Ever wondered why you have one problematic body part that gains weight and fat more easily than others? The first part to grow and last one to shrink despite all your weight loss efforts? And why this may be different for your other girlfriends?
Well let me tell you, where your body stores excess weight is not a random occurrence but rather a complex hormonally driven process.
The most common presentations I see in practice are the following:
1) Mid-region weight gain – also known as apple, round shape, spare tire. This is an indication that there is too much visceral fat; fat surrounding your vital organs and it also tends to be the harder area to lose from. There are several hormones that can be contributing to this: cortisol and insulin are the most common ones.
Cortisol is our stress hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands. While it’s normal to produce it on daily basis, under chronic stress its production can become dysregulated and may lead to adrenal fatigue. If it is constantly elevated, in efforts to keep you going and surviving through on-going stress, cortisol will directly impact your blood sugar levels by signaling your body to not only consume more calories but store more fat for a “rainy day” or potential tougher times to come.
Insulin, the second hormone involved in weight gain around the abdominal region is a hormone that regulates your blood sugar levels by getting secreted in response to glucose (the basic “sugar” compound). Along with high cortisol levels, a poor diet high in sugars and carbohydrates is a key driving force to producing too much insulin, hence making you more sensitive to even a “normal” amount of carbohydrates.
It’s also important to note that women in their peri-menopausal and menopausal years are exceptionally prone to weight gain around the mid-region due to the complex hormonal changes that happen during this time period.
First of all, menopause is associated with decreased insulin sensitivity, meaning the body is more likely to store carbs as excess fat compared to your earlier years. As well, during menopause the adrenal glands take over sex-hormone production as the ovaries begin to give in. However if you are going through high stress levels, your adrenal glands will be busy using their reserves to make more cortisol than produce sex hormones, hence amplifying the symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes, night sweats, poor sleep, mood changes and weight gain.
While this may sound like an uphill battel, don’t get discouraged! Understanding the underlying physiological changes as well as testing your adrenal function and properly balancing any deficiency or excess can be key to restoring menopausal symptoms as well as the associated weight gain.
2) Weight gain around the hips – also known as pear shaped or inverted triangle.
Weight gain in this region can indicate an imbalance between estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen increases fat storage by upregulating certain receptors in fat deposits around the thighs and hips, known as alpha-androgenic receptors which are known to block fat burning. Women, relative to men have a higher amount of these receptors and hence it’s more common for women to gain weight in those regions.
Having too much estrogen, or not enough progesterone can be the driving force behind weight gain in the hips. Other common symptoms of excess estrogen include PMS symptoms such as heavy or painful periods, breast tenderness, fibroids, moodiness, bloating and other concerns. It’s also important to note that estrogen levels may not actually be elevated, but progesterone levels may be too low, causing a relative imbalance that may present with the same symptoms. In another blog post I talk about the importance actually testing your hormone levels before blindly treating PMS or menopausal symptoms for those reasons.
It’s important to note that estrogen is not all bad. We have estrogen receptors in our brain, bones, heart and hence sufficient amounts are not only required to protect these organs but also it plays a role in making the body more sensitive to insulin and better at metabolizing and breaking down carbs. Therefore, when estrogen levels drop around menopausal years, this could be an indirect contributor to weight gain around the mid-region as well.
3) Weight gain all over – also known as rectangular body shape. Gaining weight equally around the body can be an indication of thyroid dysregulation. The thyroid hormone affects practically every cell in the body and regulates our entire metabolic rate. Therefore, excess weight all over the body can point to a sluggish thyroid that has caused all metabolic processes to slow down. Other symptoms that could be accompanying a sluggish thyroid include fatigue, brain fog, cold body temperature, dry thinning hair, constipation and low moods.
There is a close connection between the thyroid and the adrenal glands. High cortisol levels can prevent the conversion of our inactive form of thyroid (T4) to our active form of thyroid (T3), meaning less is circulating in the bloodstream and boosting your metabolism. This can happen in the face of totally normal TSH levels – which is the most common and often the only thyroid marker most patients get tested for. Therefore, to get a full and comprehensive picture of your thyroid function I always advise you ask your family doctor or naturopathic doctor to also assess free T3 and T4 levels if you are struggling with generalized weight gain, inability to lose weight or chronic stress.
Overall it’s pretty clear, weight loss is complex! If it was as easy as just watching what you eat and exercising, achieving your weight loss goals would be a simple equation. But the reality is that many women struggle, despite cutting back on certain foods, working out, doing “everything they should be doing” or even “working twice as hard” to see a small budge.
Paying close attention to your body and where you tend to put on weight can give you insight to what underlying hormonal imbalances you may have. Nonetheless, the hormones work in a very dynamic symphony and an imbalance in one will likely cause an imbalance in another. Doing a throughout check on your exact hormone levels can take the guesswork out and ensure you are correcting your imbalances in a targeted and individualized manner. This will not only address the underlying causes to weight gain but many other symptoms you are likely experiencing due to these imbalances.