Every woman’s body is unique when it comes to losing body fat. What works for one might not work for another.
The thing we all have in common is hormones, which influence everything from our ability to maintain muscle and lose body fat to how we experience stress and hunger.
This article is going to explain how different hormones influence the various factors related to body composition in women with a special focus on the specific stages of life.
#1: Estrogen & Progesterone
What they do: Estrogen and progesterone are the primary female sex hormones that control a woman’s cycle. Estrogen regulates mood by improving serotonin levels in the brain. It also influences other metabolic hormones such as cortisol and insulin.
Progesterone is important for a sense of equilibrium and is a natural diuretic. It affects thyroid hormone and because it acts as a precursor to cortisol, it can be influenced by large amounts of stress.
How they get out of balance: A common problem is for women to have too much estrogen compared to progesterone—a condition known as estrogen dominance. Not only does estrogen dominance lead to mood swings and irregular periods, it often leads to fat gain due to how it can trigger a cascade of changes to hormones involved in metabolic rate.
There’s some evidence that estrogen dominance, which often coincides with elevated cortisol, can increase appetite and lead to unfavorable changes in the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin. This, along with a decrease in physical activity, can lead women to experience an excess of calories, which leads to fat gain.
What happens during menopause: Nearing menopause, a woman’s ovaries stop producing estrogen and overall levels become very low. Testosterone levels are maintained, which means that the ratio between estrogen and testosterone is smaller. This imbalance along with the fact that women often lose muscle mass during this time results in a reduced sensitivity of cells to insulin, which leads to fat storage in the abdominal area (what is typically known as “belly fat”).
What it does: Insulin is a storage hormone that will first store glucose as a fuel source called “glycogen” in muscle. Once glycogen stores are full, insulin deposits any excess energy as fat.
How it gets out of balance: Anyone can experience a reduction in insulin sensitivity in response to an unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity. When this happens, insulin levels begin to rise and more and more insulin is needed to dispose of glucose in cells. Higher insulin levels are associated with fat gain and problems with appetite and dysregulation of hunger hormones.
What happens during menopause: Women appear to be most sensitive to problems with insulin as they go through menopause due to a couple of reasons:
First, they tend to become less physically active, resulting in a loss of muscle, which leads to a decrease in insulin receptors and a simultaneous decrease in sensitivity to insulin. Second, estrogen has an insulin sensitizing effect, which is one reason younger premenopausal women tend to have better metabolic health than men.
Therefore, when estrogen plummets at menopause, women lose their “metabolic protection” and need to make changes to lifestyle and diet to maintain insulin sensitivity.
What It Does: Cortisol is released from the adrenal glands in response to both physical and psychological stress in order to free energy stores to be burned. In times of stress, cortisol is vital. For example, during exercise, cortisol can be beneficial for body composition by triggering fat burning.
How it gets out of balance: When stress becomes chronic, cortisol levels will become excessively elevated, which leads to muscle loss, fat gain in the abdominal area, and suppressed immune function. Cortisol triggers food intake of high-carbohydrate foods, making it easy to overshoot your caloric needs. This combination of high cortisol and high insulin (caused by a high-carb intake) leads the body to store fat, and often trips women up, especially as they age.
What happens during menopause: Prior to menopause, women tend to be more active, have more lean tissue, and benefit from estrogen having an insulin sensitizing effect. Estrogen and progesterone also have a protective effect against cortisol, preventing it from storing fat in the abdominal area.
Although younger women may experience more daily stressors than older women whose kids are out of the house, estrogen has a somewhat protective effect against stress and high cortisol release. After menopause, women appear to become more stress reactive, suffering a greater release of cortisol to physical and psychological challenges. The combination of reduced insulin sensitivity and higher cortisol levels shifts the body into fat storing mode and triggers food intake, making it more likely you’ll overshoot your calorie needs and gain body fat.
#4: Thyroid Hormone
What it does: Thyroid hormone regulates metabolic rate by affecting enzyme activity, body temperature, and energy levels. It’s also involved in heart function and central nervous activation.
How it gets out of balance: Thyroid hormone is very sensitive to factors like calorie restriction, excessive exercise, lack of carbohydrates in the diet, and changes in other hormones in the body. For example, one reason people often plateau when losing body fat is that thyroid hormones are reduced, lowering body temperature so that the body burns fewer calories.
Thyroid hormone balance is a complicated process whereby the hypothalamus puts out Thyroid Releasing Hormone (TRH) telling the pituitary to release Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH), which stimulates the thyroid gland to release two thyroid hormones—one that is active (T3) and one that is inactive (T4). T4 can be turned into T3 by the liver when the body needs it, however, high cortisol can impair this conversion. Additionally, excessive cortisol can blunt the messages of TRH or TSH, altering your level of the active T3 hormone.
What happens during menopause: The thyroid gland has estrogen receptors, which means that too much estrogen (as in the early stages of menopause or if you have estrogen dominance) or very low estrogen (as is the case once menopause is completed) can lead to low levels of active T3 hormone.
Low T3 is linked to fat gain because it results in a decrease in metabolic rate, lower body temperature, and in some cases, sluggishness and less physical activity.
#5: Leptin & Ghrelin
What they do: Leptin is a hormone that regulates appetite, normally reducing hunger in normal weight people. It is released from fat tissue as a way of helping to regulate body fat—that is, the more body fat you have, the more leptin you’ll have and the lower your appetite will be, whereas the leaner you are, the lower leptin will be and hunger will increase.
