When it comes to hormones and weight loss, it’s a bit like the chicken and the egg dilemma. Did hormonal imbalance cause weight gain? Or did diet and lifestyle choices cause weight gain, which triggered the hormonal imbalance? Often, it’s the latter. Either way, hormones are a crucial part of the equation when it comes to successful weight loss — they play a role in many bodily functions ranging from appetite regulation to fat storage.
By understanding the various hormones in your body, you can make informed decisions about behaviours and patterns that could be contributing to challenges in your weight-loss journey.
Here are some of the key hormones that play a role in weight management and how you can get them to work for you:
Cortisol – Although it’s thought of as a stress hormone because it’s secreted to help us decide whether to fight or flight, cortisol also promotes insulin secretion. This makes us store fat on our bodies, particularly around our waists, one of the more dangerous areas for our health. It can also increase our appetite which can lead to overeating and weight gain.
Tip: Managing stress and how you cope with it is key to losing weight. Find what works for you, whether that’s making a cup of tea when you reach your mental boiling point, going for a daily walk, soaking in a hot bath or enjoying some time in nature. If you tend to stress eat, it helps to keep your go-to foods out of the house.
Ghrelin – This is produced by the stomach and often referred to as the hunger hormone. It’s highest when your stomach is empty and decreases after you eat. The combination of stress and increased ghrelin can be especially hard later in the day, which is why you sometimes find it hard not to over indulge in the evenings.
Tip: Managing stress is key, as is making sleep a priority since deprivation can increase ghrelin levels. It is also recommended that you eat high-fiber, high-protein foods, which keep you fuller longer.
Insulin – Insulin’s job is to drive glucose (sugar) into our cells. While cortisol can cause problems with insulin, so can our dietary habits. When we eat foods high in sugar, our bodies need to constantly produce insulin so the glucose can be utilized by our cells. At the same time, an elevated insulin level sends the signal to our body that there is excessive sugar, and it needs to start converting it to fat and storing it for later. This leads to a vicious cycle, known as insulin resistance, where the body no longer responds normally to insulin. Insulin resistance can make it a lot harder to lose weight, since the body doesn’t respond normally to carbohydrates.
Tip: Many people mistakenly think they need to ditch carbs completely to lose weight if they have problems with insulin. What’s most important, though, is to choose the right types of carbohydrates in appropriate portion sizes. Whole-food sources like sweet potatoes, whole grains and brown rice can help balance blood sugar levels since these “unrefined carbs retain their fibre content, and fibre helps to blunt the body’s response to blood sugar,
Leptin – Produced by fat cells, leptin signals to the brain how much fat is in the body. When leptin levels are low, you tend to feel hungry; when leptin levels are high, you tend to feel full. As you gain weight, you start to become resistant to Leptin, so you may have very high levels in your system but the brain isn’t registering that resulting in over eating and weight gain.
Tip: Some research suggests physical activity can help manage leptin levels. Although any exercise may help, resistance training appears to be more efficient at reducing leptin levels. Sleep is also key, Leptin is made in your sleep. That’s one reason people with sleep deprivation are hungrier.
Estrogen – For women, estrogen levels that are either too high or too low can impact weight and body fat. Having too-high levels of estrogen before menopause, also known as estrogen dominance, is associated with weight gain and increased fat storage. High levels of estrogen can also cause insulin resistance, leading to weight gain. For example, women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are more likely to experience imbalances of both estrogen and testosterone, and have insulin resistance.
Tip: For premenopausal women, load up on fiber-rich foods and veggies. Fiber reduces estrogen absorption in the GI tract and shuttles excess estrogen out of the body via bowel movements. Post-menopausal women can promote balance by focusing on whole foods in their natural form like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds and lean protein, Exercise can also help with estrogen balance.
Testosterone – Low testosterone in men can impact overall weight and has been linked to weight gain. Low testosterone levels reduce muscle mass and calorie expenditure, so testosterone deficiency, sometimes called “low T,” can lead to weight gain over time and make weight loss harder.
Tip: Men can combat the loss of testosterone with exercise. Resistance training such as weightlifting is the best type of exercise for maintaining healthy testosterone levels. But it’s important to note that for lasting impact on testosterone, exercise needs to be a regular habit. High-intensity interval training is also a good option.