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Are you stressing about belly-fat? Discover the stress-liver-menopause connection!

It’s the belly-fat that disturbs me. I can’t get into my jeans that I could get into a year ago” was her cry for help. “For years I was playing competitive sport but I’ve stopped that now but still try to run. I also have 2-3 wines at night, but I don’t think this affects my belly fat.”  [Lynne, Australia]

The liver is a curious organespecially as we transition menopause. Not only does it have to remove toxins overnight, but for women who have had decades of stress, including the physical stress of training and competing in sports, the liver accumulates and holds onto inflammation. When it is inflamed, it also contributes to a leaky gut. During menopause, all of this past inflammation can catch-up on you – to be frank, everything just goes ‘belly-up’.

I’ve written about our ageing liver in numerous blogs but when relatively new research arrives in my inbox, confirming how our changing liver is affected by stress, both present and past, it’s time to remind you about how your past life influences your current and future health as you transition menopause.

For a generation of women having participated in vigorous exercise and sports (myself included), when the belly fat arrives in our 50s, it’s not only confusing but also frustrating. Little did I realise how much work our liver has had to do over the years and nor do many other women who have carved their way in competitive sports, high-intensity exercise or for those of you, who have had a lot of emotional stress in your life. Just one episode of stress messes up liver biochemistry.

So, if your jeans no longer fit because your belly-fat is increasing, then this article is for you.  For those of you like Lynne, who have had nearly two decades of competing in sports and physical stress, or for those of you with a lot of psychological stress, then your liver and your gut may be ‘stressed’ … and in your menopause transition, if you are still stressing your liver, such as having too much alcohol in the evening or having a high fat diet or you have a lot of stress in your work or home life, then this increases the load on your liver which, in turn, can affect your sleep  and ability to burn your belly-fat overnight – no matter how much exercise you do. 

Stress and your Liver Health in Menopause

Inflammation in our liver can sit around for years. Especially if those years leading up to menopause, have been well, … ‘stressful’. Follow this up with the changes to our fat cells and liver during our menopause transition (Brady, 2015), this can also impact belly-fat storage around your abdomen – at the site where you want to button up your jeans. I so remember that despair and wish that at the time, I had understood the powerful connection between our ageing liver and stress (both physical and emotional).  

Psychological stress is associated with a variety of pathological conditions resulting in liver injury through multiple systems, including the sympathetic nervous and adreno-cortical system.’  [Joung, Cho et al, 2019, p. 1].

Stress (both physical and psychological) leads to the reduction in hepatic (liver) blood flow. This is important. Because every time your hepatic blood flow is reduced, then you are also messing up your gut health and of course, increasing the build-up of inflammation in your body.

Your lovely liver is part of your sympathetic nervous system axis which also includes your adrenal glands. As such, when we are feeling stressed or under-the-pump or worried, or, for those of you who do a lot of exercise and have done for years, the resulting reduction in oxygen uptake in the liver, due to reduced liver blood flow, causes inflammation – mainly in the beautiful mitochondria, which are the cells that help to burn fats to turn into energy. This inflammation places a lot of strain on ageing liver cells, (Chandel et al, 2000).

It’s something for all of us to consider if we’ve had a life well lived and are struggling with belly fat in menopause. You may well be arriving in menopause, with a tired, inflamed liver – if your blood work has shown that your liver enzymes are high (whether you drink alcohol or not) you might just relate to what I’m telling you. Especially if you are doing lots of exercise and it isn’t working to help you manage your belly-fat or you feel that you are experiencing more puffiness and bloating. Peta was the same – as a competitive triathlete and coach, she was frustrated with not being able to lose weight and have the energy she needed to train and compete. As she mentioned,

I’d lost all my mojo and drive to train. Getting out of bed was hard enough. All the reading I had done had told me that my oestrogen levels were dropping in peri-menopause, so I was stuffing myself with oestrogen products but Wendy’s programme told me I was feeding myself stuff that was making it worse – and the stress and lack of sleep and everything plus feeding myself high protein (eggs etc) sports nutrition foods, had turned my body into a cocktail of hormones.”

She kindly shares her story HERE. 

Female exercisers must remember that before, during and after exercise, the liver has a lot of work to do. Depending on the intensity and duration of the exercise, there is a lot of turn-over of glucose and lactic acid. After all, your muscles only store enough glycogen (stored glucose) to produce small amounts (up to 20 seconds) of ATP hen you start to exercise – ATP is needed for muscle contraction. To continue exercising however, your liver is continually turning over it’s stored glucose and breaking down lactic acid that is being produced by your muscles. The harder you train or exercise, the more work your liver has to do to keep supplying your muscles with energy. To achieve this, your liver is working hard. Not only to turn over the glucose needed for exercise, but to help you to recover too. 

