Visceral fat is excess body fat stored in the abdominal cavity. This type of fat is hazardous because it surrounds important organs such as the liver, intestines, and pancreas. It is also known as 'active fat' because it is more metabolically active than subcutaneous fat. Visceral fat produces hormones and chemicals that can cause severe harm and affect how our body functions, putting us at greater risk of diabetes and heart disease.
People who store high amounts of visceral fat have an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, heart disease, and even certain types of cancer. So, anything we can do to reduce visceral fat will undoubtedly do us good.
One important point to remember with visceral fat is that it is often hidden from plain sight because it is stored within your abdominal cavity. You could be fairly skinny and still be carrying too much 'hidden fat.'
Because it is often hidden, visceral fat is sometimes referred to as 'skinny fat.' Check to see if your hormones are to blame!
Subcutaneous or Visceral?
There are different types of fats that we store the body. Subcutaneous fat under the skin is fat that you can pinch under your arms, on your stomach, and on the tops of your legs. In contrast, visceral fat is under the stomach muscles deeper inside the body.
Importantly a "beer belly" is a combination of both visceral and subcutaneous fat. Because visceral fat is stored deep within the body, it goes unseen, enveloping our internal organs padding out the spaces between them.
Why is Visceral Fat so Dangerous?
Visceral obesity is estimated to affect over 20% of the global adult population. It is also considered the main predominant risk for metabolic syndrome, with some estimates saying that 50% of the world's population will be obese by 2030. Therefore, it is highly likely that metabolic syndrome will become (and is becoming) the most significant drain on healthcare worldwide.
Many studies show that visceral fat is far worse for your health than subcutaneous fat. Visceral fat has a higher concentration of cells, carries more blood flow and has more receptors for using up hormones. Visceral fat is also more biologically active, meaning the fat cells produce hormones via aromatase protein (which converts testosterone into estradiol), and increases cytokines that cause inflammation around the body.
To make matters worse, visceral fat often affects the portal vein, which carries blood from the intestine to the liver, this increases fatty acids in the liver, affecting blood lipid production (including cholesterol and triglycerides). Also this increases insulin resistance leading to increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
The good news is that exercise, diet changes, and hormone replacement therapy can reduce visceral obesity and have significant positive effects on your body and life expectancy.
Metabolic syndrome is a combination of a least three out of five clinical risk factors often caused by an unhealthy lifestyle. These are:
- Abdominal (visceral) obesity
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Elevated triglycerides (high 'bad' cholesterol)
- Low serum high-density lipoprotein (Low good cholesterol, HDL)
- Insulin resistance (leads to type 2 diabetes)
Visceral fat sits proudly at the top of the list of risk factors, of which all the others are often a result. Everybody stores a certain amount of visceral fat, but developing metabolic syndrome, can cause a whole host of dangerous health conditions, such as:
- Heart Disease
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Increased risk of stroke
How Can I Tell if I Have too Much Visceral Fat?
The only way to determine how much visceral fat you are storing is to have an MRI scan. However, this is an expensive procedure that is not common for this purpose. The usual method of diagnosis is to take waistline measurements; however, this is not particularly accurate. About 10% of your body fat is visceral fat so, if you are carrying too much fat overall, you are likely to have higher than safe amounts of visceral fat as well.
Women with a waistline over 35 inches and men over 40 inches are generally carrying excess visceral fat. Notably, if you're of Asian descent, visceral fat measurement drops to 31.5 inches for women and 35.5 inches for men.
Why Does the Body Store Fat Around Organs?
No one really knows why your body stores visceral fat, but apart from eating too much and not getting sufficient exercise, scientists have connected stress and the 'stress hormone' cortisol. Repeated elevation of cortisol can lead to weight gain via visceral fat storage. Cortisol can mobilize triglycerides (unused fat from what you eat) from fat storage and relocate them to visceral fat. Cortisol also aids adipocytes' development into mature fat cells stored all over the body.
How Do You Prevent Visceral Fat?
It is pretty straightforward as to why people develop subcutaneous and visceral fat. Overeating, fatty food, and a lack of movement will increase fat levels and also play havoc with hormone levels, simply making the problems even worse. If you consume more calories than you burn, your body turns these extra calories into fat, storing the calories for use later on. Your body stores excess calories as fat, both subcutaneous and visceral. Your body stores this fat within specialized fat cells called adipose tissue. More fat develops by enlarging fat cells, which are always present in the body, or by creating more of them.
So, the simple answer is to eat healthily, keep active, and not get too stressed.
- Exercise regularly: Burn those extra calories.
- Eat a healthy balanced diet: Avoid high fat and processed foods.
- Reduce stress levels: Cortisol directly increases your fat reserves.
- Reduce alcohol intake: Alcohol is full of calories and carbs; it lowers testosterone and lacks nutrients beneficial for a healthy metabolism and will, therefore, hasten fat storage.
- Don't smoke
- Get plenty of sleep: A lack of sleep increases stress and, therefore, cortisol levels.
Fat and Type 2 Diabetes
Research shows that visceral fat can cause insulin resistance and then glucose intolerance and type 2 diabetes. It is common for obese people to develop type 2 diabetes, and in fact, obese people are 80 x more likely to develop diabetes than others. People carrying high amounts of visceral fat are at risk of developing insulin resistance leading to glucose intolerance and type 2 diabetes. Visceral fat releases a protein called retinol-binding protein 4 (RBP4), which increases insulin resistance.
