We now know that weight loss is much more than just calories in, calories out.
While how much you eat and how much you exercise certainly impact weight, it's not the only piece of the puzzle.
In many cases, excess body fat that won't come off with a balanced diet and physical activity comes back to a root cause. Being overweight or obese might point to an underlying issue like toxicity, nutrient deficiencies, or hormonal imbalances.
The good news is that we also know far more today about hormones and weight loss than we used to and can offer tools to manage weight beyond calorie counting.
Hormones 101: How They Work, and How They Affect Weight and Health
Produced by the endocrine system — which includes the pituitary gland, thyroid gland, adrenal glands, and ovaries — lots of different hormones travel throughout your bloodstream and affect a range of physiological functions, including metabolism and mood regulation.
Throughout the day, your hormones ebb and flow. In a perfect hormonal world, a surge of cortisol wakes you up in the morning, Then in the evenings, melatonin lulls you to sleep. Around mealtimes, ghrelin signals when it's time for food. And while you're eating, leptin tells you when you've had enough. Many factors can throw hormones out of wack, including perimenopause and menopause.
Hormones are very much an orchestrated process, and they all work together. What's more, they may behave slightly differently depending on your unique biochemistry. Unfortunately, there is never an easy one size fits all solution to hormonal balance. But there are nutritional and lifestyle tips that will go a long way towards optimizing almost everyone's hormones!
First, let's meet the key players.
Hormones That Affect Your Weight
Understanding the leading hormonal players in weight loss is essential. Several hormones can significantly affect your weight, including insulin, cortisol, leptin, ghrelin, thyroid, estrogen, and GH (growth hormone).
For all your hormones to be balanced and happy, your blood sugar and insulin must be in a good place. Many people eat too infrequently and not enough, or they overeat or eat too many simple carbs. Both are stressful for the body. All forms of stress can potentially raise your blood sugar levels, or make them go up and down on a rollercoaster. If your blood sugar is chronically raised, this means your insulin is also increased. After awhile it gets worn down, potentially leading to insulin resistance.
If you find yourself constantly craving sweets, this might signify that your body is struggling with insulin resistance. Insulin resistance prevents your cells from adequately absorbing sugar from the bloodstream—leaving your cells starved for carbs.
Insulin resistance can lead to elevated cortisol levels (more on this below), and high cortisol levels can lead to insulin resistance—a vicious cycle. Insulin resistance can also increase testosterone and estrogen production, leading to PCOS (estrogen dominance) and inflammation. See what I said about hormones working synergistically?
You can think of leptin as the "stop eating" hormone. It controls long-term energy balance, and its primary role is to regulate fat storage and how many calories you eat and burn. High levels of leptin tell your brain that you have plenty of fat stored, while low levels tell your brain that fat stores are low and that you need to eat. When this leptin signaling is impaired, the message to stop eating doesn't get through to the brain, so it doesn't realize you have enough energy stored. In essence, your brain thinks it is starving, so you're driven to eat. This condition — known as leptin resistance — is now believed to be one of the main biological contributors to obesity.
Ghrelin is dubbed the "hunger hormone" and works together with leptin. Ghrelin is responsible for stimulating hunger, and it is the "go" hormone that tells you when to eat.
Sleep is a crucial factor in regulating ghrelin secretion. Sleep deprivation can increase ghrelin, making it nearly impossible to say no to food. Getting your recommended 7 to 9 hours a night of quality sleep is one more way you can reduce your caloric intake and carb-heavy cravings.
In one clinical study, when sleep was restricted for just two days, the subjects' leptin declined by 18%, their ghrelin increased by 28%, and their hunger increased by 24%. In addition, they craved high-calorie, high-carb foods.
When you're stressed, your adrenal glands produce cortisol to help your body respond appropriately. For example, a sudden boost of cortisol can be helpful in fight or flight-like situations when your body needs to act fast. But if you're under constant stress, your adrenals constantly pump out cortisol.
Stress can come from a poor diet, overeating, undereating, lack of sleep, too much exercise, too little exercise, poor immunity, exhaustion, or emotional/psychological factors, such as relationship or family stress. We are ALL stressed out about something. The key is to figure out how to manage it best we can.
Elevated cortisol can also raise your blood sugar and insulin levels. And as research shows, high cortisol levels are highly correlated with increased abdominal fat (AKA, stress belly).
To help lower cortisol levels, reduce alcohol, coffee and get your insulin levels down. In addition, consider mindfulness-based practices such as yoga, meditation, or deep breathing — all of which have been shown to lower stress levels in the body. For example, research shows regular meditation dramatically reduces cortisol levels in the blood, reducing stress and inflammation while promoting weight loss.
Estrogen, the female sex hormone, can cause weight gain, whether high in perimenopause (pre-menopause) or low during and after menopause.
High estrogen levels in the body can irritate the cells that produce insulin in your body, contributing to insulin resistance, dysregulated blood sugar, and weight gain.
The low estrogen levels common during menopause can also cause a very stubborn type of weight gain. The ovarian cells no longer produce estrogen, so the body starts looking for estrogen elsewhere. One source is fat cells. So to put things back in balance, the body begins converting all additional energy sources into fat, leading to weight gain, particularly in the lower body.
If you have lower than normal estrogen levels circulating, you might find yourself not feeling as satisfied due to estrogen's impact on leptin. This is because the presence of estrogen correlates to increased leptin concentration and, therefore, a decrease in appetite.
Having an underactive thyroid contributes to weight gain. Your thyroid is the master of your metabolism, producing T4 and T3 hormones to regulate metabolism. Thyroid disorders are often diagnosed around menopause or between 45 and 55. Many women (and doctors) pass off their thyroid issues for menopause because the symptoms are similar, and it seems like they're at the right age. However, sometimes this is an inaccurate assumption!
Wonky thyroids are very common. Getting a full thyroid panel done can give a good overall picture of your total thyroid health. Thyroid medication can be beneficial if it's warranted.
Human Growth hormone
Growth hormone (GH) has many functions, including maintaining metabolism. For example, GH made you taller as a child. It does many other things as an adult, including increased muscle mass, protein synthesis, cellular growth, and fat breakdown. When everything's in check, GH works harmoniously with the hormones cortisol and adrenaline to burn fat and build muscle. Trouble starts when hormones become unruly or your body stops making sufficient GH. Studies show impaired GH levels can increase fat, break down muscle, and decrease energy.
Tips to Balance Hormones and Weight
Some of these tips are specific to certain hormones we've discussed, but many work to balance the entire hormonal cascade. The good news is that the same diet and lifestyle strategies will naturally balance all hormones that play a role in weight management.