Jade Teta ND, CSCS
Women are particularly drawn to the Metabolic Effect lifestyle, diet and exercise for hormonal fat loss. Because women experience monthly hormone fluctuations through the menstrual cycle, they know from experience that hormones impact how they feel, function, and look. They seem to intuitively get the fact that hormones play a role in determining whether they store fat or burn fat and where. Because we always get many questions about the science of hormonal fat burning in women, I thought I would cover it here as a brief primer on the subject. This is perhaps one of the most misunderstood of all topics in natural health.
There is no question that the female sex steroids dramatically impact how much and where on the body a women will store fat. The difference between men and women make this very clear. Women usually have smaller waists and more fat storage on the hips, thighs and breasts. Estrogen and progesterone have much to do with this. Estrogen is largely responsible for greater fat storage around the hips and thighs while both estrogen and progesterone impact larger breasts (Progesterone may be more of an issue here…just ask a women who is pregnant, a very progesterone dominant time). Men, on the other hand, are usually much leaner through the arms and the legs and store more fat around the middle as a consequence of testosterone.
Most women, and even many health care providers, are unaware of the issues related to estrogen and progesterone balance. It is the ratio of these hormone one to another that determines the health impact and the fat-burning outcome. Unfortunately there is no good way to test this since each women is unique and likely has an optimal estrogen to progesterone balance all her own.
Some hints this ratio may be off come from looking at the body and exploring symptoms. The menstrual cycle is the best place to look for clues. The first two weeks of a woman’s cycle are an estrogen dominant time while the last two weeks are a progesterone dominant time. PMS is a strong indication there may be a progesterone deficiency relative to estrogen. Don’t get confused here, a relative deficiency is not the same as an absolute deficiency. A woman can have higher than normal progesterone levels but still have a relative deficiency if estrogen levels are much higher in comparison.
Many women with low progesterone relative to estrogen will report feeling like a completely different person before ovulation (first two weeks of the cycle) compared to after ovulation (last two weeks of the cycle), where they feel much worse. This ill feeling usually manifests as depression, breast tenderness, moodiness, fatigue, lack of motivation, bloating and other complaints.
Estrogen, Progesterone and fat storage
Estrogen and progesterone are both critical to keeping the waist of women smaller and giving the coveted hourglass shape. Estrogen helps the female body remain more sensitive to insulin. And both estrogen and progesterone act as cortisol antagonists. This means they work in opposition to cortisol. In this way, estrogen and progesterone both blunt fat accumulation around the midsection.
Stress impacts progesterone
However, high stress levels will impact progesterone for two reasons. First, in the adrenal glands, progesterone is used to make cortisol. Many holistic physicians, including myself, believe progesterone derived from the ovaries can be used to increase cortisol production when needed. This is called “progesterone steal” or “pregnenolone steal” and is used to describe a situation where the adrenal glands “steal” or use up pregnenolone (a precursor to progesterone) or progesterone to make the stress hormone cortisol. Next, cortisol antagonizes progesterone’s action at its receptors thereby decreasing progesterone’s impact in the body.
Estrogen is a little different. Estrogen may work to increase fat storage in certain areas by up-regulating alpha adrenergic receptors in the hips and thighs. Adrenergic receptors are like the gas and brake peddles on your car and work to accelerate or decrease fat usage. Beta adrenergic receptors increase fat burning while alpha adrenergic receptors block it. The hips and thighs of a women have high amounts of alpha adrenergic receptors.
This is the major reason it is so difficult for some women to lose fat from the hips and thighs. Many women have plenty of fat to spare around that area but instead will become smaller in the torso and breasts rather than the hips and thighs. Estrogen increases alpha adrenergic receptor density while progesterone may decreases it. Progesterone may also increase beta adrenergic receptors (so does testosterone).
In this way, estrogen and progesterone work to influence the ability to burn fat, and determine from which areas it will be taken from. This is an issue of hormone balance as well as calories and believe it or not, aerobic exercise may make this issue worse rather than better. I will get to that in a minute.
Estrogen is also a weak antagonist of thyroid hormone which is a major metabolic fat burning hormone. This is a major reason why women should work hard to decrease the effects of estrogen in their environment. Many women are unaware, but the environment they live in is swimming with estrogen related compounds. Plastics, coffee, pesticides, soy, and others contain chemicals that resemble human estrogen and act as weak estrogens in the body impacting a woman’s total estrogen load.