It is widespread for obese people to suffer from low testosterone and type 2 diabetes.
Visceral fat slows testosterone production. The more fat you develop, the less testosterone your body produces. Unfortunately, it all becomes a perpetual cycle. Low testosterone levels increase fat deposits, which slow testosterone production even further. Visceral fat cells promote the creation of an enzyme called aromatase, which converts testosterone to estradiol. The more fat you put on, the more aromatase enzyme you produce, and the more testosterone converts into estradiol.
Visceral Fat and Your Hormones
It is becoming more widely recognized that a growing belly can result from an imbalance in your hormones. The andropause is real, guys! Various complex processes are at work here, and your hormones are crucial to maintaining healthy body weight. But which hormones play a part?
- Testosterone: As discussed, overweight men often have high levels of estrogen and low levels of testosterone. Testosterone actively increases muscle mass and decreases fat deposits, in particular visceral fat. For most overweight and obese men, losing weight will help increase testosterone levels. The fact is testosterone levels decrease with aging, so the older you get, the more difficult it becomes to reduce that belly. Supplementation with testosterone is recommended for patients to achieve optimum levels, making it easier to lose weight and gain lean muscle.
- Estrogen: Estrogen is good for you and will not turn you into a woman or make you an over-emotional cry baby. Estrogen will also not make you grow man boobs! Estrogen is the result of a conversion from testosterone in the testicles, adrenal glands, and most importantly, from fat via aromatase conversion. Increased visceral fat increases the 'speed of conversion' from testosterone into estradiol (a type of estrogen) and causes a spiraling imbalance between these two hormones. Symptoms include all the typical signs of low testosterone levels including, weight gain (especially visceral fat), decreased muscle mass, low energy, decreased sexual desire, erectile dysfunction, and depression. In this situation, guys will significantly benefit from testosterone therapy, correcting the estradiol and testosterone imbalance, making it far easier to lose that stubborn visceral fat.
- Thyroid hormones: The thyroid and the hormones it produces play a pivotal role in your metabolism, including how your body breaks down fat and lowers dangerous cholesterol. Doctors often misdiagnose thyroid issues with other conditions such as low testosterone. If your thyroid isn't functioning as well as it should, you may experience similar symptoms to low testosterone, such as fatigue and weight gain. For this reason, Male Excel healthcare providers always check thyroid function and test other hormones such as testosterone. This way, we get an accurate picture (along with symptoms) of a patient's true hormone health. Our healthcare providers can then prescribe natural thyroid medication to enhance testosterone therapy for the best results.
- Cortisol: Cortisol, also known as the 'Stress Hormone,' is produced in the adrenal glands. Its principal function is to metabolize glucose, fats, and proteins to respond to physical and psychological stress. However, if you are always stressed and your cortisol levels are constantly high, it has unfortunate side effects, suppressing your immune system, causing depression, and even lowering testosterone levels. Due to symptoms caused by reduced testosterone, such as being overweight, lack of concentration at work, low body image, and poor sleep patterns, cortisol can increase, making the problem even harder to fix. Cortisol increases visceral fat by converting fat from other areas of the body into dangerous visceral fat. Although testosterone replacement therapy will not remove stress from your life, it can give you the energy and the desire to fix many of the problems causing it.
How Can BHRT Help Reduce Visceral Fat
Stress, hormones, and lifestyle factors all add to visceral fat development. Testosterone replacement therapy helps your body fight all the negative 'causes' of this dangerous type of fat. It can, along with other lifestyle changes, reduce the visceral fat stored in your abdominal cavity, reducing the risk of heart attacks, diabetes, stroke, and all the other associated risks attached to visceral fat.
Regular exercise, eating a balanced diet, and avoiding saturated fat will help delay some effects of 'aging.' However, your hormones will decrease over time, making it much harder to reverse symptoms such as visceral fat.
Male Excel recommends measuring your hormone levels before any significant symptoms of andropause symptoms develop, but it is never too late to start your journey to optimal hormone health.
Your doctor won't tell you that hormone imbalance is a huge reason for visceral fat development and a whole host of related symptoms. They will blame diet, lack of exercise, even saying it's just part of 'old age,' visceral fat is not part of old age, you can do something about it, you can take control of your life and body again with bioidentical hormone replacement therapy.
Neeland IJ, Turer AT, Ayers CR, et al. Dysfunctional Adiposity and the Risk of Prediabetes and Type 2 Diabetes in Obese Adults. JAMA. 2012;308(11):1150–1159. doi:10.1001/2012.jama.11132
Li ZZ, Lu XZ, Liu JB, Chen L.
Serum retinol-binding protein 4 levels in patients with diabetic retinopathy. J Int Med Res. 2010 Jan-Feb;38(1):95-9. DOI: 10.1177/147323001003800111. PMID: 20233518.
Rytka JM, Wueest S, Schoenle EJ, Konrad D. The portal theory supported by venous drainage-selective fat transplantation. Diabetes. 2011;60(1):56-63. doi:10.2337/db10-0697