Are Your Hormones Causing You to Gain Weight?
The days of thinking your weight all boils down to calories are long gone. These days, scientists are confirming what women have known all along–hormones, whether from your period or menopause or even stress, can drastically affect your waistline.
Take a look at some of the most likely hormones that are standing between you and your goal weight—and what you can do about it.
A demanding job, relationship issues, or any number of other problems that keep you under stress on a
fairly consistent basis could be affecting your weight, thanks to a hormone called cortisol. Also known as the “stress hormone,” cortisol is released when you’re under stress. This hormone is also responsible for the fight or flight response, the body’s response to stress that causes your heart to pound and your breath to quicken.
Cortisol also increases your appetite, making you feel hungrier than normal and increasing the likelihood of overeating. If you find yourself craving sweets or fattening foods instead of veggies when you’re stressed, there’s a reason for that. These foods release chemicals that reduce tension and stress.
To add insult to injury, studies have shown that these stress pounds tend to accumulate in the stomach, literally adding inches to your waistline.
Causes of abnormal cortisol levels
- Chronic stress is the biggest culprit of excessive amounts of cortisol.
- Systemic inflammation has also been linked to higher levels of cortisol production.
The female sex hormone responsible for your monthly cycle and everything that makes you a woman is actually a little fickle. When estrogen levels are normal, it can actually help you fight weight gain by balancing insulin levels. Too much or too little estrogen, however, and your weight can skyrocket.
Evidence suggests that high levels of estrogen can actually promote weight gain by preventing the body to use fat for energy.
The same can be said when there’s not enough estrogen. Low levels of estrogen can lower your body’s resting metabolic rate, making it easier to gain weight and harder to lose.
Estrogen may also be to blame for the dreaded saddlebags–women with too much estrogen also tend to carry their excess pounds around the hips and stomach.
Causes of abnormal estrogen levels
- During perimenopause, levels of estrogen go up and down irregularly. Eventually, estrogen lowers dramatically when menopause occurs.
- Women who become pregnant produce more estrogen as reserves for the upcoming extra work of carrying a baby.
- Many women take estrogen-replacement drugs to help combat the side effects of menopause. These drugs can result in higher than average levels of estrogen.
- Sometimes, unbalanced estrogen levels can be chalked up to genetics or natural occurrences.
- Xenoestrogens. These compounds, found in a variety of natural and man-made substances mimic (and may disrupt) the action of natural estrogen in the body. Certain plastics, pesticides, cosmetics and foods (soy) are major sources of xenoestrogens.
Leptin is actually one of the body’s best fat-fighting chemicals. This hormone is released from your fat tissue and regulates the amount of calories consumed and burned. Designed to help us from both starving and overeating, it generally signals your brain that there are enough fat stores in the body and to eat less and burn more calories. When body fat is low, less leptin is released, which tells the brain there isn’t enough fat, so we feel hungrier and eat more.
This is ideal. However, leptin resistance can occur when there is too much leptin in the body. The brain doesn’t “see” the leptin, which makes it falsely believe that starvation is taking place. This leptin resistance causes hunger and slows the metabolism.
Causes of leptin resistance
- Excessive fat in the body produces excessive leptin which the brain fails to recognize.
- High cholesterol. Too much triglyceride (the bad cholesterol) in the blood has been shown in studies to block leptin’s journey to the brain.
- Insulin resistance. As a result of IR, your tryglicerides also go up which, as you read, interferes with leptin.
Insulin is a hormone that regulates your blood sugar and helps the cells within the body absorb sugar (glucose) from carbs for energy. When insulin levels are normal, the amount of sugar in the blood and in the liver and muscles remains balanced.
Insulin resistance is when the cells are unable to absorb glucose—they become resistant to the effects of insulin. As a result, glucose builds up in the bloodstream, where it is stored as fat. When that happens, you gain weight. (And a host of other issues, including type 2 diabetes.)
Causes of insulin resistance
- Overweight or obesity. Excess weight is a leading risk factor for developing insulin resistance.
- Sedentary lifestyle. Multiple studies have shown that physical inactivity can lead to insulin resistance. In this study, subjects on bed rest experienced a 67% increase in bed rest after just five days.
- Older individuals are at a greater risk of developing insulin resistance.
- Alcohol and foods high in carbohydrates have also been linked to insulin resistance.
Normalizing Your Hormones
If your hormones are out of whack, don’t panic—in many cases, you can regain control the hormones that contribute to weight gain. Some of the most effective things you can do to mitigate unhealthy levels include:
Eat less meat.
Meat is one of the main culprits of high estrogen, in part because of the high levels of steroids and hormones in many farm-raised animals. If you’re worried about getting enough protein, start introducing more plant-based proteins into your diet.
Cutting back on meat and increasing your plant intake also means you’ll eat more fiber, which has been shown to decrease estrogen levels in studies.
We all have stress. When it becomes frequent or constant, it can really take a toll. Battle stress by adopting positive stress management techniques, like exercising, talking problems out with friends or a therapist, or take a few moments each day to meditate.
Limit alcohol consumption.
Alcohol can have a negative effect on both your weight and hormones. Alcohol increases blood sugar in the body, which may lead to insulin resistance. It also has been shown to increase levels of estrogen in women and interfere with the liver’s ability to metabolize estrogen.
Get more sleep.
Lack of sleep has been shown to contribute to excess cortisol and leptin levels. Some scientists believe these excess levels are one of the ways lack of sleep contributes to weight gain. Aim for at least 8 hours of sleep each night.
If you think an imbalance in hormones are causing the scale to creep up, take a step back and evaluate which hormones might be out of whack and why. Oftentimes, lifestyle changes can help you get your hormones—and weight—back to healthy levels. If that doesn’t do the trick, a visit to an endocrinologist can help you determine what’s behind your abnormal levels.
Written By: Jill Overmyer
Reviewed and Edited By: Scarlett Full, in-house Registered Dietitian