I’ve been talking a lot about weight loss and transforming your life lately because my new weight loss program is really working for people – whatever their age! So many women have come to me in their forties or fifties thinking that the weight they’ve gained is their for life. “Isn’t this just what getting older is all about?” they ask me. Imagine their delight when I tell them “No!”
It’s true that there are many factors that make us more likely to gain weight as we get older, but as I always say, knowledge is power. If we understand these factors, and the personal control we have over them, weight gain does NOT have to be inevitable.
I’ve seen women get so discouraged because they’ve spent time learning about all the lifestyle choices that impact weight as you age, and they think they’re doing everything right. They’re eating nutritious foods, and they exercise regularly, but their weight still creeps up a little each year. When this happens, it’s time to look more closely at what’s going on with their hormones.
Hormonal imbalances are at the root of so many health issues. And far too many women have chronic imbalances in essential hormones without recognizing them. When they know what to look for, they can find solutions.
Some hormones are very familiar to women who are in perimenopause or menopause. Most understand, for instance, that estrogen can wreak havoc on their weight. But there are other, less well known hormones that can have just as much – or more – influence on weight. In addition to estrogen, it’s important to consider cortisol, insulin and leptin if you find yourself unable to shed those extra pounds.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these hormones and how they can influence your weight. Then, I’ll give you five easy steps to flip the off switch on these weight gain hormones and find the balance you’re looking for.
How Do These Hormones Work?
Every hormone in your body has an important job that is meant to help you survive. Some are so important that you literally can’t live without them. You may be able to live without others, but you probably won’t be very comfortable if you don’t work to keep them as balanced as possible. If hormones aren’t carrying the right messages, or aren’t balanced properly, they often have a domino effect on other hormones. And having too much or too little of certain hormones can mean that unintended consequences – such as holding on to extra pounds – arise. Let’s take a look at some of the main culprits.
If you haven’t heard about leptin, it’s time you did! It seems like everyone’s talking about it, and it’s role in weight gain, these days. It’s so important to know about this hormone, especially what we call leptin resistance, when you’re trying to understand weight gain.
Decades of research show that leptin plays a role in weight gain, but the mechanisms still aren’t as well understood as we’d like. A 2019 Review of studies reinforced the notion that although it’s well accepted that leptin impacts weight gain, diagnosis of leptin resistance is still tricky. Research has been able to determine that genetics play a big role, even if we aren’t quite sure how. New research is shedding some light on the topic, but there is certainly more we need to discover.
What we do know is that leptin signals your brain when it’s time to stop eating. Typically, leptin is released from your fat cells, traveling through the bloodstream to your brain, letting it know you’re full. If levels of leptin are too high or low, incorrect signals might be sent. When it’s too high, the message gets muddled, and your body can miss it, causing you to keep eating long after you should have stopped. The same thing happens when you don’t have enough leptin – the message to stop eating simply isn’t strong enough. One of the biggest factors in your bodies overproduction of leptin is fructose – which shows up naturally in fruit, and added to an alarming number of processed foods. Too much fructose makes your body convert it into fats, and since fat produces leptin, your levels increase.
Sleep is also a factor. Have you ever noticed how hungry you get if you are having trouble sleeping? There’s a reason for that. Research has shown that leptin is impacted by poor sleep. One study showed that participants with short sleep duration had lower leptin levels, and higher levels of ghrelin (which stimulates the appetite). In our culture, finding time to get enough sleep can be exceedingly difficult – but if you want to lose weight, it’s essential!
Stress is another big topic of conversation in the medical community these days, and more and more research is showing how elevated levels of cortisol – the “stress hormone” negatively impact health. Many connections have been found between high levels of cortisol and weight gain.
Cortisol is your body’s natural protection hormone. In our early ancestors, it played a crucial role in responding to threats to survival. The problem is, your body doesn’t know the difference between an actual threat – like being chased by a tiger – and a perceived threat, such as being stuck in rush hour traffic. With the overwhelming stress of modern life, cortisol levels often remain unnaturally high.
When cortisol levels rise, your body hangs on to calories, storing them as fat. When food was scarce, this was a great help to our ancestors. But these days there’s a supermarket on every corner, and plenty of other places to easily obtain food, so our bodies don’t need this survival mechanism any longer.
New research is giving us even more insight on the damaging effects of high cortisol. For instance, one study found that societal stigma around weight has been found to be correlated with higher cortisol levels, obesity and higher BMI. That means that if you are already overweight, the way our society responds to you can raise cortisol levels, and you may gain even more weight. It can become a vicious cycle!
Most women associate insulin with diabetes, and may think that if they are not diabetic, insulin won’t factor into health issues for them. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
In fact, one 2018 study examined ten year weight gain in relation to fasting insulin levels, and found that elevated insulin levels were positively associated with weight gain. The impact of insulin resistance on weight gain preceded hyperglycaemia (elevated blood glucose levels associated with diabetes).
Insulin levels are impacted by the sugar and carbohydrates we consume, and when insulin levels are too high, the body will hold on to glucose in the form of fat. That’s because insulin aids the absorption of glucose by fat cells, storing it as energy. But if you are trying to avoid weight gain, the last thing you want is to store energy in fat cells!
As I said before, although sex hormones aren’t the only culprits when it comes to weight gain, estrogen does play a large role, especially during perimenopause or menopause. But it’s not just the estrogen that impacts weight, it’s the ratio of estrogen to progesterone.
When this is out of whack, you may experience estrogen dominance – meaning your level of estrogen, even if quite low, is still too high compared to your progesterone level. Some women have very low levels of progesterone to begin due to hormonal imbalances. This means their ratio may have been off kilter for a very long time.
