Let’s delve into hormones and break down how they affect our weight and general 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 hormone world, a surge of cortisol wakes you up in the morning, Then in the evenings, melatonin lulls you to sleep. Around mealtimes, leptin signals when it’s time for food. And while you’re eating, ghrelin tells you when you’ve had enough. Many things can make hormones go wonky, 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. So, 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!
A large number of hormones can significantly affect your weight. Here are the primary areas to concentrate on Insulin, Cortisol, Leptin, Ghrelin, Thyroid, estrogen, GH (growth hormone).
I like to think of insulin as the master hormone. For all your hormones to be balanced and happy, your blood sugar and insulin must be in a good place. Unfortunately, most 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 wildly); if your blood sugar is chronically raised, this means your insulin is going to be chronically increased. Then, after a while, it gets worn out, 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?
Ensure your meals include sufficient protein, good fats and fiber, and low glycemic carbs, ideally from vegetables. Consider adopting a lower carbohydrate eating plan, adjusting your carbohydrate intake based on your blood sugar response. Reducing high-carbohydrate foods such as refined sugars, bread, cookies, crackers, and pasta and boosting less insulin-stimulating foods rich in fiber, protein, and healthy fat can significantly impact your blood sugar and waistline. Is it calories or excess insulin that causes weight gain? Both. If you take in more calories than you need to maintain a healthy weight — given your level of activity — your cells will get more glucose than they need. Glucose that your cells don't use accumulates as fat.
It is the “stop eating” hormone you may not have heard as much about. Leptin controls long-term energy balance. 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.
One potential cause of leptin resistance is chronically elevated insulin levels.
Avoid snacking! When you are constantly eating, even in small amounts, during the day, it keeps your liver working and doesn’t give hormones a break.
Consume a large amount of protein and healthy fats first thing in the morning, as soon after waking as possible.
Avoid fructose, including fruit. The presence of high fructose alters the way leptin works, fooling the brain to ignore leptin.
Get regular, quality sleep. This step may be more important than all the rest combined.
Another way to increase your leptin sensitivity (AKA how well your cells respond to the presence of leptin) and help you feel fuller faster is by engaging in high-intensity interval training. “HIIT workouts increase your leptin sensitivity by increasing the number of leptin receptors on fat cells.
Leptins values should be between 3.3 and 18.3 ng/mL.
For more info and a specific protocol, refer to https://jackkruse.com/my-leptin-prescription/.
Ghrelin is dubbed the “hunger hormone” and works in conjunction 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 ensuring your ghrelin secretion is appropriately regulated. 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 crappy diet, overeating, undereating, lack of sleep, too much exercise, little exercise, poor immunity, exhaustion, or emotional/psychological factors, such as worrying and toxic people. We are ALL stressed out about something. The key is to figure out how to manage it better.
Elevated cortisol can also raise your blood sugar/insulin levels. And as research shows, high levels of cortisol are highly correlated with increased abdominal fat.
To help lower levels of cortisol, 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 increasing weight loss.
Estrogen, the female sex hormone, can cause weight gain, whether extremely high in perimenopause or extremely low during and after menopause.
High estrogen levels in the body can irritate the cells that produce insulin in your body, making you insulin resistant and blood sugar levels rise, leading to weight gain.
Low levels of estrogen can also cause a very stubborn type of weight gain. That often happens during menopause, The ovarian cells no longer produce estrogen, so the body starts looking for estrogen elsewhere. One source is fat cells. So in an effort to put things back in balance, the body begins converting all extra 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. See what I mean when I say hormones are just one big dance party?
If you’re experiencing hormonal belly fat and have low estrogen, flax seeds, cruciferous veggies, fiber, and fermented foods should be on your plate. Flax seeds are rich in lignans, a group of chemical compounds that functions as phytoestrogens. Cruciferous vegetables like brussels sprouts, kale, collards, broccoli, and cabbage also contain DIM (Di-Indolyl Methane), a compound that helps the body process estrogen. I also recommend fermented foods to support a subset of gut bacteria (called the estrobolome) specific to estrogen and produce an essential enzyme that helps metabolize estrogen. In addition, progesterone (which helps balance estrogen) can be increased with vitamin C from fruits/veggies and through supplementation.
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 the time of menopause or between the ages of 45 and 55. Many women (and Drs) pass off their thyroid issues for menopause because the symptoms are similar, and it seems like they're at the right age. Do not assume this. 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.
While a low-carb diet is all the rage right now, going too low carb can inhibit the conversion of T4 to T3 in the liver. Moderate carb is better for your thyroid.
Gluten-free diets have been shown to help support clinical improvements in those with thyroid disease.
Eat a couple of Brazil nuts each day to be sure you are getting adequate selenium.