This is why, those of us with a history of exercise involvement, must be aware that over many years, the liver is an organ that may have had considerable changes to its load and ‘stress’. This may affect the inflammation that builds up during our menopause transition – a time when our liver is shrinking and losing volume as we move into post-menopause. (Brady, 2015).

I talk to you about this in my Masterclass on Menopause – have you listened to it yet. It’s 2 hours of ‘aha’ moments for you I hope – and yes, because I’ve pre-recorded it, you can ‘pause’ me anytime. But in this, I show you how our liver changes with age – and don’t forget, menopause is the gateway to your biological ageing. You might feel young, but inside your body, your organs and tissues are changing and ageing. As such, there are some mid-life changes to make to accommodate these changes. That’s what the two different MyMT™ programmes teach you – Circuit Breaker is for you thinner women, whilst Transform Me is for those of you who want to lose your belly-fat and weight (see the video at the end of this article below).

Then of course, in a life ‘well-lived’ for many women arriving in their 50s and beyond, there is alcohol and its impact on the liver. And don’t worry, I‘m not entirely a tea-totaller myself, but when I better understood the physiology of bringing together ALL of the factors that contributed to stress and inflammation on my ageing liver, it made sense that all the evening alcohol wasn’t being metabolised in an inflamed liver and was also contributing to more hot flushes. Inflammation in the liver, reduces ALDH enzymes, which affects alcohol metabolism. But there’s also the fact that alcohol increases fat storage of oestrogens in women who are already overweight or have fatty liver.  

Alcohol aromatises into oestradiol, a form of oestrogen. In humans,  oestradiol (E2) is the predominant circulating oestrogen. If you have breast cancer, then you might know all about it already.

Oestrogens have effects in many organ systems that contribute to cardiovascular risk vs. protection, including regulation of liver lipid (fat) metabolism, (Palmisano et al, 2017). Too much oestrogen from various sources, is sometime not a good thing – especially, for those women (like me) who may already produce a lot of oestrogen naturally. Because this can be problematic with weight gain and this in itself can be problematic for our post-menopause cardiac and metabolic health. 

As women, the levels of the enzymes that stores fats into cells (lipo-protein lipases) is highest in the fat-storage cells around our abdomen and under our diaphragm. It makes sense that when the liver can’t do its job of metabolising and clearing excess oestrogens and cholesterol, then fat might accumulate around these areas. But the type of fat that sits around our belly,  breasts and under our diaphragm can lead to worsening health with age – this is the fat that I feel most cocnerned about for women as they move into post-menopause.  Our fat cells are full of oestrogen receptors, so fat cells attract circulating oestrogen and oestradiol. When excess oestrogen is stored in fat cells, this hormone may become higher in comparison to progesterone, making oestrogen the ‘dominant’ hormone. This is what is meant by the term, ‘oestrogen dominance’ – and you can read about this condition in another blog HERE.

As we move into post-menopause, the result of liver inflammation and the accumulation of belly-fat can be devastating for our heart and can lead to Type 2 diabetes. Women’s health studies are replete with these concerns in post-menopausal women. And this is what I’m passionate about you turning around. To do so, you must have a focus on liver, gut and heart health and this is what I’ve evidenced from emerging lifestyle science. So, if this sounds like you, then no matter where you are in the world, please come join me online when you can. I want you to fit back into your musch-loved jeans. 

Dr Wendy Sweet, PhD/ Member: Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine

References:

Brady C.W. (2015). Liver disease in menopause. World J Gastroenterol. 7;21(25):7613-20. 

Chandel, N. S. , McClintock, D. S. , Feliciano, C. E. , Wood, T. M. , Melendez, J. A. , Rodriguez, A. M. , & Schumacker, P. T. (2000). Reactive oxygen species generated at mitochondrial complex III stabilize hypoxia‐inducible factor‐1α during hypoxia a mechanism of O2 sensing. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 275(33), 25130–25138.

Joung JY, Cho JH, Kim YH, Choi SH, Son CG. (2019). A literature review for the mechanisms of stress-induced liver injury. Brain Behav. 9(3):e01235. doi: 10.1002/brb3.1235. Epub 2019 Feb 13. PMID: 30761781; PMCID: PMC6422711.

“If you have ever wondered if there was a clear easy plan to follow to sleep all night, reduce hot flushes and prevent or reduce your weight gain during menopause, then ‘welcome’ – you’re in the right place now.”

Discover how either of my two Menopause Transformation programmes might help you too or take my Symptoms Quiz below… 

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