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Estrogen & Fat Metabolism

By Michelle Matte ; Updated July 18, 2017

Women often complain about the effects of hormonal fluctuations, particularly as menopause sets in. Unbalanced hormone levels can send emotions willy-nilly and sap energy. Weight gain frequently occurs in the breasts and abdomen of menopausal women and appears to be unresponsive to strategies employed successfully in the past to decrease fat stores. If you haven't changed your diet or activity levels and are still gaining weight, the culprit may be estrogen.

Estrogen Depletion and Body Fat

Estrogen is the primary female reproductive hormone. When the female body stops ovulating, estrogen production diminishes dramatically. Simultaneously, levels of the male hormone androgen increase, causing a redistribution of weight to the belly, an area where men typically store fat. Because your body still requires estrogen for other metabolic functions, estrogen must be found elsewhere. Since the fat cells in your body are able to produce estrogen, the brain sends a message to preserve fat stores at all costs and convert excess calories to fat.

Estrogen's Effect on Fat Metabolism

The good news is that you still have more estrogen than a man, and that can work in your favor. In a 1990 study by Tamopolsky, of equally matched male and female athletes, females were found to derive more fuel from fat during exercise while sparing muscle glycogen, as compared to their male counterparts. Researchers concluded that higher estrogen levels in the women promoted greater recruitment of fat for fuel. So while estrogen depletion may promote fat storage, exercise at moderate to high intensity may balance things out by burning more fat. What's more, exercise builds metabolism-boosting muscle so you burn more calories throughout the day.

Influence of Nutrition on Estrogen and Fat Stores

Because the menopausal brain is predisposed to fat storage, nutrition plays an important role in circumventing the process. Processed foods, chemicals and pesticides, hormone-laden animal products and plastic derivatives from packaged foods and bottled water can all promote fat storage. On the other hand, certain plant compounds called flavonoids and indoles serve to modulate estrogen production and fat storage. Onions, garlic and cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower are high in estrogen-inhibiting compounds. So are red wine, green tea, dark chocolate, bee products, citrus fruits and omega-3 fatty acids found in flaxseed and salmon.

Hormone Replacement Therapy and Weight Gain

Menopausal women who undergo hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, tend to gain less weight overall than women who do not. One explanation is that, because estrogen levels are kept elevated during HRT, the body does not feel the need to store extra fat as an estrogen reserve. The down side is that hormone replacement therapy has been linked to a higher risk of breast cancer, although only in certain populations of women. What's more, women on HRT tend to distribute more fat on their hips and thighs.

Natural Alternatives to HRT

If you don't want to undergo the risks of hormone replacement therapy, the alternative is to make lifestyle changes that will minimize unwanted fatty weight and promote lean muscle. Nutritionally, this means avoiding processed foods, saturated fats and chemical-laden fruits, vegetables and animal products. A consistent diet of whole, natural organic food will help modulate weight gain, especially when accompanied by regular participation in vigorous exercise that builds muscle and burns fat.

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