Are you eating healthy but your weight isn’t going down? Have you been doing intermittent fasting for long, yet it hasn’t gotten you much weight loss results! Are you exercising regularly, but your waistline is still growing? You could be dealing with hormonal weight gain.
Scientists tell us that there are two major control systems in the body: the nervous system and the hormonal (endocrine) system. Both of these together play an important role in how your body functions, how you feel and how you look!
That’s why any imbalance in either of them can cause health issues and symptoms that start showing up as a result.
And one of such symptoms is hormonal weight gain!
In this post, I will explain exactly which hormones are involved when you experience hard to lose weight and stubborn belly fat. Then I will share tips on how to balance hormones naturally to feel more motivated, get healthy, and burn stubborn body fat.
What is Hormonal Weight Gain?
Hormonal weight gain results from hormonal fluctuations in the body. It is commonly associated with the creation of visceral fat which surrounds the internal organs like the pancreas and liver.
Visceral belly fat is highly dangerous as it increases the possibility of metabolic syndrome and acquiring chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart conditions.
Hormonal weight gain may be experienced due to hormonal fluctuations during:
- Menstrual Cycle Phases
- Stress (Cortisol stress hormone)
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- Hormone Replacement Therapy
- Birth Control Pills
- In vitro fertilization (IVF)
Hormone Imbalance and Weight Gain
Research has proven that fat loss and weight gain are controlled at a cellular level by multiple hormones in your body. Often these hormones are intricately interconnected such that if one is imbalanced, it disturbs others too.
And when there is hormone imbalance, it causes fat storage, increased waist line and hard to lose weight.
There are multiple hormones that play a role in regulating our weight and metabolism. However, there are a few important ones such as Cortisol, Estrogen, Insulin and Leptin that really decide the areas of body fat and excess weight.
That’s why, if you can balance the action of these hormones, you can reverse hormonal weight gain and also get rid of hormone imbalance symptoms.
1. Insulin and Hormonal Weight Gain
Insulin is arguably the most well known hormone. Its popularity is due in part to the prevalence of diabetes in our contemporary world.
Insulin acts to regulate our blood sugar levels, metabolism and hence energy levels.
Insulin hormone and weight gain are correlated. Insulin will still cause some of that sugar will go on to be stored as fat. And this leads to the net effect of insulin: weight gain.
What does this imply? Even if you’re on a low-fat diet, you can still gain weight from eating too many sugary substances and carbs.
2. How does leptin affect weight?
We cannot talk about hormones and weight connections without talking about leptin. Leptin is commonly referred to as the ‘satiety hormone.’ Some call it ‘starvation hormone.’
Now you might wonder, “Are those not opposites?” Well, true, satiety and starvation are quite opposites, but that is the way leptin works. It is a negative feedback loop. You get to one extreme A and begin to reverse towards the other extreme B.
On reaching or nearing B, you start going back to point A. That is basically how a negative feedback system works.
What does leptin do?
Let’s start by saying that leptin is produced in the body’s adipocytes(or fat cells). The more fat a person has, the more leptin they produce. That is why it is called the satiety hormone.
When you have enough fat stored, you don’t necessarily need to eat so much anymore. After all, there’s energy stored already. Leptin begins its ‘satiety’ function in this condition.
Leptin goes to act on an area of the brain called the hypothalamus. Hypothalamus is responsible for controlling how much you eat and when you eat. When leptin reaches the hypothalamus, it tells it that you already have enough fat stored.
The hypothalamus then tells you to eat less accordingly. Also, you increase energy expenditure so that you can burn off the fat. Here, the ‘starvation’ function of leptin is ongoing.
As the fat cells are burned off, there will be less leptin produced. The hypothalamus senses less leptin and signals are sent to ensure you start eating more and spending less energy. The ‘satiety’ function is resuming.
That is how it is supposed to work normally. But things aren’t always normal, unfortunately.
Leptin resistance and obesity
With the understanding gotten above, you might be forced to wonder, “Shouldn’t an obese person then be eating less and burning more fat?”
Well, as we said, things aren’t always normal. Sometimes, this negative feedback system fails to work. It could be a consequence of a condition called leptin resistance.
Therefore, an obese person has more fat cells, produces more leptin, but the brain doesn’t sense the ‘satiety.’ It thinks the person is starving instead. The individual continues to eat and store more fat.
What causes leptin resistance?
It could be due to increased leptin in the first place. There’s a lot of leptin around already, so it becomes ‘normal’ to have that much leptin in the body. It’s like the body gets adapted and stops responding to leptin. That is similar to what happens with insulin resistance.
Other reasons may be increased inflammation or excessive free fatty acids.
Leptin resistance makes dieting difficult, if not impossible!
Dieting may not work here. It is not for lack of will, neither laziness nor gluttony. You just can’t help it because the signals coming from your brain are all wrong!
Leptin resistance makes it difficult to successfully practice dieting. Your brain believes you are starving, even if you are not. So you just keep eating and storing fat.
Can you reverse leptin resistance?
There is no definitely known method of reversing leptin resistance. However, here are some things you can do:
- Eat soluble fibers.
- Get adequate sleep to prevent metabolic disorders.
