Weight loss and your hormones. Google the cause of weight loss and you will get so many different theories that your head will be spinning. Whilst many are now saying it’s not about calories in versus calories out. Others are saying that weight gain is caused by things such as environment, stress, genetics, sleep and hormones.
What is the truth? and what is causing this epidemic of obesity and weight loss resistance?
Well, in my opinion, it is all of the above…including the calories.
This is the first part in a series about unlocking the causes of weight loss resistance. Starting with one of the big players, your hormones and how your hormones are affecting your ability to lose weight.
So what hormones affect your weight, and how can we balance these?
Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. Its role is to allow blood sugar into your cells for energy production or for energy storage. Its use is determined by what your body needs at the time. Does it need energy? if not, then the sugar gets converted into fat for safe keeping until it needs to access it.
Insulin is secreted in small amounts during the day, but it is after meals when larger amounts are released. The type of meal will determine how much insulin is secreted.
Insulin is also the main fat storage hormone in the body.
It tells fat cells to store fat and prevents stored fat from being broken down. For this reason, we need to ensure that our insulin levels are balanced and that our cells are receptive to the signals of insulin.
When insulin goes wrong…
When our blood sugar is continually high from a diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates our bodies have to produce more insulin. Over time insulin receptor sites get burnt out and are no longer receptive to the signals of insulin. The result of this is high levels of both sugar and insulin circulating in the blood. This combination puts the patient at risk of metabolic syndrome, heart disease, PCOS and diabetes.
As insulin is a fat storing hormone, the more of it that you have circulating, the more likely you are to store body fat, especially around the abdominal area.
Whilst it is disputed if insulin resistance causes weight gain, or if weight gain causes insulin resistance. We do know that when glucose doesn’t get transported into the cells we feel hungry, fatigued and begin to crave foods This action results in overeating, which is an undisputed contributor to weight gain.
How do you balance insulin levels –
- Reduce your intake of refined carbohydrates and sugars (these foods raise insulin levels and promote insulin resistance)
- Exercise (improves insulin sensitivity)
- Get enough magnesium (studies have shown a correlation between low magnesium levels and poor insulin sensitivity)
Cortisol is another hormone that I am sure you are all familiar with. It is produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. Cortisol is vital to our health, but when it becomes chronically high the trouble begins.
Cortisol is released when our body perceives stress. This is the ‘fight or flight’ scenario. It helps to pump blood to the muscles, focus our minds and get our body moving so that we can escape the stressful situation. It also slows down body functions that are perceived as non-essential during this moment of stress. This includes digestion, reproduction, sleep, fat loss and muscle building.
Once we have felt with the stressful situation, cortisol levels drop and our body functions return to normal. However, as you can imagine, when we have chronically raised cortisol levels our body will not function optimally. High cortisol levels will slow down your bodies ability to lose fat, and it will also encourage the body to burn muscle.
Raised cortisol levels contribute to abdominal weight gain due to the high amount of cortisol receptors in this region.
The stress of work or family life isn’t the only thing that raises cortisol. Strict dieting and excessive exercise is also perceived by the body as a stressful situation and will cause cortisol levels to rise.
This is one of the reasons we commonly see that when people eat a balanced whole food diet and enjoy low-intensity steady-state exercise, plus a few shorted high-intensity weight-bearing exercise sessions a week, not only have better body composition, but they report feeling a lot less stressed.
High cortisol also inhibits our sleep hormone melatonin. Adequate sleep plays a huge role in weight management, this is something I will go into detail within another blog post.
These strategies can reduce cortisol levels –
- Follow a balanced, real food-based diet. Don’t cut calories to extremely low levels.
- If you do suffer from high cortisol, it is vital that you are not restricting carbohydrates
- Stress management strategies such as meditation, yoga or reading
- Encourage better sleep habits. Turn off electronic devices 1-2 hours before bedtime
Leptin is a hormone produced by your fat cells. Leptin communicates with your brain to regulate appetite. When the body feels that it has enough fat stores, leptin tells the brain that no more storage is needed and to reduce the appetite.
Our bodies all have a natural ‘set point’ of it’s happy body fat percentage. This is the weight that your body effortlessly sits at. When we are at this point, the right amount of leptin is released to control our appetite so that we remain at this set point. We neither gain weight or lose weight.
