Hormones. We have dozens of them. In a nutshell, hormones are simply little chemical messengers that get shuttled throughout our entire body. Hormones make us feel cold and hot, they make us feel happy or sad, they increase our sex drive or turn it off entirely, and they also tell our body to store fat or lose fat...in very specific parts of our body. So, if you're curious about your body's hormones and weight gain - this is the right place for you.
Hormones & Weight Gain
I'm going to give a very high-level view of a few of the big hormonal hitters that are responsible for fat storage, and even fat loss. Have you ever heard anyone ever say, "just listen to your body"? Well, these are the hormones that do most of the talking when it comes to your body's ability to gain weight, lose weight, or maintain weight.
The hormones I'm going to dig into include:
- Estrogen and Progesterone
- Leptin and Ghrelin
- Growth Hormone
Keep in mind, your hormones could be A-OK! But for a lot of people, especially if you're overweight, something could be happening with your hormones, and gaining a little more control might be helpful.
One last thing before you start reading into this: there is no hormone that's more important than another. They're all a really big deal. It's when they start misbehaving (either on their own or through the things we do to our bodies) that we stand up and take notice.
Insulin: What Does It Do?
Everyone should be familiar with insulin - at least a little bit. Insulin is your body's fat-storage hormone. It also helps to regulate blood sugar levels by moving glucose (sugar) into our muscles, fat cells, and liver for when we need it later. When blood sugar levels rise like a balloon taking off into the sky, insulin is the anchor that helps to bring those sugar levels back down.
Insulin is released from the pancreas. All foods - protein, carbohydrates, and fats - increase insulin to some extent.
Too much food or too high blood sugar increases the need for insulin. When we have too much sugar in our blood - or more than what our body needs for immediate energy - insulin's job is to store those sugars as fat.
Oh, and it's also worth noting that our pancreas can get tired, or fatigued and stop producing insulin as it should. Another word for this is called diabetes.
What can you do to maintain healthy insulin levels?
- Avoid eating refined carbohydrates too frequently, including white bread, white pasta, donuts, cookies, ice cream, soda, juice, and crackers. Note I used the words "too frequently," which in my book means more than a few times a week. You already know that you should minimize sweet foods like donuts, soda, and crackers but what about white bread and white pasta? A good test is to check to see how many grams of fiber a serving of bread or pasta has in it. If you're looking at one or zero grams of fiber, it's too refined and should be avoided. Fiber helps to slow digestion a bit, buffering blood sugar levels.
- Don't eat too much in one sitting. Your stomach can digest somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 - 400 calories every few hours. If you're eating more than that, then eating again two hours later, guess what? Your insulin is likely going to store the excess sugar/energy as fat. Unless you plan on running a marathon to offload those calories, you're going to be stuck with them. Unfortunately for those of us with big appetites, a serving size is rarely as big as we want it to be. Be smart and be selective with the foods you're eating.
Cortisol: What Does It Do?
Cortisol gets a bit of a bad rap because this hormone is very often synonymous with stress. And to a great extent, it is the stress hormone in our body. But let's break it down into two groups: good/necessary stress and bad/uncontrolled stress.
When your body encounters an acute form of stress, like bumping into a bear on a hike, cortisol does what it needs to do by putting your body into a state of fight or flight. If you choose to fight the bear, I have no words - just good luck. But if you choose to take flight, run or get the hell out of there, then cortisol will immediately elevate your heart rate and respiration. The oxygen-rich blood that was once in your gut gets pushed to your limbs so you can move faster. Insulin stops working the way it normally would, allowing for sugar to stay in your blood. I mean, if you need to run fast and far, you'll need it! In a very primal way, this all makes sense, right? On the (hopefully) rare occasion that we encounter life-threatening situations, cortisol is a very good thing.
Cortisol is also good at reducing infections by limiting inflammation that might be caused by a paper cut or a broken bone. Yet another way cortisol is a great short-term solution to a stressful situation.
But when stress starts pushing into the red zone too frequently, in both physical and perceived ways, things start falling out of place. Remember cortisol's response to you seeing a bear on a hike? Imagine if cortisol reacted that way all the time.
This is what happens when you experience chronic stress: cortisol increases, insulin is inhibited which causes your blood sugar levels to rise, your body's ability to fight infection isn't as strong as it was with acute stress, and starts affecting your immune system, making it easy to get sick. Because your blood sugar levels are harder control, you gain weight - largely through the belly, but research has shown that upper body obesity is also linked to elevated cortisol, too.
What can you do to maintain healthy cortisol levels?
This is a little harder to answer because stress can be triggered by a lot of psychological factors, like anxiety and depression. It's easy to say "don't sweat the small stuff," but the truth is, sometimes the doing is much harder than the saying. Nonetheless, sticking with these tips can help you greatly control hormonal weight gain.
So I say control what you can control. In my world, this comes down to diet and activity. Here are my two cents:
- Avoid caffeine: I know a hot cup of coffee in the morning is what you think you need, but caffeine temporarily elevates cortisol levels, and if you're already running at max capacity, you don't need the boost. What's more, if you're trying to shed a few pounds, remember that in a lot of people insulin stops working the way that it should. Caffeine could increase stress and store belly fat. You don't need that.
- Cut back on sugar: If your cortisol levels are higher than normal, you might already have higher-than-normal blood sugar levels. Don't fear carbs, but focus on high-fiber carbs instead, as well as lean protein and healthy fats.
- Purposefully relax: If only for five or ten minutes a day, take the time to set with as little noise as possible and just breathe. If you pray, pray. If you meditate, meditate. If you enjoy sitting in a park not doing anything, sit in a park, and not do anything. Don't be busy and let your brain clear out the cobwebs. At the very least, take time in the car or at your desk to take 10 deep breaths (inhaling deeply and exhaling deeply). This should take you a few minutes. It's time well spent.