Ghrelin is released from cells in the GI tract, having a two-fold effect on appetite by directly stimulating hunger and activating the reward center of the brain. This means that in addition to the physical hunger you experience, there is also a psychological driven, emotional hunger that motivates us to seek out pleasurable high-fat, high-carb foods.
How they get out of balance: The biggest problem with leptin is that the brain can become resistant to leptin’s message to reduce hunger. This is most common in people who have the habit of dieting, are overweight, or binge eat.
Ghrelin can become unbalanced in response to dieting or restrictive eating because enjoyment of food is key for balancing ghrelin. This is why it’s so important to embrace high-quality ingredients so that you can eat healthy meals that give you pleasure.
What happens during menopause: The reduction in estrogen that occurs with menopause appears to affect both ghrelin and leptin as well as another hunger-hormone called neuropeptide Y. The mechanism behind this is not entirely clear, but there is evidence that leptin influences the release of gonadotropin releasing hormone (GNRH), which is the hormone that ultimately leads to the release of estrogen. Because GNRH will become elevated when the ovaries decrease estrogen production, our sensitivity to leptin’s hunger reducing message is decreased.
In regards to ghrelin and neuropeptide Y, the mechanism is not yet known, but what is certain is that all of these hormones are linked and influence each other, making it necessary for us to do anything in our power to help them stay balanced.
What can you do to improve hormone balance and body composition as you enter middle age?
Here are 12 actions to take during your 30s so that once you enter middle age, you’ll have habits in place that can help you stay lean and healthy:
#1: Eat Enough Protein
The first step to designing you nutrition plan is to ensure you are eating enough protein because this will help you avoid losing lean muscle and help regulate appetite. The U.S. RDA grossly underestimates protein needs, which is likely one reason so many people are overweight. Research suggests you should shoot for 1.6 grams of protein per kg of body weight (0.73 g/lb), which for a 140 lb woman is about 100 grams a day.
#2: Eat High-Quality Protein At Every Meal
Planning meals around high-quality protein (poultry, red meat, fish, eggs, Greek yogurt) will allow you to hit your protein goal and helps manage blood sugar and keep insulin levels in check.
It’s also associated with having less belly fat in population studies, likely because the amino acids in protein are used to repair tissue instead of as an energy source as carbs or fat are. An easy rule of thumb is that one palm size serving of fish or meat is 25 grams of protein. Same goes for a cup of Greek yogurt or 4 eggs.
#3: Eat Leafy Greens & Cruciferous Veggies
Leafy greens, broccoli, and cauliflower contain compounds that help the body to metabolize excess estrogen. These foods also have anti-cancer effects and can help you detox chemicals that mimic estrogen.
#4: Avoid Refined Carbs & Junk Food
By avoiding these foods in favor of quality complex carbs (fruit, boiled grains, root veggies like sweet potatoes) at the most opportune times (such as for dinner or post-exercise), you can lower your insulin levels and help keep stress in check.
#5: Watch Out For Too Much Fruit & Other Healthy Carbs
In the mainstream, we often make the mistake of thinking of healthy carbs almost as free-for-all foods. Unless you’re doing high-volumes of intense exercise this is not a good approach because fruit, whole grains, and root vegetables still contain plenty of sugar (glucose and fructose) and calories. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy berries, an apple, or some sweet potatoes, just monitor your portions and be aware of how they can influence hormones.
#6: Eat High-Fiber Foods At Every Meal
Most Westerners are terrible about fiber, getting less than a quarter of the amount they need for optimal GI health. Aim for 35 to 45 grams per day by including high-fiber vegetables at every meal. If your having trouble reaching this goal, supplemental fiber can improve hormone balance and aid fat loss.
#7: Reduce Caffeine
Coffee can do wonders for helping you get moving in the morning, but if you’re drinking it all day long, it will elevate cortisol and may worsen your experience of stress.
#8: Drink Apple Cider Vinegar Before Meals
Vinegar has a natural insulin sensitizing effect on your cells and consuming it prior to meals that contain carbs can help reduce fat storage. If you don’t like pure vinegar, try mixing apple cider vinegar with water, or add it to a salad and eat that first thing.
#9: Strength Train
Doing weight training is your exercise mode of choice because it will help you maintain your muscle mass, while improving levels of enzymes involved in fat burning. It also keeps you mobile and active, while helping to reset the adrenal axis for better stress management.
#10: Cope With Your Stress
Even if it seems like you might be less stressed as you enter middle age, many women find it beneficial to employ habits that actively help lower stress such as deep breathing, yoga, or meditation.
#11: Avoid Nutrient Deficiencies
Low intake of nutrients can lead hormones to get out of balance. Here are a few to focus on:
Magnesium is needed for insulin sensitivity and stress management.
Vitamin D is necessary for bone health and hormone balance.
Vitamin C helps the body metabolize cortisol and synthesize hormones.
#12: Use Supplements
A few supplements that can improve female hormone balance include the following:
A supplement called DIM helps the body eliminate excess estrogens.
Adaptogens such as rhodiola rosea or holy basil can help the body through high stress times.
Finally, the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA that are found in fish oil have been shown to decrease cortisol, improve insulin sensitivity, and help the body metabolize estrogen.