Did you know that your weight is directly related to your hormones? This is a fact many of us forget as we travel along the often slow and frustrating road to weight loss. To maintain a weight that’s healthy for our unique bodily makeup, a delicate balance of hormones is required. If certain hormones are off-kilter, weight gain often results.
In order to lose weight — and keep it off — we must understand the intricate inner workings of our many hormones. Once we understand the relationship between hormones and weight gain, we can take the proper steps to balance these hormones and lose weight in a sustainable, healthy way.
Understand how insulin impacts weight
Insulin is one of the most important hormones when it comes to weight loss and weight gain. Made by the pancreas, insulin is responsible for storing blood sugar, or utilizing it, depending upon your body’s needs of the moment. After you eat a large meal, a substantial amount of insulin releases itself into the bloodstream. It also enters the bloodstream as needed throughout the day, ensuring that blood sugar levels remain stable.
Another key function of this essential hormone is fat storage. Insulin decides how much fat to store, and how much to convert for energy expenditure. Chronically high levels of insulin can lead to a condition known as insulin resistance, which is linked to an uptick in blood sugar as well as continued elevated insulin levels.
Preventing this insulin imbalance is crucial, as it leads to weight gain, and eventually type 2 diabetes. When insulin levels remain high over an extended period of time, obesity and metabolic syndrome are often the unfortunate outcome.
What you can do: Stop overeating the foods that cause insulin resistance
How do we ensure our insulin levels remain balanced? First, we need to stop eating too much. It’s a known fact that overeating leads to insulin resistance, especially when we eat too much food that’s no good for our bodies and minds. When we eat too much sugar, too much fast food, and too many processed carbohydrates, insulin goes haywire. These elevated insulin levels lead to weight gain and low-grade inflammation. A 2010 study published in the journal Diabetes found that even eating too much of these foods in the short term leads to insulin resistance and weight gain.
You may also want to restrict carbohydrates in your diet. According to a study published in the journal Nutrition and Metabolism, a low-carb diet prevents metabolic syndrome and the insulin resistance that causes it. Other findings show drinking green tea, consuming omega-3 fatty acids from fatty fish, and eating adequate amounts of protein all help balance insulin levels.
Leptin and appetite
Leptin is another hormone that’s essential to understand if we’re serious about maintaining a healthy weight. You can think of leptin as the appetite suppressant hormone. Made within your fat cells, leptin is what makes you feel satiated. It “talks” to your brain, telling it when you feel hungry or full.
When your leptin levels are balanced, you don’t overeat because you feel full after eating a well-rounded meal, and that fullness lasts for hours. Leptin is like insulin in that it hates the wrong foods. Ever notice how sweets and processed foods leave you feeling empty and wanting for more even after a short period of time? Eating trans fats and processed foods over the long term eventually leads to leptin resistance.
What you need to know about leptin resistance
When your body becomes resistant to leptin, leptin levels become too high. In fact, overweight individuals who get their leptin levels tested typically find their leptin levels to be as high as four times the normal level. What’s more, it’s really difficult to balance leptin levels once they’ve become resistant.
With leptin resistance, communication between the brain and leptin is impaired, so that your brain doesn’t understand that it’s full, and tells your body to keep eating. It’s as if your brain thinks you’re starving when in reality, you’re just leptin resistant.
To reverse leptin resistance or prevent it from happening to you in the first place, let’s talk food, drink, and supplements. Everything in your body impacted by what you put into it, and leptin’s no different. Sugar, in particular, can cause leptin levels in your body to skyrocket, so you’ll want to eat less sugar. Other ways to prevent or reduce leptin resistance include:
- Consuming an anti-inflammatory diet
- Supplementing with anti-inflammatory fish oil
- Committing to a regular exercise routine
- Getting truly restorative sleep on a regular basis
Getting to know ghrelin
You can think of ghrelin as your hunger hormone. Like leptin, it communicates with the brain — in this case, telling your brain to eat. Every time your stomach becomes empty, it naturally releases ghrelin into your bloodstream. Ghrelin levels are lowest just after you’ve finished a meal. They’re at their highest when the stomach is empty and you’re ready for your next meal. This scenario is normal when a person is healthy and maintaining optimal weight.
An overweight person, on the other hand, will find that — like the other hormones we’ve explored — ghrelin levels are typically out of whack. In healthy individuals, ghrelin levels decrease in a way that satiates them and signals their brains to stop eating. But in obese individuals, ghrelin levels don’t decrease enough after eating, which fails to send the brain the signal it needs to stop eating and feel satisfied.
How to balance ghrelin levels
If you have a sneaking suspicion your ghrelin levels are in need of some TLC, here are a couple of ways to balance them:
- Eat adequate amounts of protein. Protein helps you feel full and should be consumed with every meal. Studies show how eating protein promotes healthy ghrelin levels.