Estrogen & Progesterone: What Do They Do?
Even though both men and women produce these sex hormones, I'm going to focus on how estrogen and progesterone affect women.
Progesterone is a key hormone that helps to maintain and regulate menstruation as well as maintain pregnancy, particularly through the early stages. Every time a woman ovulates, progesterone steps in to prepare her body for pregnancy. If she does not become pregnant, the lining of her uterus breaks down and begins her cycle all over again. This is extremely simplified, but it's at the crux of what this hormone does.
Estrogen is responsible for a woman's secondary sex characteristics, including breast development, widening of the hips, and the development of pubic and armpit hair. Like progesterone, one of the big roles of estrogen is to help regulate a woman's menstrual cycle. Estrogen is also a key player in bone strength and mood regulation.
These hormones fluctuate, sometimes wildly, throughout a woman's life - with surges through puberty and steep drop-offs through menopause. There is also a lot of variability through perimenopause (the 10 or so years leading up to menopause), which can affect weight gain, fat storage, mood, and bone strength, to name a few.
What can you do to maintain healthy estrogen & progesterone levels?
Research has found that when women have higher estrogen-to-progesterone levels, that is, the ratio is leaning higher on the estrogen side, fat storage through the hips and thighs in women who are peri or pre-menopausal is greater. Pharmacological, environmental and food byproducts all greatly influence the amount of estrogen our body produces.
After menopause, however, estrogen and progesterone decline. The decline in these hormones triggers the migration of fat from the hips and thighs to the abdomen - also known as the "middle-age spread."
While these two hormones vary greatly from woman to woman, the easiest way to have the greatest impact on these hormones is to:
- Modify diet to a whole foods, largely plant-based diet
- Minimize unnecessary prescriptions (per your doctor's advice)
- Exercise or simply move more
- Pay attention to your environmental factors that could be affecting you, causing both perceived or physical stress.
Thyroid: What Does it Do?
Thyroid is a combination of T3 and T4 hormones that help to maintain resting metabolic rate (RMR). Thyroid hormones are released from your thyroid gland under the direction of another hormone called thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) which is released from your pituitary gland. TSH acts as the regulator for how much T3 and T4 your body should release to function. It's also worth noting that TSH gets its orders to move into action from another hormone in the hypothalamus called thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH).
Both T3 and T4 help to regulate body weight, muscular strength, body temperature, digestion as well as memory and mood.
What can you do to manage healthy thyroid levels?
Because thyroid is so strongly associated with weight gain, many people automatically turn to the foods they should eat or the foods they should avoid in an effort to maintain healthy function. But thyroid hormone weight gain is related to much more than just the foods you should or shouldn't eat. Here are a few other things you can do:
- Avoid crash dieting: crash dieting, or simply eating too little, puts your body into starvation mode, which can inhibit the role of T3 and T4. Research has shown that people who cut calories too severely regain weight (and then some) when normal eating begins again.
- Lightly cook or steam cruciferous vegetables (rather than eating them raw): Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, etc., all contain a substance called goitrogens, which can create too much activity in the thyroid. Whether you have a slightly elevated thyroid or not, eating more steamed or lightly cooked cruciferous vegetables is good for just about everyone.
- Manage stress: Both T3 and T4 slow when you're under stress. If you want to avoid hormone weight gain associated with T3 or T4, you may want to cut back on things that provoke stress, including caffeine, multitasking, not getting enough sleep, and excessive alcohol.
Leptin & Ghrelin: What Do They Do?
Leptin and ghrelin work to control our appetite and the amount of food we eat. Leptin is a satiety hormone. In other words, this hormone is responsible for telling us that we're full and we've had enough to eat. Leptin is made in the fat cells of the body. Ghrelin, on the other hand, is responsible for stimulating appetite and making us feel hungry. Ghrelin is made mostly in the lining of the stomach and the wall of the small intestines.
What can you do to manage healthy leptin & ghrelin levels?
- Aim for a more optimal weight: As obvious as this may be, people who have more body fat produce much more ghrelin than those that don't. A person who is overweight, however, can do a lot to improve their weight, as well as the overall function of leptin and ghrelin, including the following.
- Eat regular healthy meals: Don't tinker around with your diet too much. If you do this, especially if you cut calories too much, you'll throw off your thyroid and end up gaining more weight. My advice for weight loss is a slow and steady path. Eat regular meals that are as unrefined and unprocessed as possible. To eat excessively, but maintain a regular eating schedule until you have more control.
- What your stress levels: Stress interferes with insulin levels which can trigger increased blood sugar levels and therefore fat storage...exactly what you don't want, right? You can try to avoid hormone weight gain by managing stress brought on by caffeine, a refined diet, lack of activity, or poor relationships.
Growth Hormone: What does it do?
Growth hormone, also known as human growth hormone (HGH) is a key hormone released by the pituitary gland and is responsible for muscular development and repair, regulating fat storage, and maintaining metabolism. If you want a more youthful look with nice looking skin, you'll want an adequate amount of this hormone for as long as possible.
What can you do to manage healthy growth hormone levels?
- Sleep: If you don't sleep enough, you're cheating yourself out of growth hormone in a big way. A majority of our growth hormone is released when we sleep, at the beginning of every 90-minute sleep cycle. Ideally, we should go through about 5 sleep cycles a night - or right around 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep
- Exercise: Whether you're going for a walk, lifting weights, or practicing yoga, any form of exercise helps to release human growth hormone. Getting more activity is a great way to buffer hormonal weight gain.
As you can see, all of your hormones play a role in weight gain. But getting control of your hormones, to the best of your ability, not only helps to regulate these hormones but it helps to improve your overall health and wellbeing, too.