How Cortisol Affects Belly Fat + Natural Remedies for Hormone Imbalance

Understanding the link between cortisol and belly fat can help you lose weight_
When people talk about hormones, it’s normally related to a specific kind of experience, like menopause, pregnancy, or a monthly menstrual cycle. Hormones play a big role in all of these, of course, but what people don’t talk about (and many don’t know) is the fact that hormones play a huge role in every aspect of our body’s functioning every single day. That means that if your hormones are out of whack, there are consequences, including some particularly pesky ones like weight gain and belly fat. Read on to learn more about female imbalance and the link between cortisol and belly fat, as well as natural remedies for hormonal imbalance.
You can also listen to an audio version of this guide on The WellBe Podcast. 

What Is Hormonal Imbalance?

Hormones are basically chemical messengers, telling the cells in your body what to do and supporting them in doing it. The human body secretes some 50 or so different hormones, each of which has a specific purpose in the body. Most of us know that hormones are responsible for most sex-related processes, but they also help control many more basic bodily processes, including metabolism.
Hormonal imbalance occurs when you have too much or too little of a certain hormone. Since your hormones all talk to each other constantly, an imbalance in one hormone has a domino effect, causing changes in the entire body and taking a toll on your health. One downside of the stunningly complex interplay between hormones is that it’s fairly easy for things to get thrown out of whack. 
Hormones are produced by the glands of the endocrine (aka hormonal) system. While any of these hormones produced by any of these glands could potentially get out of balance, certain types of hormones are usually involved when we talk about hormonal imbalance. The three major hormonal systems typically involved in hormonal imbalance are sex hormones (estrogen, testosterone, etc), adrenal hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, etc), and thyroid hormones (T3, T4, etc).
Because hormones and their functions are so diverse, the signs of hormonal imbalance are equally varied. However, some of the more common signs and symptoms of hormonal imbalance are:
  • Irregular period or amenorrhea 
  • Mood swings or very intense PMS
  • Change in sex drive
  • Infertility
  • Hair loss or thinning
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Digestive issues
  • Skin issues
  • Weight loss or gain

Hormonal Imbalance and Weight Gain

So many factors are involved in a person’s weight, but one that’s often overlooked is their hormonal function. There are some specific hormonal conditions or events — such as an underactive thyroid, PCOS, or menopause — that are associated with weight gain, but even for women without a diagnosed condition, female hormone imbalance can often be the culprit for weight gain. This is largely because one of the most important things your hormones do is to regulate metabolism, fullness, hunger, and energy. 
Let’s look more specifically at how hormonal imbalance could potentially contribute to weight gain:
  • Low levels of the hormone estrogen can lead to low levels of leptin, the hormone that tells your brain that you’re full. That means that you’ll feel hungry even when you’ve eaten enough, leading to weight gain. 
  • The opposite is true with testosterone: high testosterone can mean low leptin, so if your testosterone levels are too high, you’ll feel hungry all the time. 
  • Estrogen is involved in fat distribution throughout the body, and so low levels of estrogen can lead to what’s often referred to as a “hormonal belly” or “hormonal stomach,” where your excess weight is concentrated in your stomach rather than hips, thighs, or butt.
  • The hormone insulin is involved in metabolizing blood sugar. If your body becomes resistant to insulin, your cells can’t properly absorb sugar from the bloodstream, which leaves your cells starving for fuel. In turn, this triggers your body to eat more, leading to weight gain. While insulin resistance is usually associated with diabetes, people without diabetes can be resistant to insulin. Only about half of the people who develop insulin resistance go on to develop diabetes. 
These are some of the most common ways that a hormonal imbalance can lead to weight gain. The one biggie we left out is cortisol, which we’ll look at a bit more in-depth now. 

 

