The Ultimate Guide to Cellulite: Part I What is Cellulite?

Overview of Cellulite
The term cellulite makes it sound like a medical condition, but its actually completely normal and natural, affecting 80-90% of all women.  Unfortunately, however, that doesn’t mean women aren’t embarrassed by it and spend lots of time and effort trying to smooth out their skin.  Cellulite is the dimpled appearance of subcutaneous fat; many compare it to the appearance of orange peel or cottage cheese.  It is most common on the butt, thigh and stomach area and occurs even in the fittest, skinniest people.  While it affects almost all women, very few men experience it and those that do normally suffer from hormonal disorders.

What are the dimples in Cellulite?
Your body stores subcutaneous (beneath the skin) fat in packets just underneath the skin.  When these packets enlarge they push against the connective tissue that holds it all together.  The pressure on the connective tissue forces the fat up against your skin.  As the fat compartment expands against the skin it forms a bump, the area in between these bumps then looks like a dimple.

Think about your fat compartments as a room with an elastic ceiling, the walls are the connective tissue and the ceiling is the skin, and think about your fat cells as individual balloons.  Start with a room filled snuggly with a bunch of balloons.  Now lets say the balloons are all blown up to twice their size, this will cause a ton of pressure on all the walls of the room.  Like connective tissue, the walls are sturdy and don’t budge, so the pressure forces the balloons against the ceiling.  This would result in the elastic ceiling expanding and forming a hill much like the bump you get on your skin.  This is one of the reasons why fluctuating weight and crash diets can cause such bad cellulite.

Why don’t men have this problem as often? Men’s fat tends to be stored parallel to their skin while women’s forms perpendicular.  In the perpendicular orientation, when the fat cells swell they have no choice but to put pressure on the skin, causing the hills to form. When males fat cells swell they tend to form into one large blob of fat (think beer belly) rather than the compartmentalized women’s structures. Men also have a thicker epidermis (the outer layer of skin), which makes the skin much tougher and more resilient to the structural changes happening below.  Finally, tight women’s underwear can restrict blood flow to that area which may increase cellulite development.

What factors cause Cellulite?
Lets start with the big one, hormonal factors. Estrogen may play a role in initiating the formation of cellulite – although there is no clinical evidence to support this.  Other hormones believed to be involved include insulin, adrenaline, noradrenaline, thyroid hormones and prolactin.  Part of the evidence for hormone involvement is that cellulite rarely occurs prior to puberty.  Most women begin to develop cellulite in their late teens and early twenties and for most people it gets worse with age.

There are genetic factors that put an individual at risk for cellulite, if your mother has cellulite then chances are you will also develop cellulite and most likely in the same places.  Genes associated with gender, race, metabolism rate, how you distribute fat and circulatory insufficiency all play a role. For example, researchers have identified a polymorphism in the angiotensin converting enzyme and hypoxia-inducible factor 1A genes. To put that in English, they have identified different observable characteristics in cellulite of two genes, one to do with blood vessel dilation and constriction and the other to do with the amount of oxygen in the blood.  This suggests that blood flow plays a big role in the formation of cellulite.

High stress lifestyles result in elevated levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline, two of the hormones thought to play a role in cellulite development.  Overweight or obese individuals along with those whose weight dramatically fluctuates, will have more visible cellulite simply because there is more fat to cause the bumps.  In these cases, losing weight will reduce the appearance of cellulite.  There is evidence to suggest that smokers, people who rarely exercise and those who spend much of the day sitting down, have more cellulite.  Eating too much fat, carbs, salt or not enough fiber may also result in more visible cellulite.

You can find Part II of the Ultimate Cellulite Guide here where I will talk about treatments and preventions.  As always, I hope you enjoyed this blog, please follow postcollegefitness on twitter or the RSS stream!

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