Updated: Apr 26
It is that time of year again. Sweaters and heavy coats are replaced by our less concealing spring clothes. It is time to shed the winter weight which we told ourselves we needed to stay warm through those cold winter months. We all “know what to do” but it can be a daunting task to motivate yourself to eat right and exercise after a long winter. . The reason is that many of our hormones have the power to influence our cravings and self control, energy, and our body’s tendency to store fat. This article will take you through the different hormonal imbalances that have an effect on weight gain and loss. By balancing these hormones weight loss is achievable and sustainable.
The relationship between thyroid health, your metabolism and weight has been well established. If your thyroid is functioning suboptimally weight gain, dry skin, hair loss, longer and heavier periods, and fatigue may be symptoms that you are dealing with. The thyroid is affected by many things such as stress, food sensitivities, poor nutrition, and genetic predisposition. Your thyroid function can be assessed through blood work and supported through diet, lifestyle changes and nutritional supplements. By balancing your thyroid you will improve your energy ( which will improve your ability to exercise consistently) and metabolism, which will help you to lose weight.
Insulin is a hormone made in the pancreas, whose main role it is to help glucose enter your cells. Insulin helps muscle, fat, and liver cells absorb glucose from the bloodstream, lowering blood glucose levels. But 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.
As well, a high sugar diet, genetics, obesity, and lack of exercise all contribute to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance occurs when insulin levels are high over a prolonged period of time causing the body’s own sensitivity to the hormone to be reduced. Muscle, fat, and liver cells do not respond properly to insulin and thus cannot easily absorb glucose from the bloodstream. As a result, the body needs higher levels of insulin to help glucose enter cells. Increased insulin levels can cause weight gain. We can see this in people with diabetes who take insulin for whom weight gain can be a common side effect. And many studies show that eating less carbs (a low-carb diet) leads to drastically reduced insulin and automatic weight loss (1)
Leptin is a hormone secreted by our fat cells. It’s job is to send a signal to the brain that we have enough energy stored and that we don’t need to eat. It’s main role is long-term regulation of energy balance. Regulating the amount of calories we eat and expend, and how much fat we store on our bodies. Obese people have a lot of body fat and a lot of leptin in their bloodstream. But the problem is that the leptin isn’t getting to the brain to send that signal. As with insulin the body can also develop leptin resistance where the brain doesn’t “see” the leptin. It doesn’t see that the body has stored enough fat and therefore thinks that the body is starving. When people are leptin resistant, it is the hormones that drive the increased food intake. We’re eating more because the brain doesn’t see the leptin and thinks we’re starving. Trying to exert willpower against the leptin-driven starvation signal is very difficult. Leptin resistance is seen as a leading driver of obesity. (2)
Cortisol is a stress hormone secreted by your adrenal glands. It is intricately related to your body’s “fight or flight” mechanism. It helps the body deal with stress. When you are under long term stress cortisol levels rise. When your cortisol levels remain high, your body thinks it is going through a hardship and that it may starve. It will begin to store more fat around the midsection for times of famine (a stress). High cortisol triggers high insulin and high blood sugar, all of which cause increased fat. If cortisol is too high at night it can also cause waking between the hours of 2-4am. If you’re not sleeping or getting restful sleep, the body interprets that as stress, and the vicious cycle continues:
lack of sleep is a stressor → high cortisol → high blood sugar → cravings.
Have you ever noticed how you crave sugar & carbs when you don’t sleep well?
My perimenopausal and menopausal patients often come to my office with complaints of a steady weight gain, despite making no changes in diet, or activity level. In women approaching menopause this is often accompanied with a change in cycle (missed periods, longer periods), and symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats. These are signs that estrogen levels are dropping.
Reduced estrogen → night sweats→ poor sleep → weight gain.
In perimenopause estrogen levels may actually be too high relative to your progesterone levels and may cause something called estrogen dominance which can result in toxic fat gain, water retention, and bloating as well as significant PMS symptoms. On top of these hormonal changes, after menopause, your cells store more fat and are slower to release it. Also, you have less muscle mass, so your body doesn’t burn calories as effectively as it once did.
Hormonal imbalances contribute to weight gain and for some people can make it nearly impossible to lose weight effectively and keep it off. Balancing these hormones in addition to healthy eating habits, consistent exercise (4-5 times a week!) and getting adequate sleep are the keys to successful weight loss and maintenance.
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