By Jackie Rainford Corcoran
Explore Big Sky Health Columnist

Belly fat can make a grown man look pregnant and a woman’s favorite jeans unbearable. But more than just a vanity issue, excess belly fat is harmful to our health. It contributes to type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, some cancers, poor brain health and a low sex drive.

The No. 1 cause of belly fat is hormonal imbalance. Imagine hormones as the managers of your body. They keep your heart beating and your metabolism churning, along with countless other tasks. They conduct a beautiful and complex symphony inside of your body, without you even asking them to. It’s automatic – until we throw monkey wrenches at the orchestra.

So, what are three ways to keep hormones in balance and avoid the fat trap?

1. Eat whole foods. Processed foods like breads, chips, crackers, cheese, sweets, soft drinks, alcohol, processed meats and frozen foods spike the hormone insulin. Insulin is released in response to everything we eat but especially sugar and carbohydrates.

One of insulin’s primary jobs is to remove the excess sugar from your blood and guide it to your fat cells to be stored as fat. Therefore, insulin can be called a fat storage hormone. Constantly spiking insulin through a diet high in processed foods, soft drinks and alcohol equals belly fat.

2. Manage stress. A key stress hormone is cortisol. It mobilizes energy to prepare us for fight or flight. So stress should make us skinny, right? Well, for a few people it does (but it usually wastes muscle away while doing so).

Here’s one way cortisol can make us fat: Since it doesn’t feel good to be stressed out, we eat processed foods to make us feel better. Enter insulin again to clean up the excess blood sugar and we are in a fat trap. Become aware of stressful thoughts and triggers, and redirect your focus onto solutions rather than worry and anxiety. You’ve got this.

3. Sleep. Recent studies show that the hormones leptin and ghrelin are affected by lack of sleep. Leptin tells you you’re full, and ghrelin tells you you’re hungry. When these two hormones are out of whack, we overeat and don’t know when to stop – hello belly fat. Breathing and relaxation techniques will help you fall asleep, stay asleep or get back to sleep. Time management techniques can help you carve out the eight hours your body and mind long for.

By eating whole foods, managing stress and getting enough sleep, our hormones work for us and maintain balance brilliantly. A balanced body lets go of extra belly fat and keeps us healthy well into old age.

Jackie Rainford Corcoran is an IIN Certified Holistic Health Coach, an NASM Certified Personal Trainer, a public speaker and health activist. Contact her at jackie@thetahealth.com, or find more at thetahealth.org.