Women should not make the mistake of assuming estrogen is all bad. Too often people want to put labels on biochemicals and hormones as if things are black and white, they are not. Hormonal action needs to be within a range of function. Too high is not good, but neither is too low.
In addition, hormones behave differently depending on the balance of other hormones around with them. It is the total hormonal influence that makes a difference. Estrogen helps the body be more sensitive to insulin and has fat-loss and muscle building benefits in that regard. As long as it is in balance with progesterone and other hormones it aids fat loss for women.
Likewise, while good testosterone levels in a women are beneficial, if it is too high and present with higher cortisol, estrogen and insulin it can lead to PCOS, female belly fat and masculinization causing increased hair growth and other negative effects women would prefer to avoid.
Working with female hormones
Perhaps the biggest mistake I see in my clinic and with my personal training clients is the way women approach body change. Women are often duped into believing the low calorie diet and aerobic exercise myth. This approach to weight loss rarely works and when it does, it is short lived. It also, when taken to extreme create, damage to their body as a consequence.
Here is why. As a women ages, as a consequence of stress or because of environmental estrogen mimicking compounds, several things begin to occur.
First, the ovaries decrease their production of estrogen and progesterone potentially exacerbating an estrogen:progesterone imbalance. This is because there are many estrogen mimickers in our food and environment and fat cells continue to produce estrogen through an enzyme called aromatase present in fat cells. As a consequence the estrogen/progesterone balance begins to shift more towards estrogen.
At the same time human growth hormone (HGH) levels decline and DHEA, a precursor to testosterone, is lowered. Together this creates the perfect storm for female related fat gain and most of it will occur in the middle. DHEA, HGH and progesterone all act to keep a woman lean by blocking the storage of fat in the middle of her body. The tricky part is that a low calorie diet and a focus on aerobic exercise could make this worse because these things do little to restore these powerful hormones and may actually increase the impact of cortisol, thus furthering the imbalanced hormonal effect in the long run.
Instead what women should be focused on is eating higher amounts of vegetables and “estrogen free protein” (a soy free and organic meat focused approach) and most importantly, weight train.
There are only three ways to reliably restore HGH in the body: sleep, adequate protein, and intense exercise using weights. The current trend is for women to take up an aerobic exercise program, go on a low calorie vegetarian diet, and use stimulating “fat burning” supplements. All of these choices are inadequate and rarely succeed in reversing the underlying hormonal issues because they interfere with sleep, adequate protein intake, and weight training.
Weight training is perhaps the most important aspect, and is critical for female health especially to stop the belly fat that accumulates during aging. HGH is to women what testosterone is to men, it keeps them looking young, lean and firm.
Ironically, most women avoid weight training opting instead for traditional cardio. They falsely believe this will give them the desired “look” of their younger years. While traditional aerobic exercise is healthy, it is not adequate to generate the hormonal effect needed to raise HGH and DHEA.
The female fat-loss formula involves the following:
1. Decrease exposure to most estrogen related factors in the diet and environment. Including plastic bottles, excessive coffee use, soy, pesticides, non-organic meats and dairy, etc.
2.Help the body deal with estrogen through natural detoxification. This is done through increased intake of green tea, cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc), increased fiber, tailored supplementation, and decreased dairy and grain. Dairy and grain are not “bad”, but probably should not be as dominant in the diet as many women think (these CAN cause excess release of insulin and will do little to protect female bones if eaten in excess)
3. Decrease insulin and cortisol effects by substituting vegetables and fruits in place of most grains and starches. Drink filtered water (preferably not out of plastic) and green tea. Don’t overdo coffee and skip fruit juices and sweetened beverages.
4. Talk with your physician about supplementing with vitamin D, calcium, and fish oil, yes to protect bones, but more importantly to control inflammation and protect against heart disease and cancer.
5. Train with weights 3 to 5 times per week. If you want to burn fat, decrease belly fat, build bone, improve mood, enhance strength, bolster self-esteem, tighten the body (it is the only way to do this) and decrease morbidity and mortality into old age nothing…NOTHING compares to weight lifting exercise. Walking is necessity NOT exercise. All women should walk as much as they can daily.
6. Talk to a holistic physician trained in restoring hormonal balance through the use of natural foods, herbs, hormone precursors, and bio-identical hormone replacement therapy. Natural medicine has much to offer in this arena to complement conventional medicine.