The Link Between Cortisol and Belly Fat

Let’s face it: it’s a pretty stressful time to be alive (even with 2020 behind us). That means we should all be aware of how the hormone cortisol is impacting our lives and bodies. Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone,” is produced by the adrenal glands. It puts your body into a fight-or-flight state, flooding your bloodstream with glucose and enhancing the brain’s ability to use it. It also stops or slows down any non-essential bodily functions, like digestion.
This was all well and good when we were living in caves and being hunted by tigers: your body would be flooded by cortisol when it saw a threat, then once the threat passed, cortisol levels would drop and your body could get back to functioning normally. The issue today is that many of us go around with chronically elevated cortisol levels, which can also mean high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and impaired digestion. All of that often means bad news for your weight and waistline. 
Plus, cortisol is specifically linked to extra abdominal fat, aka hormonal stomach. Like estrogen, cortisol impacts fat distribution, causing excess weight to be stored around the organs in your midsection. Research shows that chronically stressed monkeys with increased cortisol levels also have increased abdominal obesity, and a 2018 review of multiple human-based studies confirms that having high cortisol levels over a long-term period is associated with extra abdominal fat. Another study of men in Sweden found that those with the most stress in their lives (and thus the highest cortisol levels) had the biggest beer bellies. 
Besides the biological relationship between cortisol and belly fat, there are also behavioral factors at play. We can probably all relate to reaching for unhealthy food when we’re stressed out (or just eating too much of any food), and so high cortisol levels can lead to weight gain in this manner. Plus, stress can cause digestive issues like constipation, diarrhea, and IBS, all of which can cause gas and belly bloating. 
The downsides of extra belly fat aren’t just about appearance. Turns out, being overweight is actually much riskier and less healthy if you store your fat around your abdomen. The fat in your midsection is called visceral fat in the medical community, and it’s found around your liver, intestines, and other vital organs. According to research, carrying fat in this area (as opposed to, say, hips and thighs or your limbs) can increase your risk for various serious conditions, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and asthma. 
On top of all that, there’s another layer to the interplay between cortisol and belly fat. While cortisol increases belly fat, belly fat can also increase cortisol levels! This is especially true for women, where it creates a vicious cycle that’s difficult to stop, leading to increased hormonal imbalance and associated health issues. 

What Causes Female Hormone Imbalance? 

So it’s clear that hormonal imbalance is a big issue that we should all take steps to avoid. To do that, it’s important to pinpoint just how female hormone imbalance occurs. There are a number of different possible ways, and sometimes it’ll be a combination of several, but here are the primary culprits:
  • Stress: As we outlined above, excessive and long-term stress can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels, putting your adrenal and other hormones out of balance.  
  • Poor gut health: The gut produces about 90% of your body’s serotonin, the “feel good hormone” that helps stabilize mood and increase feelings of well-being. So if your gut health is off, your serotonin levels can be seriously affected. In addition, intestinal permeability, aka “leaky gut,” can disrupt the bacteria known as estrobolome, which metabolize and affect your levels of estrogen, which in turn can impact your weight, libido and mood.
  • Chronic inflammation: Inflammation is not actually a local response, it’s a hormone-controlled process. Hormones act as modulators of your reaction against trauma, infections and other sources of inflammation such as unhealthy foods and alcohol, so if your body is in a chronic inflammatory state, your hormones will be impacted in turn.
  • Environmental factors: We live in a chemical-filled world today, and many of these chemicals are known disruptors of the endocrine system (the bodily system through which hormones communicate). While the list of environmental endocrine disruptors is long, some of the most common sources are pesticides, industrial chemicals in many plastics and other materials, and perfluoroalkyl substances, which are chemicals used in water-resistant materials and non-stick cookware, among other products. 
  • Medications: Certain medications — including birth control, opioid-based pain medications and anti-epileptic drugs — have an impact on hormone levels. 
  • A specific condition: In certain cases, the root cause of female hormone imbalance may be an underlying condition, such as hypo- or hyperthyroidism, Cushing’s disease (associated with elevated cortisol levels), diabetes, PCOS, menopause, pregnancy, and more. But remember, most of these conditions have a root cause behind them, so don’t settle for “you have PCOS” if a doctor tells you that. PCOS, for example, has many root causes.  