However, it has been found that overweight people have high levels of leptin. You would think that high leptin levels would be good as your brain would tell the body to stop eating and to burn fat.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. High leptin levels are seen due to leptin resistance. Just like insulin resistance, when leptin resistance happens the brain no longer responds to the leptin signal to stop eating so they body continues to pump out more leptin to get the message across. Simply put, your brain thinks it is starving, so you’re driven to eat.
When we lose weight leptin levels can drop. This drop in leptin levels makes the appetite rev-up, one of the main reason that keeping body fat below what is healthy for you body and genetics is simply so hard to maintain.
Chronic inflammation and insulin resistance are also linked to leptin resistance. You want to aim for balanced levels of leptin and have your cells receptive to it.
So how can you improve leptin sensitivity?
- Avoid inflammatory foods: Limit foods that cause inflammation, especially sugary drinks and trans fats.
- Exercise regularly: Moderate activity can improve leptin sensitivity.
- Get adequate sleep.
- Eating breakfast within a few hours of rising has also shown to improve leptin sensitivity.
The opposite of leptin is ghrelin. Where leptin can reduce the appetite, ghrelin will increase your appetite. When your stomach is empty, it releases ghrelin which signals the brain to eat.
For some reason, overweight people seem to have high levels of ghrelin, even after eating a meal. This contributes to the vicious cycle of over eating.
Ghrelin is also released in response to stress.
To manage healthy ghrelin levels do the following –
- Sugar: Avoid high-fructose corn syrup and sugar-sweetened drinks, which can impair ghrelin response after meals.
- Protein: Eating protein at every meal, especially breakfast, can reduce ghrelin levels and promote satiety.
- Stress management
Oestrogen is a well known female reproductive hormone. Oestrogen is released during puberty and ones of its roles is to promote fat storage so that women are ‘robust’ enough to maintain a pregnancy. When oestrogen gets out of balance, either too high or too low it can contribute to weight gain.
At healthy levels, oestrogen actually supports a healthy body composition by raising the basal metabolic rate and helping to support insulin levels.
Oestrogen can become elevated from imbalances in hormone production, poor clearance from the body and from exposure to environmental sources. This usually results in excess oestrogen. Oestrogen increases the alpha-adrenergic receptors in the body. These receptors slow the release of fat. The higher your oestrogen levels, the stronger the action of the alpha-adrenergic receptors. This fat storage is generally seen in the lower half of the body, rather than in the abdomen. Who women hit menopause and oestrogen levels drop, they tend to see the accumulation of body fat around the abdomen rather than the lower body.
Tips to balance oestrogen levels
- Support the clearance of oestrogen by supporting the liver by eating lots of cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, onion and garlic.
- Eat plenty of fibre to help remove oestrogen from the body.
- Limit the amount of dietary oestrogen from both plant (flaxseed) and animal sources (dairy)
- Limit exposure to environmental oestrogen such as plastics and pesticides.
There is not just one thyroid hormone, but a concert of thyroid hormones that all need to be in balance in order to support healthy body composition. In addition to this, your thyroid hormones have to work in balance with all of your other hormones in order to make them function optimally.
Your thyroid hormones govern your metabolism. Essentially they regulate how fast or slow your body metabolises food. If your thyroid is under active then it is like your body is running in slow motion. Not only will your metabolism slow, but so will your energy and mood. If it is hard enough to get to the gym as it is, when your thyroid is slow, then finding the energy to exercise will be very hard.
To support your thyroid you need to identify where the imbalance is occurring. A functional pathology test that covers TSH, T4, T3, rT3 is a great place to start.
Other hormones that all play a role in weight management that are worthy of a mention include –
Petite YY – this is a gut hormone that controls appetite
Cholecystokinin – another hormone that controls appetite that is produced in the gut
Glucagon-like peptide-1 – this hormone is realised in the gut when nutrients enter the intestines. It has a major role in controlling stable blood sugar levels and makes you feel full.
I hope this information helps you to understand the complexities of weight loss and how it isn’t always as simple as it seems. Like all chronic health concerns, don’t guess what is wrong with you and then attempt to remedy the problem yourself. Seek out a qualified health practitioner who can guide you on your journey. The road to recovery will be smoother and you will achieve long-lasting results.