Are you eating right and working out but still can’t lose weight? It’s time to consider your hormones. I see this quite often in practice, patients are eating a clean, balanced diet and engaging in regular exercise but the numbers on the scale won’t budge. It’s time to look deeper and understand the role hormones play in weight loss. When we hear the word “hormones”, most of us think of estrogen, and while estrogen is important, there are a few other hormones to consider. I will review them with you in this article. I will also teach you about clues to understanding your hormone imbalances, like your weight gain pattern and illustrate just how powerful our hormonal influences can be on our body fat distribution. For example, gaining weight around the hips and thighs is influenced by different hormones than the ones that signal weight gain around the abdomen, or upper arms. Understanding these patterns can be the key to your success. Let’s get started.
What Hormones play a role in weight loss?
We will review cortisol, thyroid hormone, estrogen, testosterone, and insulin. Although we talk about them as separate molecules they all work together as part of your endocrine system.
Our endocrine system (which consists of the glands in the body that make hormones) is closely connected. If one hormone is out of whack, other hormones kick in to compensate. In many cases, this feedback system corrects itself, but if our environment demands a continuous state of adaptation the endocrine system can end up overcompensating and draining our energy.
The primary system that adapts to our daily stresses is called the Hypothalamic – Pituitary – Adrenal Axis (HPA Axis). This part of the endocrine system gets stressed out, when you are stressed out. It can be very common to underestimate the level of stress on our body. I often hear people say they feel like they are coping with stress well, but they are just busy. Believe it or not “busyness” can lead to weight gain. Your body interprets “busyness” as a source of stress (or overstimulation on the nervous system) and produces stress hormones like cortisol in response. This can include anything from excessive exercise, information overload to working to may long hours, which all add up to too much cortisol production.
The challenge: Cortisol encourages your body to hold onto weight and store fat in your mid section.
Wait, what? Yes, that’s right and the result is – a jiggly belly and when insulin regulation is also poor, the signalling in the body promotes the development of, what my clients like to call, the “muffin top and love handles”.
Still don’t think you are stressed? Look at a typical day:
The alarm goes off = stressor = cortisol = signal the body to store fat
Scramble to get yourself and others in the house dressed = stressor = cortisol = signal the body to store fat
Commute to work = stressor = cortisol = signal the body to store fat
Deadline or meeting with boss = stressor = cortisol = signal the body to store fat
Rush home to pick up kids = stressor = cortisol = signal the body to store fat
What do you eat? = stressor = cortisol = signal the body to store fat
Act as your child’s taxi taking them too and from activities = stressor = cortisol = signal the body to store fat
Late night Netflix and snack attack = lack of sleep and empty calories = stressor = cortisol = signal the body to store fat
Okay, so I’m a little stressed and maybe my cortisol is off and my belly is growing, but how does this affect my other hormones?
Breaking down the HPA Axis a little more, we can see that the ovaries (in men – testes), adrenal glands and thyroid are also intimately connected and co-dependant upon each other.
With stress – the adrenal glands produce adrenaline and cortisol[i]. If the Adrenals work over time the demand for cortisol can “steal” progesterone, leaving an opportunity for estrogen to be imbalanced and in excess. Estrogen excess can lead to weight gain around the hips and thighs.
The result of chronic stress: Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue include difficulty waking, afternoon dips in energy and waking in the night. Fluctuations in energy can create a vicious cycle leaving us too tired to work out. Other symptoms include anxiety, depression, insomnia, brain fog, joint pain and exercise intolerance, and of course weight gain.
- Eating complex carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes and quinoa.
- To balance insulin levels add 1 tbsp of cinnamon to smoothies, roasted fruit, tea, etc.
- Yoga or workouts under 45 minutes. Longer workouts (such as distance running) that are not properly balanced can elicit the same stress response.
- 6-8 hours of solid sleep. Charles Poliquin determined that Cankles may indicate low growth hormone[iii]. Sleep is this solution since this hormone is only produced during this time.
- Before each meal take 4 big breathes. Breathing in for a count of four and out for a count of four to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system and relaxation.
- Mediation or Yoga. I personally enjoy Bikram Yoga. Exercising in a hot environment causes you to sweat out those toxins!
- Acupuncture – Can restore balance to your hormones by redirecting energy so the body can heal itself. A series of 6 acupuncture sessions can reduce fatigue, improve mood, minimize PMS symptoms, reduce cravings and encourage appropriate weight loss.
- Supplements to consider: B Complex, Ashwaganda, Rhodiola or Relora. Talk to your Naturopathic Doctor.
Your Thyroid, the regulator of your metabolism, controls how many calories you burn is a day.
