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How Abdominal Belly Fat Ruins Health and the Five Steps to Recovery

Bioenergetics Circuit

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM; Carrie Lam, MD

Abdominal belly fat and your healthNot all fat is created equal. When it comes to the fat you eat and the fat you carry in your body, it pays to understand the difference between the types you’re dealing with. You may have already heard that abdominal belly fat is a more accurate indicator of heart disease risk than BMI, and you will want to know why.

A lot more research is coming out about the dangers of abdominal belly fat for other health problems too, like cancer, diabetes, fatty liver, osteoarthritis, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer’s and depression. It makes it even more important to prevent or reverse its accumulation in your body.

This is especially true if you currently have a health condition such as Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS), or any kind of dysregulation of your NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response, including issues with your metabolism and hormones.

The Different Types of Weight Gain

Being overweight is one of the most prevalent health problems in the western world. Obesity is on the rise, with 35% of the global population and 50% of Americans over 50 years of age already obese. As you’ll see, one of the reasons obesity is such a problematic state for health is that it creates a pro-inflammatory environment in the body.

There are two different kinds of adipose tissues – subcutaneous, which lies underneath the skin, and visceral, which lies between organs. Adipose tissues are tissues made up of fat cells, which hold fatty acids when there is an excess in the system. The purpose of this storage is to release these fatty acids when there is a need for more energy.

Although any kind of weight above the healthy range poses risks, abdominal belly fat, or visceral fat, carries more health risks than the subcutaneous fat that’s more evenly distributed throughout the body. But why is that?

There are several factors that link abdominal belly fat with disease risk, each one connected to the others through hormonal and metabolic functions.

Inflammation and the Secretion of Cytokines

Cytokines are signaling molecules that help cells communicate, particularly during an immune response. Visceral adipose tissues secrete a type of cytokines called adipokines, which transfer information between the cells of different organs.

To be even more specific, there are different adipokines affecting and affected by obesity:

  • Leptin is a hormone that signals when you’ve eaten enough so that you don’t keep eating. If leptin is too high or too low in the system, it creates a pro-inflammatory state.
  • Adiponectin is a hormone that helps with glucose regulation and the breaking down of fatty acids.

If leptin is out of balance, you will have issues with appetite. And if adiponectin is out of balance, you can begin to see more and more insulin resistance, which is common for those who are overweight, and which eventually turns to type 2 diabetes if not reversed.

Fatty Acid Build-Up

One of the jobs of adipose tissue is to release fatty acids when there is a need for energy. But visceral fat releases free fatty acids into areas of the body where they shouldn’t really go. First of all, you can get fatty acids going into portal circulation that then goes straight to the liver, building up fat there and increasing the risk of developing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Fatty acids released by abdominal belly fat can also go to the heart and pancreas, creating problems with blood sugar and insulin, adding to the possible insulin resistance from the dysregulation of adiponectin, as well as issues with cholesterol and blood pressure.

Abdominal Belly Fat and the NEM Stress Response

Stress and abdominal belly fatThe NEM is the body’s holistic response to stress. Its first line of defense against stress is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is part of the hormone response, with the output of this axis being the release of cortisol by the adrenal glands.

If the adrenals are under constant stress, they become overworked, which eventually leads to AFS whose symptoms include easily gaining weight and difficulty losing weight.

If this first line of defense against stress is weakened, the rest of the NEM is likely to suffer as well. And when it comes to abdominal belly fat, the main circuits that are affected are the hormone, metabolic, and inflammation responses.

The reason abdominal belly fat is more common with AFS and a dysregulated NEM stress response has to do with how cortisol is made. Cortisol is the final product of several hormone conversions. First, cholesterol is converted to pregnenolone, which is then converted into progesterone or DHEA, which can then be used to make cortisol.

This original cholesterol is stored in fat tissue until it is needed to make these other hormones. And each process of conversion needs energy. So to make this process more energy-efficient, it is easier to have all of the different components close to each other and close to the organs that are involved in the process, which are in the abdomen.

So the fat that contains the cholesterol is accumulated in that area for easy access, which does indeed create more energy efficiency, but also brings with it the health risks of central obesity.

Connecting the Dots

A worsening of AFS or the dysregulation of the NEM could lead to metabolic syndrome, whose symptoms are quite similar to AFS. This increases your risk for more serious issues like rapid aging, diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. It also adds to the weight gain and tiredness, making losing weight a more difficult task.

But don’t despair, because the road to recovery for AFS, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and many of the resulting issues is the same, and a five-step plan for you is outlined below.

