Trait overview: Sex hormones and Visceral Fat

Friday, April 03, 2020. Author Alex Auld

Sex hormones and visceral fat

While there are different types of fat tissue stored in the body, visceral fat is the primary type linked to negative health outcomes. Visceral fat is the fat tissue that is stored behind your abdominal wall and surrounds vital internal organs – as opposed to subcutaneous fat, which you can feel beneath your skin.

One characteristic of visceral fat is that it’s metabolically active. This means it secretes:

  • Hormones which alter how we process fat and sugar.

  • Inflammatory molecules that can lead to damage of blood vessels, muscle and other tissue.

Due to these effects, high levels of visceral fat are associated with a greater risk of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Visceral fat and metabolic disease

Excessive visceral fat increases your risk of metabolic disease primarily by causing poorer sensitivity to insulin (insulin resistance). 

Although the mechanism behind this remains to be fully elucidated, one leading theory is that the inflammatory molecules produced by visceral fat, called cytokines, impair insulin signalling. This, in turn, reduces the uptake of glucose from the bloodstream. In the long term, the resulting elevated blood glucose levels may cause damage and inflammation to various tissues.

Visceral fat and cardiovascular disease

Visceral fat contains white blood cells, which also produce these inflammatory molecules (cytokines). High amounts of visceral fat therefore lead to a greater accumulation of white blood cells and an increased production of cytokines, which may cause damage to cells – known as cellular stress.

When cellular stress occurs in blood vessel walls, it makes them more susceptible to the formation of blood clots and fatty plaques, which in turn increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases including heart attacks and strokes.

Inflammatory molecules produced by white blood cells can also affect other tissues such as the liver and skeletal muscles, further worsening their sensitivity to the effects of insulin.

How do sex hormones affect the amount of visceral fat we carry?

The effects of sex hormones on fat deposition and our amount of visceral fat varies considerably between men and women.

Men

Several studies suggest that an increased amount of visceral fat is associated with low levels of testosterone relative to levels of estrogen. Under this relationship, both reduced testosterone production and/or excessive estrogen production can lead to more visceral fat tissue.

Women

In contrast to men, high levels of testosterone relative to levels of estrogen cause greater deposition of visceral fat in women. This can be either a result of increased testosterone production and/or reduced estrogen production. On this note, studies suggest that post-menopausal women are more likely to experience an accumulation of visceral fat.

How does visceral fat affect our balance of sex hormones?

Unfortunately, too much visceral fat can also further upset our balance of sex hormones, leading to more visceral fat accumulation. This is a prime example of a vicious cycle or feedback loop.

For example, in men, visceral fat contains an enzyme which converts testosterone into estrogen. Having high amounts of visceral fat therefore increases the rate of this conversion, leading to:

  1. Decreased circulating testosterone levels.

  2. Increased circulating estrogen levels.

  3. Lower ratio of testosterone to estrogen.

All three of these effects may lead to the further deposition of visceral fat, thereby further increasing the risk of metabolic and cardiovascular disease.

 

Your 'Sex hormones and visceral fat' trait

The FitnessGenes sex hormone and visceral fat trait assesses your current and long-term risk of visceral fat accumulation by analyzing:

  • Genetic variants that influence testosterone production, estrogen production and insulin resistance.

  • Lifestyle data including activity level, body type, age and whether or not you smoke.

Depending on the combination of these genetic variants and lifestyle data, you will be categorised into one of twelve trait bands (six for each gender), ranging from low riskto very high riskof visceral fat accumulation.

If our analysis indicates that you have a very high risk of visceral fat accumulation, your recommended actions may include: increasing your activity levels to reduce overall body fat percentage, controlling your daily calorie intake, and supplementing within the dietary fiber inulin.

If you are categorised as low risk, that’s no reason to be complacent! Periods of decreased activity or weight gain will cause visceral fat levels to increase.

Discover your personal trait

Discover your personal risk of visceral fat accumulation, as well as your testosterone and estrogen levels, by unlocking your genetic traits with FitnessGenes. 

Already have genetic data from providers including 23andMe or Ancestry.com? Receive same-day access to your sex hormones and visceral fat trait with the FitnessGenes DNA Upload.

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