Not All Belly Fat Is Fat

Not all belly fat is fat. Sometimes it is bloat, sometimes constipation, sometimes water weight and, yes, sometimes belly fat is just fat. In order to properly assess what might make the belly distended, one has to understand anatomy and the way hormones work. In addition to being overweight or having metabolic syndrome — a triad of conditions including high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar and belly fat, which together increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke — a gut diagnosis must take into account whether a woman is menstruating, pre or post menopausal, how the body rids itself of toxins and what medications are in the bloodstream and stored in the tissues.

The digestive tract is a good place to begin searching for answers to a bulging belly. If gas and abdominal pain accompany your little paunch, then you simply may not have enough hydrochloric acid (HCl) produced by your stomach or digestive enzymes from the pancreas. Chronic stress trumps digestion and shuts off the switch for making digestive enzymes. If this sounds familiar then remember to take some deep relaxing breaths before you eat. Production also diminishes with age. Luckily there are supplements to replace both the acid and the enzymes.

Leaky Gut Means Inflammation

Times have changed. More and more people are becoming sensitive to gluten or wheat and have multiple food allergies. Eating food that your body cannot process causes inflammation in the gut. If you have ever injured your knee or elbow and the joint became swollen, this is what happens in your intestines. Doing an elimination diet or removing the major culprits, like gluten, will help flatten the belly out. Consider removing dairy from your diet since over 50% of the population is lactose intolerant according to the National Institute of Health.

Leaky gut is a condition where the cells lining the last part of the small intestine where absorption of food takes place separate from each other, allowing undigested food particles and microbes to cross a boundary into the deeper tissues of the body where they don’t belong. This puts your immune system on high alert and inflammation ensues along with gas and bloating.

The most common cause of leaky gut is ingesting ibuprofen and other non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory medications for several weeks in a row. There is some evidence that eating wheat and genetically modified foods also contribute to a leaky gut. This breach in the walls allows inflammation to travel to other parts of the body and can contribute to a wide range of conditions such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease and autoimmune conditions. Leaky gut is not a diagnosis taught in medical school, so it’s somewhat of a mystery in the medical community, but often chiropractors trained in applied kinesiology can help patients figure it out. As serious at this condition is, healing leaky gut takes only about 6 weeks with the proper supplements and diet.

The digestive tract is home to 100 trillion bacteria made up of 500 to 1000 species of “good” bacteria, which, when well stocked provide the perfect ecosystem for supporting the immune system in the gut. Numerous scientific studies attest to the essential importance of these micro-organisms that live in symbiosis with us. In fact, the ratio of gut flora to human cells is about 10 to 1. These cells also supply vitamins, support the cells lining the small intestine to act as a barrier, and even direct the “bad” bacteria to do its bidding for the body when the good bacteria is in control.

A few courses of pharmaceutical antibiotics, however, can tip the scales in favor of the unwanted pathogens being the captains of your bowel. For example, when yeast are not kept in check, eating any sugar, white flour or alcohol can send them out of control, as if drunk, as they expand, expand, expand like bread rising. You may find yourself sitting with your pants unbuttoned. Both prebiotics and probiotics are part of the strategy for returning your gut to normal bacterial balance.

Constipation: Enemy Number Two

While conventional medicine defines constipation as having two to three bowel movements per week, many people who eat a diet high in vegetables, fruit and fiber relieve themselves two to three times a day! Depending on the size of the colon, it can hold up to 25 pounds of feces. Those who don’t evacuate regularly might truthfully be said to be “full of it!”

Constipation can be the result of poor diet, eating foods one is allergic to or not getting enough fiber. If you have added fiber and removed potential allergens and the colon is still sluggish, you might have an undiagnosed hypothyroid condition. Find a doctor that investigates using a whole thyroid panel instead of just TSH to determine if your thyroid is sluggish. Make sure your labs include a reverse T3 test and anti-thyroid antibodies.

If you have had your gall bladder removed, bile salts, which are the body’s laxative, are limited and need to be supplemented. Make sure you drink enough water. Divide your weight in two and drink that amount of ounces of water daily.