Before getting started, you can get tested for inflammation, using different inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein and homocysteine levels. And you should also check your belly fat in addition to your BMI. You can actually do this yourself by measuring your waist, but it’s better to get it checked by a doctor for the sake of accuracy.

Once you know where you stand, you can plot out your strategy for recovery. But if you find that your condition is advanced or complicated, it is really advisable to get the help of an experienced professional who has a holistic approach to health.

The Five Steps to Recovery

Step #1 – Heal Your Gut

A strong gut is central to the rest of the system, and it is where you can begin to see the biggest results. If you suffer from dysbiosis, which is very common for those who eat a standard western diet high in fat and low in fiber, then that will be your focus at first.

Dysbiosis is a state of imbalance in the gut flora, and it can lead to a leaky gut, where particles enter into the bloodstream that shouldn’t be there, prompting an immune system attack and inflammation.

Sealing these leaks is how you can start to reduce this inflammation, and restoring gut flora balance will strengthen your entire gastrointestinal tract. This is done through:

  1. Stopping or decreasing consumption of inflammatory foods such as gluten, dairy, sugar, alcohol, unhealthy fats, and any foods you’re allergic to.
  2. Adding anti-inflammatory, prebiotic and probiotic foods such as fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants, high fiber foods, and fermented foods.

Step #2 – Change Your Eating Habits

Abdominal belly fat and your eating habitsAvoid yo-yo diets, which are much more likely to add pounds to your waist than help you lose them.

You should definitely cut out all kinds of sodas, including diet sodas, which have been shown to correlate to belly fat and make it more difficult to lose weight. Be careful with cutting out caffeine suddenly, especially if you have AFS, since that could lead to a crash. Gradual, gentle change is better.

If you have AFS, the adrenal fatigue diet is also anti-inflammatory and great for weight loss. And it includes a good protein-to-carb ratio, which is recommended for those wanting to lose belly fat, as well as an optimal amount of healthy fats and lots of fiber.

Healthy fats include olive oil, nuts, and avocados, which have actually been shown to help prevent visceral fat accumulation. Oats are a wonderful source of fiber and can give you the morning energy boost you need to start your day.

In general, with any dietary changes, you should take it step by step. You should also use a lot of caution with supplementation, since some otherwise helpful supplements may have the opposite reaction in a body that is in a fragile state, such as for those with AFS.

Step #3 – Reduce Stress

Stress and inflammation go hand-in-hand, and stress is the main culprit when it comes to AFS and the dysregulation of the NEM stress response. If you don’t take care of it, it will still put pressure on your adrenals and your gut’s microbiome, even if you eat healthily and exercise.

Here’s the good news: research has shown that the way you react to stress is actually the main factor in your health, not whether there is stress or not. This is great because it is inevitable that we will encounter daily stressors, but we can control how we respond. Taking your time, breathing deeply, looking at things from a more positive perspective, and enlisting proper support when you need it are all different ways of becoming the master of your own mental and emotional well-being.

Step #4 – Get Enough Sleep

If you sleep five hours or less a night, you are much more likely to have more belly fat than someone who sleeps the recommended eight hours a night. And this is even more so if your NEM is dysregulated. Some of the symptoms of adrenal fatigue include an inability to fall asleep easily, waking up in the middle of the night, and having a hard time getting up in the morning.

In order to disrupt this unhealthy pattern, you need to give yourself the best possible chance at a full night’s sleep. First of all, stop using electronic devices at least two hours before bed, or at least get a blue-light blocker installed on them.

You’ll want to keep your room cool and dark. You can also have a light, protein-rich snack before bed so that you can avoid a hypoglycemic episode during the night.

And finally, you can consider some natural herbal remedies that help with sleep, but only with the permission of your doctor so that you do not throw your hormones even more off-balance. Chamomile is one great herb to consider.

Step #5 – The Right Kind of Exercise

The right exercise to lose abdominal belly fatExercise is one of the cornerstones of good health, and it is absolutely necessary if you want to lose abdominal belly fat and keep it off. Moderate exercise four to five times a week, with a bit of cardio and a bit of strength training is recommended.

But if you are in the more advanced stages of AFS, physical exertion of any kind may actually be detrimental. In that case, you’ll want to start really slowly with adrenal breathing exercises then work your way up to adrenal yoga, and then finally, add some cardio and strength training. The trick to maintaining any kind of exercise routine is to find what works for you and what you actually enjoy.

© Copyright 2018 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam's Key Question

More than the number on the scales, research shows that abdominal belly fat is a risk factor for some of our biggest health problems. There are many reasons for this, and thankfully also ways to avoid or decrease its accumulation.

© Copyright 2001-2021 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
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