Which hormone is responsible for your fat distribution?


Contrary to popular belief, hormones play a greater role in weight control than calories do. If you are trying to lose weight, it would make sense to focus your efforts on controlling the hormone responsible for your excess weight.

Most people that decide they want to lose weight try the “eat less, exercise more” approach, and a few people get results. Many others just feel hungry and tired, not to mention frustrated.

Eating less calories than one burns might work for some, but if the diet is not sufficient in protein, vitamins and minerals, the body will reallocate its resources eating up your muscle tissue and taking minerals from your bones in addition to burning that body fat in order to keep the body functioning.

If you are hungry, your body is telling you it needs nutrients. Losing muscle mass will decrease your metabolism and make it easier to put on weight once you go off the diet.

And we also probably all know of someone who eats next to nothing yet simply does not lose any weight despite consistent effort. Controlling calories is usually not the answer. So rather than starve yourself, why not look at which hormones might be responsible for your fat pattern, and work towards controlling those hormones in particular?

There are primarily three hormones that control fat deposition, and where one carries the excess weight can be a clue as to which hormones are involved. Often more than one hormone is involved, but the description below can give a starting point.

  1. Insulin: People that tend to get fat all over – fat neck, fat ankles, fat wrists, fat back of the hand – tend to be fat due to a problem controlling insulin.
  2. Cortisol: People that tend to get fat around the trunk and belly yet have skinny legs and arms are likely to have an issue with cortisol. A distended belly without too much excess fat around the back of the ribs is more likely due to a food sensitivity. (Of course one can have a food sensitivity and have a cortisol issue at the same time.)
  3. Estrogen: People, usually women but not always, that tend to put on fat around the hips and upper legs, yet are relatively slender in the waist and upper body tend to have a problem of excess estrogen, or a problem of estrogen not being balanced adequately with progesterone.

Insulin is the easiest of the three hormones to control, but it requires strict diet change to do so. Because insulin's job is to take sugar out of the blood stream and store it as fat, the obvious way to control insulin is to stop eating foods that convert into sugar quickly, including all foods that contain sugar and flour.

Read labels and avoid foods that contain ingredients that end in "ose" like glucose, fructose, sucrose, lactose, galactose, maltose, dextrose etc., and ingredients that end in "accharides" like disaccharides or monosaccharides.

Many processed foods including frozen diet meals contain sugar, so even though they may be low in calories and fat, they will still make you fat. Avoid products that contain flour, like bread, pasta, crackers, cakes, cookies etc.

Make sure every meal and snack also contains protein and fats in order to slow the sugar into the bloodstream and to blunt the insulin response.

Doing some exercise, even simply a walk after meals can help burn off the blood sugar so it is not stored as fat. Going on a strength-training program to increase muscle mass will also improve insulin sensitivity.

If you have this fat pattern, do what you can now to alter how you eat, because you are on your way to Syndrome X and Type 2 Diabetes. If you already have Type 2 Diabetes, talk to doctor about keeping you off insulin, as injecting extra insulin may lower blood sugar, but it will just make you fatter and less healthy in the long run.

Remember that high insulin levels, whether secreted by the body or injected, not only store excess blood sugar as fat, but also increase blood pressure, increase the body's fight and flight response, and decrease thyroid function by decreasing T3 production, all of which makes one more prone to cardiovascular disease. No matter what the fat pattern, everyone can improve their health by controlling for insulin.

Cortisol is our stress hormone, and if cortisol levels remain chronically high, fat tends to be deposited around the organs, which is a particularly dangerous fat distribution pattern.

Many people that have been put on corticosteroid type drugs like prednisone, probably notice that they put on weight and can't take it off no matter how little they eat and how much they exercise.

First step would be to ask your doctor for another kind of drug, or better yet, work towards getting off all drugs by finding the causes of the problems and addressing those rather than treating the symptoms with drugs.

