How hormones affect weight loss, and what to do about it.
When I started my self-care journey I was frustrated to find that no matter how much exercise or dieting I did, my body stayed the same. I got stronger, but remained fat!
Hormones are chemical messengers that control most bodily functions, from your basic needs, such as hunger, to the most complex reproduction systems. Hormones can affect weight loss when they are unbalanced, with the biggest culprits being cortisol, insulin, thyroid, estrogen, and testosterone.
How Cortisol Can Make Us Fat
If you are a human in modern times you probably have a stressful job, a demanding family and a never-ending list of things to do. I know I do! All of these things are fine on their own, but together and over a prolonged period of time they add up to chronic stress, which in turn results in anxiety, irritation, fatigue and in some cases even depression.
What does any of this have to do with hormones and weight gain, you ask?
Hormones have an impact on pretty much everything that makes your body function properly: your mood, digestion, energy levels, restful sleep or lack thereof, even how you respond to stress – and all of it has an impact on your ability to put on or lose weight!
Hormones control our emotions, boost or slow down the immune system, help develop and maintain other bodily systems and coordinate information exchange between them to make sure that everything is functioning to optimum capacity. Hormones are system controllers in charge of delivering the right message, to the appropriate system, at the right time in order to ensure our survival.
One of the main survival hormones is Cortisol, also known as “the stress hormone”, it’s in charge of regulating your body’s response to stressful situations by activating your fight-or-flight mode. When your body feels stress or a threat, it increases your appetite so you can store energy up, but that’s not all:
Cortisol is the Big Kahuna, the Alpha Hormone and it can even affect how other hormones work (including other main hormones such as thyroid, estrogen, and testosterone). When cortisol levels rise, blood sugar is more than likely converted into fat for long-term storage. This is due to your body sensing a ‘threat’ and trying to protect you. In this case, the easiest thing to do is to put some fat away “for a rainy day” since it senses you’ll be needing it soon as fuel.
But you don’t get attacked by a mammoth or lion and your stress levels remain the same, so instead Cortisol orders your body to keep storing fat away.
Don’t hate your body for it! Instead listen to its cry for help; storing body fat used to keep us alive when we had to wait longer between meals and there were famines to deal with. Today this excess body fat that comes from high-stress levels are telling us to stop and take a breath- because your life literally depends on it!
Since high-stress levels can also result in heart attacks, balance Cortisol levels with Serotonin!
- Chill Out! The fastest and most efficient way to send cortisol home from the front lines is to allow your body to relax and feel that the threat is over.
- Try Contemplative Practices: paint by numbers, breathing exercises, yoga, and meditation all work to relax and keep the body in a calmer state. If you have high stressors at home or at work, try to take 10 minutes between the most demanding tasks to just breathe. Alternate nostril breathing is great for short periods of time like that.
- Add fish oil, nuts, a small amount of cheese and some small amounts of red meat to your diet: serotonin, the hormone in charge of sleep, mood stabilization and even happiness, is stimulated by all of these foods.
- Drop the daily coffee fix: your accelerated pace and heightened heart rate do not tell cortisol it is time to go home.
Once you have that down, start looking at other health markers for a culprit.
Estrogen variations after turning 40
Chronic stress is an epidemic in today’s overachieving western culture, but it is not the only possible cause for stubborn body fat (especially if it is visceral fat around your abs). After turning 40 things start to change in our bodies, and as I found, menopause may not hit until you’re 50 but estrogen levels start to fluctuate at 40 or even your late 30s.
Since stress, diet and age are all factors that affect the ebb and flow of estrogen in your body, it’s good to start rethinking what you eat and bringing down cortisol levels through relaxation. We’re all going to age (if we’re lucky!) so it makes sense to try to do whatever is in your control and help mother nature as much as possible.
Estrogen can make you retain water, gain weight, get easily bloated and irritable, while also making you hungrier and more prone to snack on processed sugars because your body tries to ease that irritation with comfort food. If you have high cortisol levels due to stress and your estrogen is also affected, due to age or cortisol related issues, you are more likely to engage in anxious eating, cave to unhealthy cravings and feel almost permanently unsatisfied, all leading to more fat storage in visceral areas.
Unfortunately, there is no specific range that can be applied to all women, so the best thing to do is to check with your physician and monitor your body’s behavior along with estrogen levels, this will allow you to identify patterns that you can break if unhealthy.
Natural remedies to balance estrogen include flax seeds (just add to smoothies!), acupuncture and leveraging sexual energy.
How Leptin Makes You Hungry (and why you need to rest!)
This is a surprising one, or at least it was for me, leptin is a hormone released by fat cells. Yes, you read that right – fat!
Leptin’s primary job is to send a signal to the hypothalamus that you are full, satiated and happy. When you have too much leptin in your body, you simply become leptin resistant and this important message never makes it to its destination. In short, you feel hungry even if you ate enough because nobody told your brain “all right, we’re good here – we have everything we need”.
This not only leads to overeating but also to more fat storage, it’s a vicious cycle. Eating a high sugar diet (and it’s very easy to do that if you eat processed foods of any kind!) forces your body to transform more sugar into fat, the more fat cells in your body the more leptin is produced and ultimately the less effective said leptin is.
Even if you try to avoid candy bars and pastries, in our convenience-driven society high fructose sugar is in everything from pomodoro pasta sauce to ranch dressing. Processed foods, in general, are overflowing with multiple types of sugar and slowing down your progress!
To reduce Leptin, sleep more! Sleep deprivation has been linked to lower leptin levels, so the more zzs you catch the better! Fortunately, more sleep also helps lower cortisol levels and this positively affects estrogen!
You can also reduce leptin levels by taking an Omega 3 supplement, eating Omega 3 rich foods, quitting processed sugars as much as possible and regular exercise.
Help Insulin Help You
Insulin is the better known of these hormones because it regulates blood sugar in your body and it has a lot of work to do if you have visceral fat and continue to ingest excess sugar. This throws insulin off balance and when insulin has too much sugar to deal with, it simply stores it as fat.
Remember that sugar is not bad on its own, it’s the excess we consume nowadays. Therefore, if you have a glass of wine every night, or just four drinks on the weekend, a protein bar whose first ingredient is sucralose or indulge in processed food often – chances are you are eating too much sugar!
When things are going well, and your insulin is balanced, it tells your body to take that sugar and process it as energy! Help insulin help you by eating more protein, eating smaller portions more often (three meals and two healthy snacks) and by eliminating as much processed sugar as possible from your diet.
It seems silly, but modern medicine simply teaches us that our forefathers were right: a healthy diet with lots of dark leafy greens, beans, fruits and non-starchy vegetables, coupled with good sleep and a calm outlook on life is the secret to a long life – and to eliminate unwanted body fat!
If you’ve been struggling with your weight and feel like you’ve plateaued, then your hormones are probably to blame. Try to get a professional check-up, and if that’s not possible at least try to work on sleep and relaxation and build from there, worst case scenario you feel more rested and best case – you finally lose that excess weight!