Trouble Losing Weight? 10 Ways Hormones Can Sabotage Weight Loss & What You Can Do About It by Lacey Dunn, MS, RD, LD, CPT
Many of us have said to ourselves, “This is the year that I’m finally getting into shape.” And while “in shape” can mean different things for different people, the one common goal is to lose the pesky weight that has been lingering for way too long.
Whether you’ve just started your weight loss journey or have been ramping up the cardio for quite some time, there’s no denying that it just isn’t as easy as it used to be. The cause? It could be your hormones.
The Relationship Between Weight Loss and Hormones
Hormonal weight gain can happen at any age. When we think of hormones we mainly correlate it to our menstrual cycle, PMS or menopause. While it’s true that paying attention to your cycle is extremely important, did you know there are specific fat-burning hormones that can wreak havoc in your system if they are not balanced?
Yes, there’s an important connection between balancing your hormones and your metabolism. Let’s explore the 10 ways hormonal imbalances can cause weight gain and what you can do about it:
1. You’re Insulin Resistant
Insulin is one of the key hormones whose job is to lower your blood sugar levels and to store fat. Insulin resistance simply means that our bodies have slowly stopped responding to insulin and glucose is not being processed as it needs to be. Calories get stored as fat. The main symptoms of insulin resistance are sugar addiction, excessive hunger and fatigue.
What you can do: Talk to your doctor about getting glucose and hemoglobin testing. Depending on the results, you may need to make dietary changes, start exercising more and incorporate supplements or medication to balance out your sugars. Thinking about a diet rich in vegetables and protein should be the first step.
2. You Have an Underactive Thyroid
Your thyroid hormone regulates your metabolism and helps the body break down fat. If your thyroid makes less hormones than it should, your ability to burn calories easily despite diet and exercise will slow down. If you’re having trouble losing weight, feel fatigued, have muscle and joint pain along with heavy menstrual periods, you may be suffering from an underactive thyroid referred to as hypothyroidism or an autoimmune thyroid condition called Hashimoto’s.
What you can do: A functional medicine practitioner can run a full thyroid panel as we cannot rely on the standard TSH testing alone. It’s especially important that you work with a thyroid practitioner who can help you find the root cause of your symptoms and come up with a treatment plan to help you start feeling better and shed off the weight.
3. Your Cortisol Is High
Cortisol, made by the adrenal glands on top of your kidneys, is your fight or flight hormone. It’s released every time you are under stress. The more stress the body experiences, the more cortisol is produced. Chronic stress is your No. 1 enemy! Whenever your cortisol increases, so does your appetite. That is when we reach for the salty and sugary snacks without realizing how often we are doing it.
What you can do: Work with an endocrinologist or functional medicine dietitian to check your hormone and cortisol levels via saliva or urine testing. Focus on getting adequate sleep and regular exercise. If you’ve been contemplating getting a new pet, now is the time to do so as this increases your oxytocin (feel good hormone) levels.
4. Your Estrogen Levels Are Off
Estrogen levels need to be optimal in order to maintain a healthy metabolism. High levels of estrogen can cause blood sugar levels to rise and create insulin resistance, while reduced levels of estrogen can lower metabolic rate and make your body process starches less effectively. Women of all ages can experience an estrogen imbalance due to thyroid issues, over exercising or autoimmune conditions.
What you can do: Get a comprehensive hormone test for an accurate diagnosis, especially if you are also dealing with terrible mood swings, anxiety, joint pain and headaches among other things. Figure out ways to reduce your stress, eat balanced meals every three to four hours and reduce your sugar intake.
5. You Have Low Progesterone
Progesterone is a sex hormone that is produced in the ovaries. It prepares the body for pregnancy and usually peaks during our luteal phase (after ovulation). When there’s not enough progesterone to balance out the estrogen, you will retain more fat cells. Think of progesterone as a natural way to counteract the effects of estrogen. If both are not working simultaneously, your body weight will go haywire.
What you can do: Work with your doctor to accurately measure your progesterone levels as this test should be carefully timed with your cycle. Eat a diet high in protein and talk to your practitioner about supplements and vitamins that can help balance out your hormones.
