We now know that weight loss is much more than just calories in, calories out. While how much you eat and exercise certainly impacts weight, it's not the only puzzle piece. Being overweight or weight loss resistant can be due to many underlying issues such as toxicity, nutrient deficiencies, stress, gut microbiome, or hormonal imbalances. The good news is that we know far more about hormones and weight loss today than we used to and can offer tools to manage weight beyond calorie counting.
Hormones 101: How They Affect Weight and Health
Hormones are an orchestrated process, and they all work together. Our hormones affect various physiological functions, including metabolism and mood regulation. There's never a one size fits all solution to hormonal balance, but there are nutritional and lifestyle tips that will help optimize almost everyone's hormones!
First, let's meet the key players.
Several hormones can significantly affect your weight, including insulin, cortisol, leptin, ghrelin, thyroid, estrogen, and GH (growth hormone).
Insulin For all your hormones to be balanced and happy, your blood sugar and insulin must be in a good place. All forms of stress on the body, including eating too many refined carbs, or not getting enough sleep or exercise, can raise your blood sugar levels or make them go up and down on a rollercoaster. If your blood sugar is chronically raised, your insulin is increased. After a while, it gets worn down, potentially leading to insulin resistance, which is the precursor to pre diabetes. Insulin resistance can lead to elevated cortisol levels (more on this below 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?
Leptin Think of leptin as the "stop eating, i’m full" 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 — leptin resistance — is now believed to be one of the main biological contributors to obesity.
Ghrelin Ghrelin is dubbed the "hunger hormone" and works in tandem with leptin. Ghrelin is responsible for stimulating hunger, and the "go" hormone 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.
Cortisol When 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 when your adrenals are constantly pumping out cortisol because of constant stress vs aute stress is when we run into trouble. Stress can come from a poor diet, overeating, under eating, 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 the best we can.
Elevated cortisol can also raise your blood sugar and insulin levels. And as research shows that high cortisol levels correlate with increased abdominal fat (AKA, stress belly).
To help lower cortisol levels, reduce alcohol and coffee, and work on getting your blood sugar into a good range. 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 Natural estrogen imbalance can cause weight gain in women whether high in perimenopause or low during and after menopause. Xenoestrogens can contribute to estrogen overload in both women and men. Xenoestrogens are “foreign” estrogens, substances that are close enough in molecular structure to estrogen that they can bind to estrogen receptor sites with potentially hazardous outcomes. Sources of xenoestrogens include plastics, pesticides, chemicals, and water systems. In 2002, a new concept of "environmental obesogens" emerged, suggesting that environmental chemicals could play an active role in the etiology of obesity for both men and women. Numerous experimental, clinical and epidemiological studies suggest that exposure to environmental contaminants can disrupt endocrine and metabolic functions and contribute to the development of obesity and associated metabolic disorders
Thyroid Having an under active thyroid contributes to weight gain. The thyroid is the master of metabolism, producing T4 and T3 hormones to regulate metabolism. Hypothyroidism is becoming more and more common, especially as we age. Getting a full thyroid panel lab test 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 cortisol and adrenaline hormones 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