Adequate iron is also required for thyroid metabolism, as are zinc and copper.
Back in the 1950s, cruciferous vegetables were discovered to be potentially goitrogenic, meaning they could suppress thyroid function in animals. This is because the raw glucosinolates (the specific phytonutrients that are cancer-protective) might inhibit the intake of iodine, which is crucial for hormone production and normal thyroid function. However, the vast majority of the research shows that the consumption of cruciferous vegetables will not exacerbate or cause thyroid issues. So, no reason to miss out on the whole host of benefits from eating cruciferous vegetables.
Vitamin D is not just a vitamin but a hormone. So if you are low on vitamin D, you do not convert free T4 to free T3 as well. Free T3 is the active thyroid hormone at the level of the cells, and many people, while they might have normal TSH and free T4 levels, will be low on T3 and have symptoms of hypothyroidism.
The population of bacteria in our bodies, primarily living in the digestive tract, is known today as the microbiome. These bacteria are essential for maintaining the intestinal barrier and modulating the immune system. When the microbiome is out of balance, intestinal permeability is more likely, which can kick off a cycle of immune activation and inflammation that can suppress the thyroid.
Again, take stress seriously.
Chronic stress also lowers the conversion of free T4 to free T3 — meaning you have less active thyroid hormone.
Growth hormone (GH) has many functions, including maintaining metabolism. For example, GH made you taller as a child. It does lots of 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 your 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.
Your body naturally makes less GH as you age. No debate. At the same time, I hate to blame everything on age, so think of it this way, when GH decreases, you grow older. I am a firm believer that you are never too old to change things around.
Action plan: Eliminate added sugar in your diet, especially if you’re insulin resistant. Focus on lean protein, healthy fats, and high-fiber foods like leafy greens, lower-glycemic carbs. Bet you knew I was going to say that. :)
Sleep more. Studies show decreased sleep crashes GH levels. That’s because while your body secretes GH every three to five hours, you make most GH in a deep sleep. So if you’re a light sleeper or otherwise don’t get that replenishing stage 3 and 4 sleep, you might not be making enough GH.
Consider modified intermittent fasting (IF). One study found a 24-hour fasting period boosted GH an average of 1,300 percent in women and almost 2,000 percent in men.
Note: IF isn’t for everyone and could create potential long-term problems. For women, IF can potentially crash your metabolism and even lead to hormonal imbalances. In other words, proceed with caution. However, you can get most of IF’s benefits without hunger or deprivation by closing your kitchen after dinner, thereby creating an approximate 12 – 14 hour window where you shift into fat-burning, GH-optimizing mode. (Don’t worry: Most of that fasting will occur while you sleep.)
Exercise has profound effects upon the GH-insulin-like growth factor. No surprise here: After sleep, exercise might be your biggest GH booster. Increasing GH demands intensity. Burst training, or high-intensity interval training (HIIT), is your GH-boosting ticket. Studies show HIIT proves incredibly effective in reducing fat, improve insulin sensitivity, and build more muscle.
Ideally, you’ll want to combine HIIT with weight resistance to optimize GH and other hormonal levels. But, again, Michelle has you covered here!
Plus, strength training increases your metabolism for 24 to 48 hours after you’re done with your workout.
Sounds like the definition of “work smarter, not harder,” right? ☝️
Women naturally start to lose muscle mass after menopause unless they take steps to reverse it. If you decrease muscle mass, you burn fewer calories at rest. Building muscle will increase your basal metabolic rate. Building muscle can help you burn more calories, which can help with weight control. Women need to use weights. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) effectively burns fat and builds muscle than low-intensity, steady-state (LISS) cardio. An easy way to incorporate strength-building exercises and cardiovascular exercises is to perform a circuit-style workout that includes both.
The influence of the intestinal microbiome on metabolism, hormone balance, neurotransmitter function, and the brain can play a significant role in weight management and treatment of obesity.
There is a link between the health of your gut microbiome and hormones. When gut health isn't optimal, hormones become imbalanced. For example, there is new research showing that the microbiome plays a significant role in estrogen regulation.
The estrobolome is a collection of bacteria in the gut capable of metabolizing and modulating the body’s circulating estrogen. Thus, the bacteria in the gut and the estrobolome affect estrogen levels, which can impact weight, libido, and mood.
While there isn’t a magic pill for gut health, there are steps you can take to maintain or restore yours.
Research suggests that you can promote a healthy gut microbiome by:
Both thyroid and insulin imbalances can contribute to weight gain, as can an excess of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as dysregulated leptin and ghrelin, the hormones that affect hunger and fullness cues.
I don’t say all this to make you depressed or feel hopeless, quite the opposite! Knowledge is power.
These things will go a long way towards optimizing all of your hormones.