Cortisol is released as a response to any kind of stress, from physical stress such as pain, to nutritional stress such as too much or too little of particular nutrients, to emotional stress, so anything that can be done to eliminate causes of stress should be addressed.

Going to bed too late is an example of a stress that will increase cortisol levels, and studies show that those that tend to burn the midnight oil tend to be fatter than those that don't. Stimulants like coffee, tea and sugar also increase cortisol levels.

The type of exercise that works best for this fat pattern is lower intensity long duration exercise like walking, yoga, tai chi, and qi gong. Running and other very intense cardiovascular exercise will probably make the situation worse.

And having a coffee after your exercise session is a bad idea. Examine all aspects of your life for stress inducers and do what you can to reduce or eliminate them. Have those difficult conversations so you can move on, and learn to only concern yourself with things that you can control.

Cortisol levels should be high first thing in the morning, and should gradually diminish as the day goes on. In order to address a poor circadian cortisol rhythm, it can be very worthwhile to seek out a Functional Medicine doctor for a circadian salivary cortisol test.

Once your cortisol rhythm is known, a treatment protocol can be suggested to help you. This is a long process, so do not expect overnight results. Please note that low calorie, low fat diets are more likely to negatively impact cortisol levels rather than improve them, which might explain why some people on these diets do not lose weight.

Estrogen dominance, either from excess estrogen or estrogen unbalanced by progesterone tends to cause fat to be deposited in the hips, buttocks and upper legs, and people with this fat pattern are more sensitive to estrogen than others.

If this is your fat pattern, you need to do all you can to limit your exposure to estrogen by avoiding use of oral contraceptives, plastics which are high in xenoestrogens, soy products which are very estrogenic (soy is in many processed foods so read labels carefully), as well as meats, eggs and dairy from factory farms where hormones are used to fatten up the animals and to increase milk production. Finding non-medicated, pasture-fed meat, dairy and eggs would be a priority for this fat pattern.

Seeing a Functional Medicine Doctor to get tested for estrogen and progesterone balance might be a good idea. Sometimes bioidentical hormone creams can be helpful although they are very difficult to dose correctly which in my opinion is a problem.

It should be noted that children are particularly susceptible to estrogen which can cause severe problems later in life, so reducing exposure to endocrine disruptors that mimic estrogen is extremely important.

This post is undeniably very simplistic. As becomes obvious when the studies below are examined, all the above hormones affect the others, and most of us have more than one hormone imbalance; we are indeed complicated beings.

However working towards improving our hormone function will lead to greater weight loss as well as overall better health than going on low calorie, low fat diets which may indeed stress hormonal systems further.

If you are in the Vancouver area, my colleague Judy Chambers is doing a seminar entitled "Hormone Hell-p" June 7 from 7-8h30pm. Click here to register.

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Is going to bed too late making you fat?
Exercise, the autonomic nervous system and fat loss

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Copyright 2010 Vreni Gurd

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  1. Gina said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 9:27 pm

    No mention of thyroid?

  2. Vreni said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 9:42 pm

    As I was lying in bed last night I thought “oops, I left out the thyroid.” Of course it is highly involved in weight control. Often thyroid hormones are governed by what is going on with cortisol, so following the cortisol recommendations can help. Also, since fluoride tends to block the absorption of iodine which impacts thyroid heavily, making sure your drinking water is fluoride free (get a filter that filters fluoride out if your water contains it), and avoiding black and green tea which seem to be high in fluoride unless they are top of the line products can help.

    I might need to revise the post and add in the thyroid hormones. Thanks for keeping me honest!

  3. Faustino Marbry said,

    June 19, 2013 @ 6:24 am

    DHEA supplements are used by some people who believe they can improve sex drive, build muscle, fight the effects of aging, and improve some health conditions. But there isn’t much evidence for many of these claims. And the supplements have some risks.

    Catch ya later http://www.caramoan.c Faustino Marbry

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