- Include lots of proteins in your diet.
- Exercise can help you burn fat.
- Stay away from processed foods.
3. Ghrelin and your weight: what is the link?
As we continue the discussion on hormones and weight connections, we must not fail to touch on ghrelin.
Here is an easy way to remember what ghrelin is all about: ghrelin is the ‘hunger hormone.’ It sends signals to your brain to eat when you are hungry. If leptin is the ‘satiety hormone’ that tells you to stop eating, then ghrelin is the opposite of it.
What does ghrelin do?
Ghrelin is produced in your gut. Its levels increase when your gut is empty.
Ghrelin also goes to the hypothalamus, which then tells you you need to eat. So, you begin to feel hungry. You feel the need to eat and absorb calories, etc.
When you’ve eaten and your stomach is full, ghrelin goes back down. Hunger stops. There is less need to eat.
Some studies have shown that lean people have lower levels of ghrelin, so they feel less the need to eat.
Yet other studies show that obese people and lean people have about the same levels of ghrelin. The difference is just that obese people are more sensitive to the effects of ghrelin.
Dieting, Increased ghrelin, and Weight gain
Research shows that a lot of dieters regain all the weight they’ve lost within a year. “Why?” you might ask. Well, ghrelin is involved.
People on a diet eat less. A lot of the time, if you’re on a diet, you have to starve yourself, which means the gut is quite empty. But your body cannot remain in that state of starvation. Ghrelin levels will go up, which will signal your brain that you need to eat.
Once again, you can see why dieting is not always about willpower. Your body is just doing what it is meant to do. The longer you starve yourself, the higher your ghrelin levels rise. The more ghrelin you have, the more you’re likely to eat.
Have you heard of the term ‘compensatory overeating?’ This is what it means. Someone who has not eaten for a while will tend to overeat when they eventually get to a meal.
It’s because ghrelin has risen so much within that time. They need to eat more to get the ghrelin levels back down.
How about long-term dieting? Researchers have shown that for a 6-month diet, you can have a 24% increase in ghrelin levels. So, even if you successfully lose weight within those 6 months, it will be hard to maintain that new weight.
Higher ghrelin levels mean you eat more when you get off the diet. Or even before. Consequently, the weight comes back.
How do I lower ghrelin levels?
Ghrelin can’t be directly controlled with drugs, supplements, or diets. Nevertheless, you could try these:
- Maintain a stable weight. Avoid extreme weight loss practices.
- Eat more proteins. They keep you fuller for longer.
- Build muscle mass. A higher fat-free mass is associated with less ghrelin.
- Sleep healthily.
- Cycle your calories. More calories for a while, then fewer calories for a while. This can help prevent ghrelin levels from shooting up as would happen with continuous extreme dieting.
4. Thyroid hormones and weight
Thyroid hormones are produced in the thyroid gland, which is a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck.
It is a very small gland-only about 2cm-but very important. This great importance is due to the vital role of thyroid hormones.
What do thyroid hormones do – Thyroid and BMR
Thyroid hormones are responsible for controlling the rate of metabolism in the body.
BMR means Basal Metabolic Rate. It is a measure of how quickly your body processes things when you are in a state of rest. Higher BMR means higher levels of thyroid hormones. Conversely, a lower BMR indicates lower thyroid levels.
When thyroid hormones become too much, it is referred to as hyperthyroidism. On the other hand, hypothyroidism occurs due to lower thyroid hormones in circulation.
Hyperthyroidism, increased metabolism and weight loss
Hyperthyroidism causes weight loss. This is a result of increased metabolism. It means you are burning calories faster than normal. Even if you eat quite a lot, the whole thing is still burnt off very quickly.
You might notice an increased basal temperature, sweating, blood pressure, heart rate, skin thinning, hair loss, etc. Hyperthyroidism speeds everything up.
What can you do about an overactive thyroid?
- Eat less iodine
- Reduce your salt intake
- Increase your intake of spices
- Find out about vegetables that suppress thyroid action
- Include spices in your diet
- Embrace Ayurvedic herbs like amla, ashwagandha, jatamansi, shankhapushpi, and guggulu.
- Sleep well and avoid stress.
Hypothyroidism: the link between thyroid and weight gain!
On the other hand, an underactive thyroid can lead to weight gain. It is just the reverse of what happens with hyperthyroidism.
Everything slows down, even the rate at which you burn calories. This means that all the materials that should be used and excreted remain in storage. Weight gain results.
However, the weight gain from hypothyroidism isn’t so much, except it remains for a really long time. Also, not all of the weight gained due to an underactive thyroid is from fat. A good portion of it is from water retention. Increased body water causes an increase in weight too.
How to lose weight with Hypothyroidism?
- Include more iodine in your diet. You can choose to use iodized salt.
- Reduce your intake of carbs and fats.
- Eat anti-inflammatory foods.
- Take lots of vegetables.
- Ensure you exercise well.
- Stay hydrated.
- Sleep sufficiently.
5. Estrogen and weight Gain
Estrogen. The female hormone. The two most important hormones that mark the distinction between a male and a female are estrogen and progesterone.
