Both women and men reach their peak levels of most hormones in our 20’s. After that, most hormone levels decline, including estrogen and progesterone in women, and testosterone, DHEA and growth hormone in all of us.
Today we’re going to talk about the hormones for which low levels can contribute to weight gain, especially around our middles. (Next week we’ll finish up this Belly Fat Combat series with hormones for which high levels can increase our waistline.)
One of the reasons men generally have an easier time than women managing their weight is: Testosterone.
Testosterone (“T”) in both women and men promotes muscle mass, bone density, mental sharpness, and confidence. As we get older our T levels gradually decline, and along with it all these benefits.
Nowadays, men are experiencing a decline in T earlier in life. We are also seeing women going into perimenopause and menopause at younger and younger ages.
In addition to abdominal weight gain, low T has been linked to depression, osteoporosis, heart disease, and may even increase the risk for prostate cancer in men (that’s a discussion for another time!).
Testosterone levels are easy to measure on a blood test. We need to check both free (not bound to blood proteins) and total T levels. In men, a healthy total T level can be around 1000, while in women a good level can be around 100 (with big ranges for both).
Researchers from the University of Washington found that men with low testosterone were more likely to develop a potbelly and other body fat. They also showed that replacing T up to healthy levels helped achieve the loss of this excess body fat. Studies also show this benefit of T in women.
Natural ways to boost testosterone production include herbal supplements (such as tribulus terrestris), zinc, eating enough protein and lifting weights.
Decreasing stress is a must, especially for women, because most T in women is made by the adrenal glands, IF the adrenals aren’t busy making the stress hormone cortisol!
DHEA is also one of what I call “The Big 4” hormones for women. It is made by the adrenal glands in both women and men (again, in higher amounts in men). In fact, DHEA converts into some testosterone and some estrogen, and is an important source of testosterone for women.
DHEA helps us gain muscle and lose fat. It is also a major hormone involved in libido for women. And remember what I always say, when we talk about libido, we are talking about more than just sex drive – we are talking about motivation, drive, enthusiasm, passion and joy.
A 20-something year old man can have a DHEA level of up to 500. A woman the same age will have a level in the 300’s. In all of us, the level gradually declines as we get older (and falls faster if we are under stress).
The test to measure for this hormone is DHEA-sulfate. We can improve our DHEA level with an over-the-counter supplement, starting at 5 mg, up to 10 or 25 mg for women and 50 mg for men. Because it converts to some testosterone, some women might get acne or facial hair growth that resolves by stopping the supplement.
Low Growth Hormone
In kids, growth hormone causes the long bones of the arms and legs to get longer (and causes other bones to get bigger as well) until the growth plates in those bones close.
In adults, growth hormone can be called a “repair hormone”. It helps pretty much every cell in the body, helping repair tissues, build muscle and bone, and optimize metabolism.
We reach our highest levels as growing teenagers, with levels steadily declining from then on.
A 2007 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism linked abdominal weight gain in menopausal women with low levels of growth hormone (they also found an increase in markers of inflammation and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease).
We make growth hormone while we sleep. Read more on why we need enough good-quality sleep to combat belly fat.
The other major natural way to improve your growth hormone secretion is “burst” exercise. This is a variation on interval training, where the burst does not have to be more than 20 or 30 seconds, and is followed by a short rest (10 seconds, or more), repeating this cycle at least 4 times (yes! this is a short but effective workout!).
There are many apps now that can easily lead you through a burst workout ranging from 4 to 7 minutes.
Our bodies also need time to recover from exercise. More growth hormone is produced in people who vary their exercise routine. I recommend that a day with a burst aerobic session be followed by a weight-lifting day or even a rest day.
Hormone replacement therapy
I should point out that all of the hormones above can be replenished directly. We mentioned DHEA supplementation since this hormone can be found easily over-the-counter.
Testosterone and growth hormone, however, are by prescription, and often have a bad reputation due to athletes who use these hormones to gain an unfair competitive advantage.
I think eventually it will be considered unfair that mostly teenagers win gold medals (with their super high levels of growth hormone and many of the other hormones in the body). Anyway, that’s also a discussion for another time!
With proper dosing and monitoring, replenishing the hormones I’m discussing today can make a big difference in the battle of the belly bulge.