6 Natural Remedies for Hormonal Imbalance

Physicians may prescribe pharmaceuticals for balancing hormones, but we know that taking medications indefinitely can often do more harm than good. Thankfully, there are a variety of lifestyle-based natural remedies for hormonal imbalance. The exact method you choose will depend on what’s going on with your specific hormones, but trying out one or several of the below strategies should help you bringing your hormones back into balance:
  • Adjust your diet: Certain foods can have an effect on the levels of certain hormones. For instance, cruciferous veggies (like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale) contain the compound diindolylmethane, which helps the body process estrogen. Fermented foods can also promote estrogen metabolism. On the other hand, processed foods can be disruptive to your hormones, both because of the preservatives and chemicals they contain and because these calorically-dense foods are more likely to cause weight gain, which has its own effect on hormones. 
  • Keep your toxic burden low. Endocrine disrupting chemicals are everywhere — in food packaging, food, plastic containers, fabrics, toys, pesticides, cosmetics, and more — and being exposed to too many will almost certainly have an impact on your hormones. Choose only vetted, non-toxic products to bring into your hormone (or put in your mouth or on your body). The WellBe Spark Health Program is a great way to get any endocrine disruptors out of your home, since a big focus is on cleaning up and cleaning out any toxic chemicals you might have around.
  • Try seed cycling: As we explored in-depth in our interview with Britt Martin, eating certain seeds at certain times of the month may help with female hormone imbalance. The seeds used are flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds, and by eating specific amounts at different stages of your menstrual cycle, you can support a healthy balance of sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone. 
  • Reduce your stress: Cortisol is one of the power-player hormones, and in today’s high-stress world, it’s easy for your levels to get out of balance. Given that this can throw tons of other hormones off (not to mention the link between cortisol and belly fat), it’s important to keep cortisol levels low by reducing your stress. Try a daily meditation or mindfulness practice
  • Mix in HIIT workouts. If your hormone troubles involve leptin, the hormone that tells you you’re full, high intensity interval training can help. Research shows that HIIT workouts increase your leptin sensitivity, so that your body is better able to register when leptin is being produced and let your brain know that you’ve eaten enough. 
  • Get adequate rest. Sleep deprivation has a ton of repercussions for your health, and hormone imbalance is among them. When you don’t sleep enough, you have elevated levels of ghrelin, the hormone that makes you feel hungry. Prioritizing your sleep can help restore proper ghrelin levels.  
All of these natural remedies for hormonal imbalance can help you restore proper levels of your hormones, which will have a huge positive impact on your overall health. Plus, most of these strategies are healthy lifestyle habits that we should all be adopting anyway!

The WellBe Takeaway on Balancing Hormones

Hormones are huge drivers of your overall health, and it’s far too easy for those hormones to get thrown out of balance; and because of women’s monthly cycles and hormone-related life changes like pregnancy and menopause, female hormone imbalance is particularly common. Thankfully, it’s something that can be fixed. Here are the key takeaways: 
  • Hormones are the chemical messengers that tell all the systems in our body what to do. They drive countless important bodily functions, including digestion and metabolism. The human body produces about 50 or so unique hormones.
  • Hormonal imbalance is when the level of one or more hormones is too high or too low. Because hormones communicate with one another constantly, if one hormone gets out of balance, it’s likely to cause an imbalance in at least one other hormone.
  • Hormone imbalance is often associated with weight gain. This can occur for a variety of different reasons, including conditions like PCOS or life stages like menopause. It can also have to do with your levels of leptin (the hormone that tells you you’re full), ghrelin (the hormone that tells you you’re hungry), and insulin (the hormone that processes blood sugar).
  • There is also a strong relationship between the hormone cortisol and belly fat. Research shows that high cortisol levels are correlated with increased abdominal fat, even among people who aren’t overweight. This is particularly concerning, because carrying fat in the midsection is associated with a number of serious health risks, including cancer and heart disease.
  • Female hormone imbalance can be caused by a number of different things. Some of the most common causes include chronic inflammation, poor gut health, stress, exposure to environmental or dietary endocrine disruptors, certain medications, and certain medical diagnoses.
  • Drugs are often used to treat hormonal imbalance, but this choice carries side effects and doesn’t address the root of the issue. Natural remedies for hormonal imbalance include adjusting your diet, seed cycling, avoiding toxins, reducing stress, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly (specifically HIIT workouts).
Have you healed hormonal imbalance naturally, or are you trying to right now? Share your experience in the comments below!
You can also listen to an audio version of this guide on The WellBe Podcast. 
Citations:
  1. Schwarz, Neil A et al. “A review of weight control strategies and their effects on the regulation of hormonal balance.” Journal of nutrition and metabolism vol. 2011 (2011): 237932. 
  2. Fungfuang, Wirasak et al. “Effects of estrogen on food intake, serum leptin levels and leptin mRNA expression in adipose tissue of female rats.” Laboratory animal research vol. 29,3 (2013): 168-73. 
  3. Virve Luukkaa, Ullamari Pesonen, Ilpo Huhtaniemi, Aapo Lehtonen, Reijo Tilvis, Jaakko Tuomilehto, Markku Koulu, Risto Huupponen, Inverse Correlation between Serum Testosterone and Leptin in Men, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 83, Issue 9, 1 September 1998, Pages 3243–3246.
  4. Brown, L M, and D J Clegg. “Central effects of estradiol in the regulation of food intake, body weight, and adiposity.” The Journal of steroid biochemistry and molecular biology vol. 122,1-3 (2010): 65-73. 
  5. Tabák, Adam G et al. “Prediabetes: a high-risk state for diabetes development.” Lancet (London, England) vol. 379,9833 (2012): 2279-90.
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