The digestive tract is also deeply tied in to our emotions so if you are the kind of person who is a “holder on-er” or someone who is dogmatic or can’t let go, consider exploring why it is hard to let go. Add breathing techniques or stress-reducing tools to your daily routine.

Detoxifying the Liver

Although the body has several ways of detoxifying itself, the main organ of detoxification is the liver. Because we live in a world with constant exposure to external toxins from the air, water and possibly the food we eat, not to mention cosmetics, alcohol and drugs, the liver can get to a point where it is overwhelmed by toxicity. Like a drain that gets clogged so everything backs up, if the liver cannot metabolize the toxins, they have to get out of the blood stream somehow, so the body’s intelligence stores them in the back of the closet located in the fat layer above your belly button. (Think big-bellied guy in a speedo.) Cleansing programs along with using infrared saunas can slowly help toxins flush out of the system.

The liver is also the organ that breaks down steroid hormones, such as cortisol (the stress hormone), and estrogen. When the liver is sluggish, hormones will accumulate in certain tissues in the body. While excess estrogens can add weight to the hips, buttock and thighs, it can also contribute to belly fat, as can excess cortisol. Sticking to a good 21-day liver cleanse program, you will feel lighter in body and soul.

According to author Roni Caryn Rabin in the New York Times, one in ten Americans now takes an antidepressant medication; among women in their 40s and 50s, the figure is one in four. Most antidepressants are associated with gain weight, especially in the belly region. If you have to take them, make sure you eat real food and eliminate sugar. If you gain a lot of weight, speak to your doctor about identifying other options that would still give you the support you need.

Chronically high circulating cortisol, a hormone released by the adrenal gland under stress, is the major culprit of fat deposits in belly region. This visceral fat tissue responds to cortisol by further increasing its size. This can cause insulin resistance. Sitting for thirty minutes in an infrared sauna a few days a week will help to lower cortisol levels and give you a deep sense of relaxation. Taking a restorative yoga class and doing some yogic breathing will also be a wonderful outlet for reducing stress. Make an adrenal supportive smoothie using maca, a Peruvian superfood that helps the body to adapt to stress and boosts the libido too!

Balancing Estrogen Dominance

Hormones need to have checks and balances so they don’t overstimulate the body. In the body, estrogens instruct the DNA of estrogen-sensitive tissues to make more and bigger cells (this is what gives women our contours) and progesterone says, “Okay, that’s enough, stop!” Estrogen dominance is a state where there is not enough progesterone to oppose the action of estrogens. Estrogen is likened to a gas pedal in a car while progesterone acts like the brakes. If the brakes are not working, the estrogen keeps pushing the DNA to do its bidding — think cysts, tender breasts, PMS, breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

Estrogen dominance can be found both when a woman is menstruating and menopausal. Accompanying this state may be a potbelly. The best way to reduce the risk of creating a state of estrogen dominance is to eat organic and hormone-free food. Most people don’t realize that pesticides are xenoestrogens, meaning they act like estrogens in the body. Fill your plate with plenty of cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower, which aid the liver in completely metabolizing estrogens, and eat a high fiber diet so these metabolites leave the body. Luckily there are many herbal strategies for hot flashes and night sweats so that you don’t have to take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and add more estrogen to the body.

Belly fat, bloat, constipation, toxicity, estrogen dominance — does one relate to you? Follow your hunch. Educate yourself. If need be find a practitioner who can help you come up with a plan you can break up into small doable goals — not just with food, but to take time for yourself and calm your mind. Get rid of foods that don’t serve you. Ask friends for healthy recipes or buy a cleansing cookbook. Be patient. Give your protocols time to work. You will be glad you did.

Dr. Devorah Feinbloom graduated summa cum laude from New York Chiropractic College in 1983. She has created and led many holistic workshops in the Boston area and is nationally known for her four-week liver cleanse program called Nutritional Re-Boot Camp®. Dr. Feinbloom has offices in Marblehead, MA and Brookline, MA. Visit