But now, we want to talk about how estrogen affects weight. Does it lead to weight gain, or does it bring about weight loss?
What does estrogen do?
Estrogen, as we earlier said, is the female hormone. It plays an important role in all female life functions.
- We can’t fail to mention puberty. An estrogen surge is responsible for the development of secondary sexual characteristics in a female. The development of the breasts, maturation of reproductive organs, storage of fat in the breasts and hip region, etc. These are all influenced by estrogen. A girl with low estrogen levels will have delayed puberty. Until the estrogen reaches a sufficient level.
- The menstrual cycle is regulated by estrogen, alongside progesterone. The cyclic changes that take place in the ovaries and uterus would not take place without estrogen.
- Pregnancy and lactation/breastfeeding is another stage where estrogen plays a role.
- Menopause doesn’t happen without the involvement of estrogen. However, in this case, there is an estrogen drop, not an increase.
Basically, estrogen is one of the main things that makes a woman a woman.
Low Estrogen and Menopausal weight gain!
So, what is the link between estrogen and weight?
Estrogen plays other roles than those mentioned above. Throughout life, it is involved in regulating metabolism and managing weight.
Menopause, however, is induced by rapidly declining estrogen levels with age. Lower estrogen levels mean the metabolic functions of estrogen are lost. Weight gain can result.
Here is another reason for weight gain due to low estrogen. Estrogen falls under a class of hormones referred to as steroid hormones. The precursor of these hormones is cholesterol.
That is to say, steroid hormones are produced from cholesterol. And of course, where do you get cholesterol? The go-to location is in fat cells.
Once the body senses lower estrogen levels, it begins to generate more fat cells so it can get more stores of cholesterol. It can then pull from these cholesterol stores to produce estrogen.
Therefore, lower estrogen levels lead to increased fat storage. Just for the sake of getting cholesterol to make estrogen.
That’s not all. We can agree that with age, physical activities reduce. Menopause sets in with advancing age, and physical activities also reduce with advancing age.
So, the weight gained at menopause may be more as a result of reduced physical activities than reduced physical activities.
Other things can cause estrogen imbalance
Aside from menopause, estrogen imbalance can occur as a result of:
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome(PCOS)
- Bilateral oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries, where much of estrogen is produced)
- Excessive physical exercise/activities
Managing your weight at Menopause!
This is very important. Normally, during puberty and the reproductive years, estrogen also causes you to store fat. But the fat is stored in the breasts, hips, thighs, etc. However, at menopause, the fat is stored around the abdominal area. This is called visceral fat.
Visceral fat is dangerous because it leads to an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, etc. So, you have to manage this weight very well.
What can you do?
- Increase physical activity and exercise. Even if you’re aging and you don’t feel like it, ensure you get some exercise to keep healthy.
- Watch what you eat to prevent loading up on excessive calories.
6. Cortisol and weight Gain
Cortisol is the ‘stress hormone.’ It is the hormone produced to help you cope with stress.
When you feel stressed for any reason, the body senses it as a form of emergency. The stress could be due to pressing deadlines, problems at home, a snake in the toilet bowl, a mean dog on your heels, etc. Anyhow it comes, stress is stress. Once there is stress, cortisol is in action.
What does cortisol do?
We mentioned earlier that cortisol helps you cope with stress. The question is, “How?”
Cortisol works hand-in-hand with adrenaline to produce the following changes:
- It increases your heart rate so you can pump blood faster. Faster blood means nutrients get transported around you quicker.
- Your eyes open wider so you can see clearer, in case of physical danger.
- It increases alertness so you can focus on the task at hand and get out of a stressful situation.
- You start producing and utilizing more sugar so you can have energy, and so on.
This last point is where the problem lies.
Stress, increased cortisol, and weight gain
So, hormones and weight connection concerning cortisol? We are talking weight gain here.
The longer you’re stressed, the more you produce cortisol. The more cortisol you produce, the more sugar you have available in your bloodstream. Higher sugar levels put you at an increased risk of weight gain.
What do you do to avoid cortisol weight gain?
- The primary thing is obvious. Avoid stress. Reduce your exposure to potentially stressful situations.
- Learn to calm yourself when you’re stressed. Abhyanga, pranayama, and other forms of yoga are very relaxing.
- Take a break when you need to.
A healthy lifestyle is the best bet!
True, some things are just beyond your control. But if you critically consider the discussion on hormones and weight connections so far, you will notice something. An unhealthy lifestyle can lead to a cascade of health complications, imbalanced hormones and hence hormonal weight gain.
Your body has set points and knows how to keep things in check. However, if you push it to extremes, the intrinsic control will fail, and there will be problems.
The best bet then is to live a healthy lifestyle, eat right and exercise regularly.
We would love to hear your thoughts, queries and suggestions. Do share them in the comments below and we will get back as soon as possible.
- Stress and Obesity: Are There More Susceptible Individuals?
- Cortisol, obesity and the metabolic syndrome: A cross-sectional study of obese subjects and review of the literature
- More evidence linking stress to obesity
- Hyperinsulinemia: a Cause of Obesity?
- Estrogen Deficiency and the Origin of Obesity during Menopause