Do you want to lose belly fat? Belly fat is one of the worst kinds of fats because it is a biologically active fat that releases chemicals called adipokines, which lead to more fat gain and muscle loss. Belly fat is very difficult to lose because along with producing those bad chemicals, it slows your metabolism.
Men typically have more belly fat than women—think of the big “beer belly”—putting them at greater risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and the metabolic syndrome. Although beer may lead to greater belly fat gain, it is certainly not the biggest belly fat builder. Rather, high cortisol, poor insulin health, and gastrointestinal problems are greater influences on belly fat gain. Take control of these three factors and you’ll lose belly fat and be much healthier—and you’ll probably feel less stress!
Many people don’t realize that belly fat is not the fat that is right below the skin, which you can grab with your fingers. Rather, belly fat is the common term for visceral intra-abdominal fat—the fat that is deep inside the body behind your abdominal muscles and surrounding your organs. It can even get into your organs, such as your liver and heart, causing a host of bad things to happen.
Emerging research shows that one strategy for losing belly fat is to control insulin health and manage cortisol by taking a probiotic. There is a direct connection between belly fat gain, poor insulin health, and cortisol production, and probiotics have been shown to have rather amazing affects on all three. Indeed, there’s ample evidence that taking a probiotic will directly lead to belly fat loss without going on a diet. We also know that probiotics improve insulin sensitivity in diabetic and healthy individuals, and that probiotics decrease stress, lowering cortisol.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are tiny live bacteria that naturally occur in the gastrointestinal tract. Appropriate levels of these bacteria, commonly called microflora because it sounds nicer, do more than just make sure food passes through you efficiently. Probiotics directly affect nutrient absorption and they lower chronic inflammation, while supporting your body’s ability to produce neurotransmitters for the brain.
In fact, about two-thirds of your neurotransmitters are made in the gut lining, meaning that the major chemicals that are responsible for mood and brain function are produced in the gastrointestinal tract. No kidding, there’s ample evidence that cognitive function and mood will be poor if you have problems with your gut.
How Will Probiotics Help Me Lose Belly Fat?
The fascinating thing about belly fat loss with probiotics is that it starts with the brain. Here’s how it works: if you have an unhealthy gut, you will likely have more stress and anxiety, which leads to the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol. Several studies have shown that stressful events trigger cortisol and lead to the onset of chronic gastrointestinal disturbances. Stomach problems and elevated cortisol directly affect insulin health and leads to belly fat gain.
It’s well established that chronically high cortisol results in fat gain around the middle, and this is explained by how cortisol makes the body insensitive to insulin. One study in the American Journal of Physiology
looked at cortisol levels, insulin sensitivity, and visceral belly fat in men. Men with more belly fat produced more cortisol and had decreased insulin sensitivity than those with less belly fat. Interestingly, subcutaneous fat—the jiggly kind that’s right below the skin was not related to insulin or cortisol. The men who were considered overweight were then put on a high-protein diet with a probiotic
for six months and retested. They significantly lost belly fat and total body fat, improved insulin sensitivity, and lowered cortisol. Researchers suggest that less inflammation in the intestines was the source of lower cortisol and weight loss.
A 2010 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition
further explains how these factors are interrelated. Researchers found that taking the probiotic lactobacillus gasseri for twelve weeks significantly decreased belly fat in subjects by 4.6 percent, and they lost an average of 5.8 square cm of visceral fat. A control group gained 1.4 square cm of belly fat. The probiotic supplement group lost 7.4 square cm of subcutaneous fat as well. Naturally, body fat percentage, body weight, BMI decreased, and the waist-to-hip circumference in the probiotic group improved significantly more than a control group. Researchers were particularly interested in the loss of visceral fat and reduction of waist circumference because a greater percentage of visceral fat and large waist numbers are strongly correlated with metabolic disease risk factors.
Take note that simply eating yogurt with active cultures does not provide enough of the most effective microflora probiotics to induce weight loss and visceral fat reduction. In the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition
study, a fermented milk product was used that contained regular active yogurt cultures to which a specific high-powered lactobacillus strain was added. The probiotic group took this version, while a control group took the fermented milk product without any added probiotic. Despite the “naturally” occurring yogurt cultures, the control group lost no fat. Researchers also stress that although the control group’s supplement did contain calcium, conjugated linoleic acid, and amino acids—all of which are thought to be beneficial effects of dairy—they were not effective for inducing weight loss.
It’s supposed that the fat loss occurred because the probiotics inhibit lipid absorption so that fatty acids pass through the body without being metabolized. Plus, probiotics appear to speed overall metabolism, resulting in greater energy utilization. There’s also evidence that taking probiotics leads subjects to eat fewer calories, but this has only been proven in animals and still needs to be tested in humans. In the study described above, energy intake didn’t differ between the probiotic group and the control group, indicating that the weight loss wasn’t from less calorie intake.
Is There More Proof Probiotics Lower Cortisol?
There is! A new study published in the British Journal of Nutrition
showed that taking a probiotic will directly lower cortisol levels because it improves gut flora that affects the brain. Remember, neurotransmitters are produced in the gut—I know you’ve heard the term “I have a gut feeling”—and there’s a well-established link between stress, mood disorders, brain function and gastrointestinal disease.
