HORMONES AND WEIGHT GAIN
Most women are concerned about losing weight or at least maintaining their waistline. Some women have faced weight issues since childhood, while others find themselves struggling with weight as they move into their late 30’s and 40’s.
What do hormones have to do with metabolism?
What do hormones have to do with fat storage and weight gain? Everything! We all know that exercise and what we eat affects our weight and the rate at which we burn calories. But what is the problem when you are eating right and exercising but not getting the results you deserve? If this is you, then is it time to consider what could the hindrance at a deeper level within your biochemistry, your hormones. Too many women struggle needlessly because they just do not know that certain hormone imbalances are working against their efforts. The good news is that the underlying hormone imbalances that trigger weight gain can be corrected.
Insulin is considered a fat storage hormone. Insulin is produced by the pancreas in response to a rise in blood glucose (also called blood sugar). Its function is to take nutrients from the bloodstream and store them in body cells. Problems arise if we consume too much sugar or starches. If so, we must make more insulin to drive glucose into the tissue. Also, our cells can become resistant to insulin; therefore, excess insulin may be circulating, and we store fat.
Managing excess insulin and/or insulin resistance are:
- eat low glycaemic foods which mean no sugar or refined starches,
- try supplements that support insulin utilization (under the care of your physician) and
- balance other hormones that are associated with insulin resistance.
Imbalances in any of the hormones, including oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone, DHEA, cortisol, and thyroid can lead to weight gain. Imbalances in these hormones can also trigger insulin resistance, which in turn, sets us up for fat storage. We must balance the other hormones to combat the insulin fat storing effect.
Progesterone is the first of the reproductive hormones that starts to change, typically declining to low levels by the mid-thirties. It plays a role in metabolism in several ways.
- Progesterone, at normal levels, helps us burn calories instead of storing them as fat due to its thermogenic properties.
- Progesterone helps facilitate thyroid hormone utilization – that simply means progesterone helps carry your thyroid hormone into its receptors where it carries out its actions. Thyroid hormones affect the rate at which we burn calories.
- Progesterone balanced properly with oestrogen also helps our thyroid function by helping convert thyroid hormone T4 into its more usable form, T3. A lack of adequate progesterone to balance your oestrogen, called Oestrogen Dominance, blocks the actions of thyroid hormones at the cellular level causing symptoms of low thyroid, including weight gain.
- Proper levels of progesterone regulate insulin, if we are Oestrogen Dominant, we tend to have more frequent and a more rapid release of insulin, putting us in fat storage mode.
- Water weight gain prior menstrual cycles can be due to low progesterone since it is a natural diuretic.
THE SOLUTION - test your progesterone levels if necessary, and take progesterone if indicated.
Oestrogen also affects our metabolism. Some women think that oestrogen causes weight gain because one of the side effects of HRT is weight gain. But it is actually an oestrogen deficiency leads to weight gain, because oestrogen increases the sensitivity of muscle and fat to insulin, thereby helping lower insulin and reduce the fat storing effect of insulin. Oestrogen also helps stimulate lipoprotein lipase, which is an enzyme that breaks down fat. Oestrogen deficiency also triggers carbohydrate cravings. On the other hand, excess oestrogen is associated with insulin problems.
THE SOLUTION – make sure your oestrogen level is normal but also remember that oestrogen fluctuates during the menstrual cycle. Sometimes you have just to modulate oestrogen levels and not necessarily increase oestrogen. You will need to take this up with your physician.
Research has now shown that women with low oestrogen have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which leads to the next hormone related weight gain.
Cortisol can be elevated from low oestrogen, but that isn’t the only cause, and you don’t have to have low oestrogen to have high cortisol. Stress causes elevated cortisol, which leads to weight gain, in particular, abdominal weight gain.
In fact, deep abdominal fat contains up to 4 times the number of cortisol receptors than other areas of the body. That means the abdomen is more likely to respond to elevated cortisol. Unfortunately, the abdominal tissue responds by storing fat. What makes this even worse is that women with excess abdominal weight secrete more cortisol when stressed. Elevated cortisol also triggers food cravings. You have probably noticed that when you are stressed, you want something to munch on.
Chronically high cortisol is caused by stress. Stress is related to psychological and circumstantial situations, but other stressors affect our cortisol too, including blood sugar fluctuations, nutritional deficiencies, chronic bacteria or virus, chronic pain, chronic lack of sleep, food sensitivities, etc. i.e., anything that stresses your body can lead to increased cortisol levels.
Aside from directly triggering abdominal weight gain, chronically elevated cortisol causes some real problems that, in turn, indirectly affect our weight. High cortisol blocks every other hormone from getting into their receptors and carrying out their function.
- blocks thyroid hormone from getting into its receptors,
- blocks oestrogen from its receptors,
- depletes our progesterone,
- causes insulin resistance which leads to fat storage,
- causes food cravings.
First, you should have your cortisol tested to make sure that it actually is elevated. Your physician can help you with this. If indicated, there are supplements that help lower cortisol. Stress reduction in lifestyle changes may help, as well.
The androgens: Testosterone and DHEA also affect our weight. Both of them help our body utilize insulin properly, so we don’t store fat. Therefore, deficiencies can cause weight gain and make it hard for you to lose weight. On the other hand, testosterone and DHEA can become elevated due to insulin resistance. Once again, hormone testing and balancing can address these imbalances.
Even a slight suboptimal thyroid deficiency can affect your metabolism since thyroid function affects the rate at which we burn calories. If you have any of the common symptoms low thyroid function such as weight gain, low body temperature, fatigue, hair loss, low mood, dry skin, etc., ask your doctor or dietician about checking your TSH, free T3, free T4 and Reverse T3 levels.
If you have been struggling with maintaining your weight, or if you are struggling to lose a few or a lot of kilograms, please consider that hormone imbalance may be holding you back, especially if you are doing everything else right.