Have you been doing everything “right” with your weight loss efforts, yet you are seeing little to no results? It can be incredibly frustrating, right? Well, we want to tell you that it may not be your fault. See your hormones, chemical messengers inside your body, have a big impact on your ability to lose and maintain your weight. There are several hormones in the body, each plays a very specific, but different role. Many can have an impact on your weight, energy, appetite, and how you feel overall. All the hormones work together in a super complex way and when one is off, it influences all the others. The bottom line is that if one is out of balance it throws off the whole hormonal system. Women, in particular, are prone to hormone imbalances, which is why men have an easier time with weight loss. For women, taking hormones into consideration should be a major focus of any weight loss program.
What Causes Hormonal Imbalance?
Why does this happen to begin with, why can’t our hormones just stay balanced? Hormones can become imbalanced for several different reasons and as you will see most of these are female-related situations. Here are just a few:
- Menstrual problems
- Diet high in processed foods
- Too much/too little exercise
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome
- Hormonal birth control
- Hormone replacements
- Environmental chemicals, plastics, toxins (1)
Hormones can be impacted by diet and a variety of lifestyle factors. Some of these you can control, like how you exercise or eat, but others are not as much in your control, like menopause. In addition to all of these mentioned above, women also experience fluctuations in their hormone levels month to month, adding even more complexity. This is why any sustainable weight management program for women must include a hormone-balancing component.
Hormones and Weight
Before we jump into what you can do for balance, first we need to understand which hormones we are talking about. There are many hormones that can impact your weight. The four that we will focus on are: estrogen, cortisol, leptin, and insulin.
Estrogen is the main female sex hormone, its primary role is reproductive health. It helps boost sex drive and maintain a stable mood. In order for you to feel your best and maintain a healthy weight, estrogen and progesterone (the other sex hormone) must be in balance. The delicate ratio between these two hormones can be thrown off during different times of your life, but especially during menopause when hormone levels start to decrease. These two hormones may not decrease at the same rate leading to an imbalance that causes weight gain, especially around the mid-section. Other signs of estrogen dominance include depression, fatigue, and painful or heavy periods (2).
Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, can also impact your ability to lose weight. Many of us experience a constant state of low-grade stress and our cortisol is chronically elevated. This causes our bodies to store more abdominal fat and resist weight loss (3). The reason is that a stressed-out body is in a constant state of “fight or flight”, meaning it is preparing to run away or fight any danger it may encounter. In order to do either, it will need to tap into energy stores. A stressed body is working hard be sure to have enough energy (fat) to run away or fight when the situation arises. Unfortunately, these days it is quite rare we encounter a real life-threatening situation to use up the stored fat, so it just keeps getting stored.
Leptin tells the brain when you have had enough to eat. But, many people are resistant to the action of leptin, meaning they can’t tell when they are full. This is particularly common with our modern diet of processed foods high in sugar, particularly fructose, which throws off leptin. When the body stops responding to leptin, it doesn’t know when to stop eating, therefore you end up consuming too many calories and gaining weight (4).
Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps regulate blood sugar. When we are sedentary, overweight, and eating a less than ideal diet (with a dash of genetic predisposition), the body starts to not respond to insulin. The sugar from the diet is not able to get into the cells where it needs to go causing an elevation in blood sugar. This leads to uncontrolled cravings for high sugar foods because the cells believe they are starving, so you eat more. And any extra sugar that is floating around ends up being stored as fat.
In order to lose weight and keep it off, you have to get your hormones in balance. Luckily, there is a lot you can do between diet and lifestyle changes to get them under control.
How to Balance Hormones
So, your lack of progress has got to be due to these pesky hormones. You want to take control and get them back in balance. Here are a few things you can do to help:
- Eliminate processed foods. Our extremely processed diet that is high in sugar, refined grains, unhealthy fats, but low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals wreaks havoc on our hormones. Try to shift your diet to include real, whole foods instead.
- Sugar and sweetened beverages. Too much sugar can cause spikes in insulin levels, leading to increased sugar cravings and a never-ending cycle of energy crashes and spikes. Leptin, in particular, is sensitive to one type of sugar called fructose, found in many sweetened beverages. We know it’s hard, but if you stop the sugar, you stop the cycle.
- Cut back on caffeine. Yes, we know you need your coffee, but too much can increase cortisol, so take a look at how much you are drinking. Consider weaning yourself slowly and limiting your caffeine to one cup a day. Or consider switching to green or black tea instead, which has a bit of caffeine, but a ton of healthy antioxidants.
- Reduce alcohol. We know you love your wine, almost as much as your coffee, but alcohol is a toxin, screws up your metabolism, messes with your sleep, and throws your hormones all out of whack. Consider not drinking or save those cocktails for special occasions only.
- Too much exercise. Exercise is definitely good for you and a valuable tool in helping lose weight. But, more is not always better. Excessive exercise can increase cortisol levels, throwing off other hormones like estrogen and progesterone. Forms of exercise that are more supportive of hormonal balance include walking, Pilates, barre, or swimming.
We hate to leave you with a list of things not to do for your hormones because who likes restriction? So, let’s talk about what foods you need to include to help balance hormones. The focus for a hormone-supportive diet will be nutrient-dense foods. You want to be sure you are getting enough:
- Increase fiber. Fiber can bind to excess estrogen removing it from circulation. Aim to eat 30-40 grams per day primarily in the form of fruits and vegetables.
- Focus on B-vitamins. The B-vitamins such as riboflavin, thiamin, folate, and B12 can help reduce symptoms of PMS and balance hormones. Good sources include whole grains, nuts, and green leafy veggies (5).
- Boost your minerals. There are several minerals that women don’t tend to eat enough of that can cause hormonal imbalances. Iron and zinc are particularly important. Iron is found in beans, leafy greens, and meat. Zinc is particularly high in nuts, seaweed, and red meat (6).
- Eat healthy fats. Some hormones are made from fat, particularly omega-3 fats found in fish, walnuts, and chia seeds. These fats can also help lower inflammation which can, in turn, help you lose weight.
- Sleep. Getting enough quality sleep is one of the best ways to balance your hormones. It helps regulate cortisol and leptin levels, reduces sugar cravings, and makes you a better person overall. Aim for at least 8 hours a night.
As you can see there is a lot you can do to help your hormones be more balanced and get you on the path to maintaining a healthy weight.