In this new study researchers compared giving a probiotic or a placebo to a group of volunteers who reported having mild anxiety or depression. The group that received the probiotic treatment reported elevated mood, had less stress and anxiety, and showed less depression and feelings of anger. The probiotics group also significantly decreased cortisol levels, while a placebo group had no changes in cortisol or in ratings of mood, stress, or depression.
Additionally, the probiotic group reported being more focused on problem solving tasks. According to researchers, the probiotics decreased unhealthy pathogens in the gut, helping to get rid of inflammation, while improving central nervous system communication between the brain and the gut. Biomarkers of inflammation, called C-reactive proteins, were diminished, leading to less depression and better emotional response.
Is There Evidence of A Link Between Poor Gut Health and Greater Stress?
Naturally, there is. Bad gut bacteria such as Clostridium
have proven to increase anxiety and aggressive behaviors in animals. These “deleterious” bacteria led to increased social isolation, and less play in animal studies, which indicates stress that triggers an elevated cortisol response. There’s a host of evidence that elevated stress levels, both psychological and physical, lead to an increase in cortisol and the inability of the body to regulate cortisol production effectively. This results in chronically high cortisol levels that then impair the body’s ability to respond appropriately to insulin. And of course poor insulin health or insulin “insensitivity” leads to visceral belly fat gain.
We also know that giving probiotics to humans and animals can lower cortisol in normal and high stress situations. One study showed that after inducing stress from heat and giving a probiotic supplement to poultry animals, cortisol, cholesterol, and C-reactive protein markers were significantly decreased in comparison to a control group. It’s the relationship between C-reactive proteins and cholesterol, which is a product of chronic inflammation, that explains how probiotics decrease cortisol and result in belly fat loss.
How are Insulin, Cortisol, and Neurotransmitters Related?
Cortisol is released due to both psychological stresses and physiological stresses. Endurance exercise is a physiological stress that leads to increased cortisol, as is heat stress that I mentioned above. So, your body releases stress hormones after physical stress, and when you are anxious, or under mental duress as well. This is why poor gut health affects the neurotransmitters that are produced in the gut, leading to mental strain and cortisol release. But, at the same time poor gut health triggers chronic inflammation in the intestine, bumping up cortisol, hindering insulin sensitivity.
These processes are all interrelated, but as demonstrated above, we know probiotics can moderate cortisol, improve gut health, lower chronic inflammation, improve insulin sensitivity, and allow you to shed the belly fat. Humans and animals on probiotic treatment have shown greater insulin sensitivity in both healthy subjects and the overweight. For example, a study done on rats compared the effect of four diets on visceral fat loss: a standard control diet, a standard control diet with probiotics, a high-fat diet, and a high-fat diet with probiotics.
The rats on the high-fat diet gained the most visceral fat, while the rats on the standard diet with probiotic actually lost visceral fat. The rats on the high-fat diet with probiotics did gain visceral fat, but it was significantly less than those that ate a high-fat diet without probiotics. More important is that the high-fat diet group showed decreased insulin sensitivity. The probiotic helped support insulin health in the high-fat diet group, and they maintained insulin sensitivity at the same level as the two standard diet groups.
I’m Convinced! What Else Can I Do To Shed the Fat?
The most effective workout for getting rid of belly fat is to do high-intensity intervals and strength training. Authors of a research review on fat loss from exercise noted that “the effect of regular aerobic exercise on body fat is negligible” whereas research into high-intensity exercise (HIT) “indicates that it may be more effective at reducing subcutaneous and abdominal (visceral) body fat than other types of exercise.”
One study that compared the effect of high-intensity exercise (60 sprints of 8 seconds each, 12 seconds rest) with aerobic exercise (60 percent of maximal oxygen uptake for 40 minutes) found that HIT resulted in significant decreases in overall fat mass, while the aerobic exercise group had a fat gain of 0.44 kg on average. The HIT group also had a significant 9.5 percent decrease in visceral fat, whereas the aerobic group had a non-significant increase of 0.2 kg or 10.5 percent. Of related interest is that the HIT group decreased fasting insulin significantly more than the aerobic group (31 versus 9 percent).
A second study found that in men with type 2 diabetes, an eight-week program that mixed aerobic and anaerobic exercise (twice a week of 45 minutes of aerobic exercise at 75 percent of max, and once a week of 5 sprints for 2 minutes at 85 percent) had a significant 44 percent decrease in visceral fat, with a 58 percent improvement in insulin sensitivity. This is great news because it indicates that the cortisol response from the aerobic exercise didn’t mitigate the improvement in insulin health.
Best results are achieved by doing what you enjoy most—or what you dislike least—because there’s more chance you’ll stick with it. Luckily, the evidence shows that a mix of high-intensity training in the form of sprints or weight lifting and adding a probiotic to your diet will allow you to lose the belly fat. To learn more, check out this tip on the importance of avoiding fructose to lose belly fat.
Naturally, I’m a fan of probiotics because they are awesome for helping you be healthy. To learn more, please check out New Discoveries in the Science of Probiotics.
Messaoudi, M., Lalonde, R., et al. Assessment of Psychotropic-Like Properties of a Probiotic Formulation (Lactobacillus Helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175 in Rats and Human Subjects. British Journal of Nutrition
. 2011. 105, 755-764.
Andreasen, A., Larsen, N., et al. Effects of Lactobacillus Acidophilus NCFM on Insulin Sensitivity and the Systemic Inflammatory Response in Human Subjects. British Journal of Nutrition
. December 2010. 104(12), 1831-1838.