with bioidentical hormones or stronger action.
  • In general, the research is mixed as to whether these hormones cause weight loss or weight gain.
  • The research hints that HRT has either no impact or has a slight weight gaining effect in women, although at the same time does reduce the belly fat distribution issue that occurs at menopause.
  • HRT may have a fat gaining effect in those more susceptible to eating response to hunger since it does seem to increase the brain’s sensitivity to one of the major hunger hormones, ghrelin.
  • Given estrogen and progesterone are further down on the fat burning totem poll compared with other hormones, a woman wanting to lose weight while using these will likely have little success unless controlling the other hormones first.
  • Given the relationship between thyroid and estrogen compounds, females on hormone replacement may want to ask their doctors about possible anti-thyroid effects.
  • Since these hormones are given in static doses across the menstrual cycle, women lose the natural rhythmic changes in estrogen and progesterone.

Estrogen, Mood & Cravings

  • There are receptors for estrogen all over the body including in the brain.
  • Lower estrogen, as it occurs at menopause and menses, can impact mood and cravings.
  • Low estrogen states can especially impact dopamine (the brains number one motivating neurochemical) and serotonin (a major relaxing and well-being brain chemical).
  • Estrogen also impacts GABA (the brains number one relaxing brain chemical).
  • Using things like cocoa powder during low estrogen states (i.e. menses) can raise dopamine and serotonin. We have found this helps mood and cravings around the time of menses.
  • Yogi brand bedtime tea is a favorite of ours to naturally raise GABA. We have also found this helps mood and cravings around the time of menses.
  • For more on brain chemistry and cravings, see this BLOG.

Take Homes on Estrogen & Weight Loss

  • Remember the hormonal hierarchy. Insulin and cortisol are the biggest issues here. This means a carb controlling and stress controlling approach especially if you are menopausal.
  • Remember, if you are eating a high calorie diet on a regular basis this too will “wash out” any beneficial fat burning effects of any hormone.
  • If you are menstruating normally and not on any hormones you may want to experiment with our phase training protocol by timing your eating and exercise with your cycle.
  • Watch your consumption of animal based and plant based estrogen, but don’t stress too much. Stress and cortisol may matter more for weight loss.
  • Watch your exposure to environmental estrogens through plastic, pesticides, cosmetics, and caffeine. But again, don’t stress too much as this may be worse.
  • If you have symptoms of estrogen dominance, look into seeing an integrative physician who can help with this. You are welcome to contact our clinic as well. We consult with clients internationally via phone and Skype.
  • Have a specific concern? Ask in the comments below and we will answer or update the blog to address it.


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12 Responses to Female Hormones: Estrogen (Oestrogen) & weight loss

  1. sandra June 12, 2013 at 1:31 PM #

    Hi, I have recently had the Implanon implant removed as, despite eating a clean strict diet and 3-4 kettlebell training sessions a week, I was not lising any weight as all, or bodyfat. Unfortunately, I have now been told the effects can last 6 months. I am very emotional, tired and still no fatloss. My question is, is there anything I can do to help what I am supposing is a complete hormone whirlwind? I have asked my gp but have been told to ‘just wait and see!’.After being on a long weight and fat loss journey and feeling the best I’ve ever felt, this is a blow, any comments would be much appreciated. Just to note, I am not now taking anything so I can return to ‘me’ hormonally.x

    • Jade Teta October 14, 2013 at 5:02 AM #

      Hi Sandra. One thing to be aware of here is that “stress”, including the stress of dieting and exercise, has an effect on ovarian hormone production. Stress can lower estrogen and progesterone. By the same token high dose hormone replacement therapy will also suppress ovarian function of these hormones. If you have stopped the HRT but your cycle and hormone balance has not returned, I suggest you ease up on the strict diet and exercise regime for a short period of time. Move from an eat less, exercise more approach, to an eat less, exercise less approach. This has the effect of reducing the stress on the body. You can read more about this approach in this blog: http://www.metaboliceffect.com/female-belly-fat/

  2. ml.williams@msn.com December 29, 2013 at 9:43 AM #

    Hi,Jade–great article as always. You mention HRT, but only address for estrogen HRT. I take bioidentical progesterone via comoounded lotion during the leuteal phase, and wonder how this would bear on this information? Without the supplemetation, my labs drawn in leuteal phase show menopausal progesterone levels, and have for at least 5 years. I am 39 and have regular cycles with or without HRT, but far more painful without it.

    Thanks much for any insight! You guys are so generous with your data, and I cant thank you enough for putting the truth out there!


