Big Belly Blues

January 24, 2014

If your stomach is bigger than the rest of you and diet and exercise don’t help, it may not be a weight issue.

In Part 1, SheSaid looked at how poor digestion, gut flora imbalance and food intolerances could be why your belly is bulging. We look at other possibe reasons…

Stubborn belly fat may be down to your hormonal make-up. Hormones never work in isolation and behave differently according to their synergy in your particular body.

For instance, the testosterone (“male” hormone) to oestrogen (“female” hormone) ratio is critical for women. Those with higher testosterone levels, such as sufferers of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), have thicker waists.

Cortisol is associated with stress, and more stress-reactive women release more cortisol and have higher amounts of belly fat whether they are slim or overweight.

Menopause is one of the key manifestations of how hormones literally shape our bodies. Menopausal women may not gain weight (though many do) but their shape changes as oestrogen/progesterone levels fall and testosterone, cortisol and insulin levels rise. This is usually reflected in more fat around the abdomen.

“When oestrogen starts to decline our bodies will hold tightly to the fat deposits and even lay down more fat from every available source in order to keep the hormone levels ‘normal’,” says natural therapist Jennifer Chalmers, of Sydney’s Phoenix Holistic Centre. This is particularly the case in areas that are oestrogen-specific: stomach, breasts and buttocks.

TIP: A good first step would be to visit a GP who may order a blood test to rule out any other cause. Then he or she may suggest seeing an endocrinologist or other appropriate medical or health specialist.

If menopause is a definitive factor, to combat declining oestrogen levels your diet should be high in phytoestrogens found in soy products, linseeds, fruits, vegetables, lentils, legumes and whole grains, says Jennifer Chalmers.

“Phytoestrogens provide just enough hormones to prevent excess fat being stored without producing the stronger effects of oestrogen,” she says.

Declining muscle mass as we age is another contributing factor.

“We burn more fat when we have muscle, because our metabolic rate increases as our muscle mass increases,” Jennifer says. “The body also secretes more hormone with more muscle mass.

“So weight-bearing exercise as well as moderate aerobic activity is necessary to shape the body and improve the metabolic rate, with a minimum of 30 minutes

Bad posture
If you don’t hold your body in proper alignment (and many people don’t know how, especially in our desk-bound, computer culture), it isn’t just unattractive but can make you and your belly look bigger.

One of the reasons for poor posture is lack of strength in the core (abdominal) muscles. Pilates is a method of exercising designed to help strengthen the core and improve posture, flexibility and muscle tone.

Says Pilates instructor Annie Robin of Balance Moves, in Sydney’s Bondi Beach: “It doesn’t matter how many ab crunches you do, it won’t give you a flatter stomach if you’re not holding your body the right way.”

TIP: “One of the core muscles (the tranversus abdominus) functions as an `internal corset’,” says Annie’s fellow instructor Margot McDonald. “It attaches on one side of the lower spine and wraps around the front to attach on the other side of the lower spine. When this muscle engages by virtue of correct posture it draws the belly inwards. It’s this core muscle that is responsible for reducing the waistline and giving you a flatter stomach.”

Cortisol is one of our main stress hormones, produced by the adrenal glands.

When we experience chronic stress – reasons vary from emotional difficulties to poor diet, pain or illness, job pressure and major life changes, to name some – the body is constantly churning out cortisol.

This triggers high insulin and high blood sugar, which cause everything from increased fat storage (especially around the mid-section, aka “belly fat”) to anxiety, insomnia, poor digestion, inflammation and lowered immunity.

TIP: Stress reduction techniques are as varied as there are individual personalities and needs. Yours might be exercise, meditating, having dedicated “me” time enjoying pursuits you love, having fun with good friends, a massage or seeking professional help. The important thing is to look for something that suits you and then make the time for it on a regular basis.

Poor sleep
Magazines are known to run crazy headlines like “lose weight while you sleep”, but maybe it’s not as crazy as it sounds. Prolonged lack of quality sleep, according to scientists, can play havoc with your weight and health.

This has a lot to do with our nightly hormones, notably ghrelin and leptin, explains Dr Michael Breus, author of Beauty Sleep.

“Ghrelin is the ‘go’ hormone that tells you when to eat, and when you are sleep-deprived, you have more ghrelin,” Dr Breus says. “Leptin is the hormone that tells you to stop eating. When you are sleep deprived, you have less leptin. More ghrelin plus less leptin equals weight gain. You are eating more, plus your metabolism is slower when you are sleep-deprived,” Breus says.

Sleep deprivation usually also leads to eating and drinking more of the wrong things for “comfort” and energy boosts while neglecting exercise. This not only leads to weight gain but bloating.

TIP: “On average, we need about 7.5 hours of quality sleep per night,” says Dr Breus. “If you are getting this already, another half hour will not help you lose [5kg] but if you are a five-hour sleeper and start to sleep for seven hours a night, you will start dropping weight.”

Some things are just meant to be – they’re in your DNA. Then, as metabolism slows with age, areas of your body that are pre-destined to carry more fat than others – such as the abdomen – will get fatter. Spot reduction isn’t possible with diet and exercise. Non-surgical fat reduction procedures may be the answer. And that’s a whole new story!

Read part 1 of How to Flatten a ‘Fat’ Belly here.

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