6. You Have Low Testosterone
All humans have testosterone, but women produce them in smaller amounts than men. As we naturally age, the amount of testosterone decreases due to stress, poor eating habits and hormonal life changes such as menopause or a hysterectomy. If you’re noticing that you have excess fat, especially in your midsection, along with decreased libido and reduced strength, consider investigating further into this important hormone and get tested.
What you can do: Along with testing, start doing some resistance training to increase muscle mass and look into taking natural herbs after consulting with your practitioner.
7. Your Ghrelin Function Is High
You’re probably asking yourself “My what?!” Ghrelin, referred to as the “hunger hormone,” is the primary hormone that stimulates short-term appetite and stores fat. It is also what signals your stomach to stop eating. To better understand, ghrelin levels are high before you eat and low right after your meal. If you’ve been reducing too many calories, your body can go into starvation mode and cause higher ghrelin.
What you can do: Limit your intake of processed carbs like pizza, french fries and brownies and make sure you eat healthy protein and fiber with every meal. Avoid crash dieting and increase your water intake. Finding an exercise program that you enjoy will also help to reduce stress and keep your hormones at bay.
8. You Have Leptin Resistance
Leptin is the “body fat thermostat” produced by fat cells. It is what tells the hypothalamus that we have enough fat, that we can stop eating and to start burning calories. Think of it as an appetite suppressant, while ghrelin, as discussed above, is the opposite. For weight loss, the more leptin you have, the better. But just as there is insulin resistance, there is also leptin resistance. While your body has had enough fat and you are physically getting full, it has stopped listening to the signals.
What you can do: How to increase leptin? Ask yourself if you are always hungry despite eating a full meal. If you have weight-loss resistance due to low leptin, eat more polyphenols, which can be found in apples, almonds, carrots and tea. Also, limit your sugar intake and get adequate exercise.
9. You Have Low Levels of Melatonin
Melatonin is typically made while we sleep. If your sleep patterns are off or you are not getting adequate amounts, the body doesn’t produce enough of melatonin. Since melatonin has been found to speed up metabolism, not getting enough of this natural hormone will lead to increased weight gain that will be difficult to lose.
What you can do: Because melatonin is only produced in the dark, try to minimize exposure to light right before going to bed by turning off your television and putting your phone down. During the day, get more sunlight to regulate your circadian rhythm – this allows you to feel tired when it’s nighttime and awake during daylight.
10. You’re Not Getting Enough Serotonin
Serotonin is the happy hormone that regulates your mood and appetite. When there is a serotonin deficiency, your brain does not process that your body is full. It also causes a hunger for starches and sugary foods that can lead to weight gain. Additionally, when you lack serotonin you may feel depressed, anxiety-driven and fatigued.
What you can do: Get adequate amounts of vitamin D through supplementation and sunshine! Walks in the park along with a diet rich in omega 3 fats, zinc and magnesium can help lower inflammation and boost brain health. Take on activities that make you smile and surround yourself with loved ones as much as you can.
How to Fix Hormonal Imbalances
As you can see, hormones and weight loss go hand in hand. It is extremely important to pay close attention to your body and the hormones that you produce by logging your menstrual cycle, documenting your symptoms and talking to your practitioner.
Proper testing and nutrition and reducing stress will be the most important factors in managing your hormonal imbalance. Along with these three things and the solutions mentioned above, here are some additional steps you can take to keep your hormones in optimal range:
- Eat a variety of colorful veggies, lean proteins and fiber.
- Cook with whole grains and complex carbs.
- Eliminate alcohol or drink in moderation.
- Have a goal of seven to nine hours of adequate sleep per night. Naps count, too!
- Pay attention to your stress triggers and work on eliminating them.
- Surround yourself with positive people and laugh often.
- Try yoga and meditation or find a relaxation technique that works for you.
- Limit your exposure to plastics and switch to glass whenever possible.
- Use natural household cleaners and be more aware of the products you use on your body as they can contain hormone-disrupting chemicals.
- Avoid fad diets that promote low calorie intakes and excessive exercise.
- Don’t overeat.
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