The thyroid has a hefty job. The hormones it secretes plays a role in skin health, heart rate and metabolism.
The result of thyroid stress: Cold body temperature, sugar intolerance, dry skin, hair loss, feeling run down and tired which may leave you predisposed to depression.
Weight gain pattern: Bulging back fat and overall weight gain[iv].
- Eliminating gluten and eating a Paleo style diet.
- High Intensity Interval Training or boot camp style classes to kick start your metabolism.
- Contrast Showers: At the end of your shower, alternate hot (3 seconds) and cold (1 second). Repeat 3 times and finish on cold to stimulate your immune, temperature AND metabolism.
- Begin a Grateful Journal – Many people with thyroid conditions have a difficult time expressing themselves. Anxiety and negative thoughts promote resistance to weight loss. Love yourself and those around you and the number of negative thoughts will begin to reduce.
- Supplements to consider: Zinc, Selenium, Vitamin E, Vitamin B12 and L-Tyrosine.
When the ovaries are affected, PMS hits like a bomb. Too much cortisol from stress can “steal” progesterone, leaving an opportunity for estrogen to be produced in excess. Estrogen is stored in our fat cells. Therefore, the more fat we have, the more access we have to Estrogen. Estrogen is also sensitive to environmental pollutants – such as plastics.
The result: Imbalances in estrogen, testosterone and progesterone can lead to cravings and over eating. Other symptoms may include heavy or painful periods, endometriosis, irregular or missed periods, menopausal symptoms and acne. Remember, although these symptoms are common, they are not normal.
Weight gain pattern: Flappy arms can indicate not enough testosterone. Large thighs and pear-shaped bottom can indicate higher levels of estrogen.
- Swap out soy. Eating soy in excess is commonly seen in new vegetarians. Eliminating your soy intake can reduce cramping. Choose nuts, lentils and legumes as plant based proteins.
- 1 cup of Beets roasted, jarred or steamed can be a delicious addition to your favourite meal.
- Add 2 tbsps of Pumpkin seeds to your favourite salad or trail mix. Throw in a few chunks of dark chocolate for Magnesium. Pumpkin seed butter is delicious on toasted spelt bread with thinly sliced apples and cinnamon. These tiny seeds are packed full of testosterone boosting zinc. Quite often I have my patients add these into their diet in the winter months to further support immune function.
- Low fat diets take a toll on proper hormone development. Hormones depend on healthy fats, such as Omega 3 fatty acids. Try swapping margarine and other Omega 6 oils (canola, peanut, cotton, etc) for coconut or flaxseed oil. Flaxseed oil can be added after cooking. Include these great fats in your meals: avocado, grass fed meats, chia seeds and wild fish.
- Wine Decline. I can change everything, but don’t touch my glass of red wine. Sound familiar? Alcohol can lower testosterone levels making you “softer”. So, pick a month and ditch the booze.
- Strength training to support proper muscle development.
- A proper weight loss plan incorporates more than just weight loss. It is important to reach an ideal body composition which includes muscle mass. Using tools such as a BioImpedance Analysis (BIA) allows you to track your progress in both fat loss and muscle gain.
- Switch your xenoestrogen containing Plastics containers for glass and stainless steel.
- Supplements to Consider: Vitex, Black Cohosh, Probiotics, Omega 3’s, Magnesium, Vitamin D
Are there tests to tell me if my Hormones functioning correctly?
A thorough intake and testing would be required to determine which system is struggling and at which point in the endocrine triangle to focus our treatments.
The DUTCH Test is a wonderful test to determine hormonal pathways and how they may be affecting our metabolism.
Other lab tests to consider would be fasting blood glucose, a thyroid panel, estrogen, testosterone and cortisol levels. If deficiencies are suspected, additional tests could be run such as Vitamin D or Zinc.
What are my next steps for to Balancing my Hormones for Weight Loss?
You are unique so your treatment plan should be too. Book an appointment with your Naturopathic Doctor to determine what your tipping point is. Get started today and tip the scales in your favour!
The advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only. It is meant to augment and not replace consultation with a licensed health care provider. Consultation with a Naturopathic Doctor or other primary care provider is recommended for anyone suffering from a health problem.
Dr. Jennifer Tanner, has a broad, evidence based practice with a focus on sports and performance based medicine. Being a marathon runner and having been a competitive equestrian, an active lifestyle is important. Dr. Tanner uses a variety of tools including Acupuncture and Clinical Nutrition, putting an emphasis on “food as medicine” and addressing the root causes of inflammation . In conjunction with the Integrative Health team, Dr. Tanner is thrilled to help people achieve an optimal state of health and pursue their performance based health goals!