    • Jade Teta December 29, 2013 at 10:29 AM #

      You are doing this the right way. Measuring to assess your levels and than correcting is smart. Another thing you are doing correctly is assessing with symptoms and it sounds like you waited awhile before beginning progesterone. One major caution for others reading this is that several different conditions can cause such a distribution including chronic or extreme stress, perimenopause, PCOS etc. Healing the system requires a more holistic approach that just using biodentical progesterone. I mention this because many holistic practitioners jump on the progesterone band wagon when a far better approach is using diet, exercise, lifestyle supplements and herbs to restore function before going right to hormones. :-)

  3. carolrawinia January 30, 2014 at 2:36 AM #

    I have an issue as I recently had an operation which meant that after years of Estrogen dominance my estrogen levels suddenly dropped and I am also showing some insulin sensitivity. I don’t want to get diabetes as three previous generations of my family have had it and I don’t want to be the fourth. I am really struggling to keep my weight stable which is a problem because I need to keep my weight down. I eat a relatively high fat and protein diet and in this situation am contemplating taking out what little starch I consume and sticking with just the leafy vegetables. I also have adrenal exhaustion so need to be careful here and am contemplating taking melatonin to even out my sleeping pattern because it has been disrupted by this and I have a very stressful job. The result of all of this is that I have been knocked straight into peri-menopause. Is there anything else you would recommend that I do to help myself here

  4. kim22 March 26, 2014 at 3:06 AM #


    Just wondering if you could give me some advice, i have just recently developed fibrocystic breast disease, which i assume is due to excess oestrogen or not enough progesterone. I have been to doctors and endocrinologist for help and to be honest they have not been much help at all, except suggest the pill from what i understand would just make it worse. I am wondering if u could suggest any natural approach to help cure me from this condition! It Is possible to fix it, i have read that this increases the risk of SO many cancer as well !!!! thanks in advance

    • Jade Teta April 6, 2014 at 10:12 AM #

      Thanks for your question Kimberley. I can appreciate your frustration although this blog is not meant to give medical advice so I will not address this question in full, but rather offer some considerations. There are several factors that can be related but one of the easiest to address is estrogen mimicking compounds in the environment. A big one is coffee intake as I have seen clinically simply decreasing coffee intake can have an impact here. Also a high fiber diet and the removal of dairy often make a difference. I would start there. Please talk to a physician and if you would like to work with us contact the clinic by hitting the support button. Here is some info on milk you may be interested in. http://www.metaboliceffect.com/hormones-in-milk/

  5. trainer@workoutchick.com April 15, 2014 at 12:45 PM #

    So, if you do not store much fat in hips, butt, thighs – mostly store in abdomen (esp. upper abdomen) – does this mean you are LOW in estrogen? Progesterone-dominant? I am perimenopausal at this point, but have pretty much always been shaped this way. (lean muscular legs, muscular booty, thick waist with fat accumulation, large breasts). Just curious, as it will slant my interpretation of this article in relation to me, for sure.

  6. brielynn June 25, 2014 at 4:26 PM #

    Hi Jade,
    I recently read your article on fasting because I’ve been following the. Eat Stop Eat approach since March 2014. I was trying to lose the ((twins))baby weight and have been very successful in doing so. I’m back in shape but feeling like it’s taking a toll on my energy- I’m extremely tired when I fast- and I’m following a every other day fasting approach where I eat basically what I want ( in moderation) 4 days a week and the other 3 I have 500 cals or less in the evening.
    My question to you in regards to hormones is this: I’ve lost my Menses this month and I’ve had it up until now. Can fasting cause this to occur? I had to use fertility drugs to get pregnant with my twins and now I’m scared I screwed up my hormones by fasting, and we want to have another baby in the future. Any insight would be much appreciated!

  7. juliep513 August 18, 2014 at 10:55 AM #

    Hi Jade! I’m a big fan of your work on this site and I have a question about this article. I was diagnosed by my endocrinologist & OBGYN with low estrogen levels. I have not had my period in a very long time, yet I don’t have low body fat levels. I’m 5’10 and 165lbs. I’m peri-menopausal and have gained a lot of body fat (specifically belly fat) over the past couple of months. I don’t understand why. I eat a very clean diet and rarely indulge. I practice intermittent sampling and keep carbs to around my workouts but I can’t seem to lose body fat and just feel like my body has stopped working! I recently decided to go back on birth control to see if I can spark my period to come back (after a long time of battling not wanting to – I caved). I’m only 28 years old and live a very healthy lifestyle yet I just feel like I’ve stopped working – no metabolism, no estrogen. It’s very frustrating! Any kind of advice would be greatly appreciated!

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