- Avoid sugar as much as possible. As you can see by now, consuming too much sugar disrupts hormonal balance, making weight loss seem an impossible feat. Be sure to read labels. If an item contains high-fructose corn syrup, don’t buy it. A 2013 study published in Nutritional Diabetes shows how high-fructose corn syrup is one of the primary culprits of imbalance when it comes to hormones and weight gain.
How does the stress hormone cortisol sabotage weight loss?
Created within the adrenal glands, cortisol is known as the stress hormone. It’s essential for survival but is produced far too often in the modern era. Whenever your body or mind perceives it’s under stress, cortisol is released into the bloodstream. The trouble is, we feel stressed out far too often these days, making our bodies produce more cortisol than is optimal.
How is this overproduction of cortisol related to weight gain? First of all, heightened cortisol is linked to overeating. Ever notice how you eat when you’re stressed? A study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that higher than normal cortisol levels were linked to overeating and weight gain. Another study links elevated cortisol levels to an increase in belly fat.
How to get cortisol under control
Tips for maintaining healthy, balanced cortisol levels include the following:
- Consider what relaxes you. Is it meditation? A walk in the park? A bubble bath? Engaging in a creative project? Find what relieves stress for you, and integrate it into your daily routine.
- Exercise regularly, and give yoga a try if it’s not already part of your workout regimen. The synchronized breathwork that accompanies a nice, flowing vinyasa routine calms the nervous system and reduces cortisol — all while giving your body and mind a thorough workout.
- Listen to your favorite music. A 2011 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that patients who listened to instrumental music during surgery had lower cortisol levels than a control group.
- Get enough sleep at night. Have you ever noticed how easily stressed and anxious you become on days when you’re sleep deprived? This happens because during a night of deep, restorative sleep, your body is working to balance all hormones, including cortisol. A study published in the peer-reviewed journal Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine explored how sleep deprivation impacted helicopter pilots on a 7-day emergency medical duty. Findings suggested it was sleep deprivation — not the act of emergency medical care — that elevated adrenaline and cortisol levels.
How does estrogen impact weight gain?
Produced within the ovaries, estrogen is responsible for optimal functioning of all female reproductive organs. Estrogen promotes the storage of fat for healthy reproductive years. When estrogen is balanced, the right amount of fat helps carry out female reproductive functions. However, when there’s too little or too much estrogen, weight gain often results.
Overweight women typically have high amounts of estrogen, as do women in the first half of pregnancy. Then there’s perimenopause and menopause, which are characterized by a notable decrease in estrogen. It’s during this time that some women opt for hormone replacement therapy to replace declining estrogen levels.
How to keep estrogen at optimal levels
To balance estrogen levels naturally and prevent the weight gain that happens with an estrogen imbalance, you’ll want to do the following:
- Commit to a regular exercise routine. Many studies, including this 2012 one, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, explain how exercise lowers estrogen levels in obese women.
- Eat your fiber. Fibrous foods help decrease elevated estrogen levels.
- Eat veggies in the cruciferous family. These include broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, and bok choy. Anything green and leafy is always a good idea, too!
- Reduce your exposure to endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with our natural hormones. Avoid plastic containers, cans, or water bottles made with BPA. Never microwave plastic.
- Choose organic foods when possible, and choose phthalate-free cosmetics and personal care products.
- Consider bioidentical hormone replacement therapy, which uses plant-based hormones identical to those produced naturally by the human body to keep hormones balanced.
Understanding more obscure hormones and weight gain
A handful of obscure hormones you’ve probably never heard of also impact weight. These include Neuropeptide Y (NPY), Glucagon-like Peptide-1 (GLP-1), Cholecystokinin (CCK,) and Peptide YY (PYY). They all play an integral role in your ability to lose or gain weight.
This hunger-stimulating hormone is made in the brain and nervous system. It influences appetite, especially for carbs. During times of stress and fasting, NPY levels increase dramatically. To maintain healthy NPY levels, make sure you’re eating plenty of protein and soluble fiber. If you have a fasting routine, don’t overdo it. Intermittent fasting is fine, but if you fast for longer periods, you could disrupt the delicate balance of NPY levels and sabotage your weight-loss goals in the process.
GLP-1 is produced in the intestines when nutrients are digested. This gut hormone supports the balance of blood sugar and helps you feel satiated. Maintain healthy GLP-1 levels by eating enough protein, probiotics, leafy green veggies, and anti-inflammatory foods.
Cholecystokinin (CCK) is a lot like GLP-1. It’s made in the gut and helps you feel full. If you’re having weight issues, you’ll want to increase CCK levels by eating heart-healthy fats, plenty of fiber, and adequate amounts of protein with each meal.
Yet another hormone found in the gut that has to do with appetite control, PYY needs to remain at relatively high levels in order to prevent overeating. Make sure you focus on a low-carb diet, with plenty of protein and fiber. This type of eating ensures the healthy balance of PYY to help prevent weight gain.
Hormones and weight gain is a tricky subject that requires patience and attention. At SmartFit Weight Loss, we can help you understand hormone imbalances and the range of treatment options available. Contact us to request an appointment today.