Estrogen levels can also be affected by the overabundance of estrogen-like chemicals that surround us in everyday life. When you are using products that contain chemicals that mimic estrogen in your body, it can upset your natural hormonal balance.
5 Simple Steps to Turn Off Your Weight Gain Hormones
Now you know some of the key hormones that can impact weight gain. Like I have said before, knowledge is power – and now you can make some easy changes to your lifestyle that helps flip the switch to off, allowing you to shed those stubborn pounds.
1. Make Quality Sleep a Priority
With the frantic pace of life most Americans lead, I know it can seem impossible to schedule in enough time to sleep. I have patients tell me constantly that even when they get to bed at a reasonable hour, getting to sleep is another story.
But research has shown that sleep deprivation can impact weight, so if controlling your weight is the goal, getting good sleep is essential. As I detailed above, sleep is linked to changes in the levels of many of the hormones that impact weight.
There are plenty of natural ways to deal with insomnia, including setting a regular sleep schedule for yourself, making sure the place you sleep is a quiet haven free from electronics and other distractions, and practicing meditation or deep breathing to help yourself relax and get to sleep.
2. Develop Optimal Eating Habits
Nutrition is so important in the regulation of hormones and for weight management. The food you choose to consume directly impacts hormone levels, including insulin and leptin resistance.
It’s particularly important to eat fresh, organic foods as often as you can, since the chemicals in food can throw hormonal balance off. At the very least, know what the “dirty dozen” are and buy those organic.
Be sure to have some protein at each meal and snack. While I don’t think snacking between meals is necessary for everyone, if you need to have snacks, be sure to choose something that will sustain you. Many of the sugar and carbohydrate-filled snacks that are easy to grab offer offer a quick boost, but its soon followed by a crash that sends you back to the cupboards for another snack.
Planning ahead is one of the best ways to keep yourself on track with healthy food choices. I know it can be difficult, but if you take some time on the weekend to cut vegetables for the week, or even prepare a whole meal that can be tossed into the crockpot when you know you have a busy day ahead, you won’t find yourself running out for takeout at the end of the day. I travel a lot, and because I know it can be tough to find healthy choices while on the road or in the air, I make sure I bring some with me.
Your diet should be low in carbohydrates and include plenty of healthy fats, like nuts, avocado, or coconut oil. Limiting intake of both sugar and caffeine can help your hormones stay regulated and balanced. If you find yourself really struggling to avoid those comfort foods, I encourage you to look online for recipes made for a Keto diet. I’ve found amazing options, like cauliflower pizza, and even sweet treats. Because they’re made with xylitol, not sugar, your hormones won’t react to these the same way.
3. Stress Reduction is Vital
We’ve talked about how stress can impact cortisol levels, putting your body into overdrive and causing your body to hang on to unwanted weight. In order to combat this survival response in your body, it’s essential to find ways to relax and reduce the stress in your life. This won’t look the same for everyone – you have to find techniques that work for you.
Stress can come from so many directions that you may need to look at this from many different angles. Emotional stress is just as damaging – maybe even more so – than physical stress. Emotional stress can result from the media messages you receive – sometimes, just taking a break from the constant barrage of stressful news, and even advertising messages, can help.
Your internal script can be another source of stress. If you have old stories weighing you down, it may be time to seek help from a therapist or a program designed to help you deal with old hurts.
Mindful meditation, yoga, or just finding the strength to say no to overcommitting yourself can all be helpful in reducing the stress in your life. The most important thing to remember is that you have to find something that will allow you to push all other thoughts aside. I love dancing, because when I dance it’s impossible for me to think of anything else. If you find yourself unable to let those thoughts go, try setting aside “worry-time.” During this time, allow yourself to think about all those things that are weighing on your mind — but when the timer rings, it’s time to set those worries aside and move on!
4. Support Your Body With Supplements
Sometimes, no matter how well you eat or how much sleep you get, your body needs a little help. Our food supply is so much different than it used to be and getting all the essential nutrients you need to help keep hormones balanced is tricky.
I recommend that my patients take a high-quality multivitamin daily. Fish oil can help keep your body stable and healthy as well. And since hormonal balance is so important, a supplement targeted at keeping essential hormones at appropriate levels may be just what you need to stabilize your weight.
5. Exercise Regularly
Keeping your body moving can help relieve stress, promote better sleep, and also distracts you from the impulse to eat if you aren’t truly hungry. The key is to find something you love; if you don’t love it, you won’t do it!
It’s also important to understand that the type of exercise you choose can have an impact – especially if you are suffering from hormonal imbalances that need to be addressed. Sometimes, a brisk walk is a better choice than hours of cardio classes! Interval training is a great option for many, and doesn’t require as much time to fit into your daily routine.
Daily exercise can help you rid your body of toxins, including those estrogen mimicking chemicals I talked about earlier. Routine exercise also helps keep your leptin levels stable by ensuring you get the sleep you need. And, exercise boosts our “feel good” hormones, giving you more energy and less need to seek out comfort foods.
You Can Control the Impact Hormones Have on Weight Gain
I’ve heard too many women tell me they’re giving up – that they don’t believe there’s anything they can do to avoid weight gain, particularly in perimenopause or menopause. But I want to assure you there is hope, despite what modern culture might be telling you. I am post-menopausal myself, and I am skinnier now than I have been for years. I understand the struggle – I’ve been through it myself. But you need to know that the writing is not on the wall. You have the power to determine your own outcomes. It won’t be easy, but I promise it will be worth it!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD