How many times have you heard that “losing weight is a simple, straight-forward process. You just have to burn off more calories than you take in.” This is a very appealing statement, but is it really that easy? Not always. There are many factors that can cause weight loss resistance, among which are hormone imbalances. If certain hormones are not in balance, for example if your body has produced too much or not enough of some of these hormones, you could soon feel like you’re hitting your head against a wall when trying to lose weight. Hormones and weight loss problems affect women and men, but because of things like the pill, pregnancy and menopause, women have different challenges to overcome. You may feel like you have tried everything and losing weight is impossible. However, understanding how hormones can cause weight loss problems and how to get hormones working for you instead of against you can make a world of difference.
How do hormones affect weight loss?
There are many different hormones that affect weight loss in various ways.
As stated by Robert Greene, M.D., medical director of the Sher Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Sacramento:
There are at least 40 chemicals in our bodies that influence our appetite and what we eat,”
The Perfect 10 Diet, a book by Dr Michael Aziz, highlights the 10 most important hormones that affect weight loss. These are insulin, glucagon, leptin, the human growth hormone, the thyroid hormone, DHEA, estrogen, progestoren, testosterone and cortisol. Here is a brief overview of how some of these hormones affect weight loss:
Insulin and weight loss:
Insulin is secreted by the pancreas to regulate food storage and metabolism. The more sugar we consume, the more insulin we need. And I’m not talking about just straight sugar, candy, softdrinks and other such obvious sugary treats. There are also refined foods or low fat, high-carbohydrate foods that the body also deals with in the same way as sugar. If your body needs to create more insulin to store all the sugar consumed, your body will form fat molecules and you would likely gain weight, while also exposing yourself to other health risks. To help balance insulin, exercise is essential, especially the kind of physical exercises included as part of the Venus Factor system. Also crucial is limiting sugar intake and consuming foods that are high in fat, such as meats, eggs, but also whole-grain breads and seafood.
Leptin and Grehlin and Weight Loss
Leptin is what keeps your body informed about the amount of fuel (or food) coming in. If it does not detect enough, it sends messages to the brain and makes you feel hungry. If it detects too much it makes you feel full. However, with increased weight, stress and lack of sleep, a leptin resistance is formed in your body and these feelings of hunger or fullness will be much less clear.
Similar to Leptin, Ghrelin also makes you feel hungry and improves your appetite. Leptin is a long term regulator of body weight whereas Ghrelin is more of a short term “hey, I’m hungry, when do we eat?” regulator. In addition ghrelin also acts as an anti-depressant and can also calm nerves.
DHEA and Weight Loss
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a hormone with many roles, one such role is thought to be in weight. However, the role that DHEA plays in weight control is still somewhat controversial. It is definitely responsible for inhibiting the conversion of glucose into fat. It is however better known for non weight related functions like relieving fatigue and improving your overall sense of well-being;
Does progesterone cause weight gain?
It is not progesterone but a decline in progesterone which might be responsible for weight gain.
How to balance hormones naturally to lose weight
The H-Factor Diet is a great book when it comes to an easy-to-follow plan for balancing hormones and losing weight naturally. In this book, the word “diet” is in fact used as an acronym for the 4 steps to balancing hormones. Dieting in the traditional sense is not encouraged and some diets have been known to disturb hormones. The plan takes into account not just what you eat, outlining fantastic meal suggestions, but it also assesses the amount of stress you may be under (which is bound to upset your body’s hormone balance). It also provides ideas for measures to take to reduce this stress. The importance of sleep in correcting a hormone imbalance is also discussed as is the importance of exercise, in particular resistance training. If you have a hormone imbalance, it is not just about the weight loss but about becoming healthier. Your body can’t function properly if one or several hormones are missing or unbalanced.
In terms of a “what to eat to balance hormones” quick-start guide, the book offers the following:
- Eat whole grain varieties of carbohydrate foods, such as bread, pasta, rice and breakfast cereal
- Eat 2 small portions of fruit every day. Avoid, or water down juice.
- Eat 5-7 servings of vegetables each day, especially the water-rich varieties
- Aim to include legumes in meals 2-4 times a week
- Eat fish and seafood 2-3 times a week
- Cut back in animal fats, and those in fried, baked and processed foods
- Don’t cut out all fat. Include moderate amounts of plant fats and oils that are unheated, such as an avocado on a sandwhich, or olive oil on a salad
- Include small portions of nuts and seeds (especially linseeds) in your diet
The importance of exercise and resistance training is also highlighted. Glucagon is known as the exercise hormone and its main effect is to oppose the action of insulin. Glucagon helps your body use fat as an energy source and prevents fat storage, turning your body into a fat burning furnace. Regarding resistance training, studies have shown it significally increases levels of the human growth hormone (HGH). This is specifically important for women who can’t rely on testosterone, a hormone responsible for strengthening muscles and bones. HGH also slows down age related loss of muscle mass.
Hormones and weight loss in menopause
Amongst the many changes during menopause is the change in estrogen production. The kind of estrogen responsible for a woman’s curvy appearance stops being made. The only kind that remains is the kind that shifts fat from the buttocks to the belly, leading to a decrease in curves and an increase in belly fat. This fat produces more of this kind of estrogen (esterone), leading to a vicious cycle, making it very difficult to lose weight. That’s why it is important to support the production of oestrogen, including estradiol (the good kind).
So how can this be done? There are options such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT) that must be weighed up with your doctor. There is a common belief that HRT causes weight gain. However, many studies have been performed and the link between weight gain and HRT has not been found. If a woman is prone to weight gain, this may occur with or without the therapy.
Another option which is available is bioidentical hormone treatment. The Wisdom of Menopause is a book that discusses this kind of treatment in greater detail.
It has also been observed that Japanese women tend to have fewer problems during menopause. Their diets contain larger amounts of soy protein and these are rich in phytoestrogen, a naturally occurring chemical which is similar to oestrogen. Phytoestrogen is thought to help balance oestrogen, whether too high or too low. Foods like celery, chickpeas, lentils, rhubarb and linseed also contain this natural, plant-based oestrogen.
Birth Control Pills and Weight Gain
Usually some oral contraceptives contain a small amount of synthetic estrogen and progestin hormones which work to inhibit the body’s natural cyclical hormones to prevent pregnancy. These synthetic hormones do contribute to weight gain. There are of course many different types of birth control pills. Ideally, other methods of contraception are best, ones that don’t interfere with your hormones at all. However, if you would like to remain on the pills but have any concerns about the particular ingredients and how they are affecting you , a consultation with your GP is a great place to start.