I hear this often from women. “I need to lose this belly”. But, I am too stressed, not in a good place, I am busy, or a raft of other reasons.
I too, have battled with belly fat since my mid-40s and now that I’m 50, I have finally found a way to tackle it.
Let’s look at a few things surrounding your hormones. Yes, that dreaded word that some women don’t want to talk about.
As you enter menopause, your body can often begin to take on a new shape. Your hormones drop, you put on fat and start to lose muscle. I’ve seen it myself, ladies in their early to mid 40s that I know who have been doing endurance sports for over a decade yet are battling with a bulge in the front. This is the body reacting to perimenopause that occurs during the first 5 to 10 years before reaching menopause (generally between 48 and 55 years old).
Estrogen levels fluctuate and start to decline during your forties, and while your reproductive function might not be as effective during this time your metabolism also will be changing. Your body composition changes, you begin to store fat (especially around the belly) and your recovery after exercise is not as great as it was pre-40. (ooh oww in the mornings?)
Personally, I couldn’t understand why my body made such a dramatic change in my 40s and I was always a bit of a philistine when it came to female physiology. I never monitored my period frequencies, when it came it came, and when it was gone it was great. I had a hysterectomy at the age of 40 so never experienced the symptoms of menopause, or so I thought.
It was December 2016, and I was racing with an amateur ladies cycling team in Dubai. After our last race in December, I just couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t wake up in the mornings, I sweated all night and my belly grew this strange Michelin tube which was watery and blubbery. I went to see my GYN and she looked at my belly. The first thing she said was, oh, that’s estrogen.
What does that actually mean?
Well estrogen increases your insulin sensitivity, so it would need less insulin to remove sugar from your bloodstream and into your cells after eating. As we lose estrogen with the journey to menopause, we become more insulin resistant and our body pumps out more insulin which triggers more fat storage. We therefore get blood sugar surges and then big drops leaving us fatigued, and also hungry.
I trained, started core classes and training with kettlebells, yet seemed to continue to lose muscle mass. This is estrogen again, disrupting muscle synthesis making it harder to build.
The decline of production of estrogen in my body was affecting my ability to reduce fat and recover after exercise.
How do you know when your estrogen levels are diminishing?
Some women write about how they “know” their hormone levels. I am not so convinced on this and will not self-diagnose, ever. For me the only way to know exactly where your hormones are sitting is to have a specific blood test.
My blood test showed that I was no longer producing any hormones at all, which would account for the apparent adrenal fatigue and the other symptoms I have written about above. DHEA, testosterone, progesterone and estrogen – were all in deficit. I went onto a BHRT programme which proved very effective in terms of energy level increase, general outlook on life, sleep improvement and strength. Note, I have had blood tests every six months to monitor my hormone levels and make any necessary changes.
However, I could not get rid of this fat.
I tried all sorts. Meal plans at 1200 calories a day (worst idea ever), long endurance rides (wrongly advised), running long distances, but none of it worked. In fact, I just accumulated more and more fat around the middle, got a stress facture from running and plantar fasciitis. Ugh.
Desperate, I went back to my GYN with my hands in the air. I got retested and we made some adjustments to my BHRT* however the most important item in our conversation was FOOD.
She told me to stop eating grains, unless they were sprouted. It sounded like too much hassle to sprout grains and even though Ezekiel bread is made of sprouted grains I didn’t feel confident of the baking process, so I stopped eating grains all together. I joined a whole30.com programme with my CrossFit box, and in just 30 days lost almost a stone in weight, and 5 centimetres from my belly. Hello!
Why was DHEA mentioned in this conversation? The initials stand for dehydroepiandrosterone (thank heaven for acronyms). It’s one of several hormones made by the adrenal glands, which sit on the kidneys. The body converts it into estrogen, testosterone, and other less well-known hormones. DHEA also activates receptors that influence how we metabolize and store fat. It actually limits the effects of cortisol, it is responsible for slowing down aging, and improves physical performance. The key factor to note though, is that as DHEA drops your body becomes more sensitive to glucose and therefore more likely to store it as belly fat.
To remedy this, decrease your high-glycemic foods (pasta, bread, or grains in general) and increase your fruits and vegetables. Include more good fats and protein in your diet to encourage lean body mass development and loss of body fat.
Sceptic? See my photos of my work in progress, and join my 20-week Lifestyle and Weight Management programme and see the results for yourself.
Why the BUT? I say lose your “but”, because making this change was not really a hardship. I eat loads of nutritious food, reduced my alcohol intake and feel and look so much better for it.
- BHRT (bio-identical hormones) is NOT a replacement for avoiding exercise, good food and a healthy lifestyle. It is not an easy get out of jail card for avoiding weight gain and delaying aging. In my experience, it certainly helps, however it is not a substitution for eating whole foods and getting out there to exercise regularly.
Research on hormones by Dr. Stacy Sims, Author of Roar