“If there’s a diet out there, I’ve tried it,” Marisol told me.
From the balanced Mediterranean to keto, low FODMAP, vegan, and too many fads to count, my new patient had long been on the hunt for the diet that would finally work for her.
But no matter what she tried, she couldn’t seem to shed the extra pounds she’d been carrying around. Not only that, she suddenly seemed to be gaining weight!
All around her, she seemed to be hearing about women who had tried some particular diet and it had transformed their lives. Why was nothing working for her?
So I told her something that I’ve told so many of my patients, and that she hadn’t really considered.
Maybe it wasn’t all about the foods she was eating. Maybe it was about the way her body was digesting and processing them.
For anyone with a weight loss goal, and for anyone who just wants to be healthier, the choices you make around food are incredibly important.
But many women, like Marisol, are making healthy food choices– and something is still missing.
In these cases, there’s often an issue with digestion, hormonal balance, or both. Today, let’s take a look at how digestion, hormonal balance, and weight gain are connected– and what you can do about it.
The rise of digestive issues
Digestive problems seem to be on the rise. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), a diagnosis that’s given when someone has gastrointestinal symptoms that can’t be explained by another condition, continues to increase in prevalence.
And the same thing we’re seeing in research is what I’m seeing in my clinic. I see more and more women complaining of stomach or digestive issues all the time.
Their symptoms vary, but many of them overlap. They may be bloated every time they eat, have nagging pain in their stomach, experience frequent nausea, or be prone to embarrassing episodes of gas – including both belching and flatulence. They may experience diarrhea, constipation, or a combination of both at different times.
Often, there are other things going on, too: like unexpected weight gain, or feeling tired all the time.
They tell me they’ve tried to get to the root of the problem, but can’t find answers.
Sometimes, these problems are so persistent it’s impacting daily life. These women are afraid to go anywhere that involves a shared meal, because they simply don’t know what will happen when they eat.
They’ve looked for help, but they’re either told it’s something that they have to learn to live with, or that they’re too stressed out and if they’d just relax their problems would subside. Now there’s definitely a link between stress and digestive issues, but there’s often a lot more at play. Women are surprised when I tell them that their gut issues could be connected to hormonal imbalances.
Let’s take a look at the relationship between gut health and hormones, how that relationship is connected to weight gain, and some simple tips you can follow to maintain a healthy digestive system.
What happens when you have a leaky gut?
A key link between digestion, hormones, and weight gain is something called “leaky gut”.
Ideally, the lining of your digestive system allows only necessary nutrients from digested food to pass through into your bloodstream. Small areas in the lining open up to let them through, then close behind them to keep all the waste in.
If that lining is damaged, it can’t do this job properly. Instead, bacteria, toxins, and partially undigested food particles are allowed into your bloodstream, causing your immune system to react and often triggering harmful reactions like hormonal imbalance and weight gain.
Research is showing more and more how leaky gut can be related to chronic inflammation and a wide range of health issues, including allergies, type 1 diabetes, gastrointestinal diseases, and even autism.
You may be surprised that problems in the gut can be connected to so many varied health problems. But you shouldn’t be. In the past decade, research has exploded on just how impactful the enteric nervous system – your “second brain” – is to countless body functions. This system contains 100 million neurons and does so much more than simply process food.
Digestion and Hormonal Balance
One major implication of having a leaky gut is that your hormonal balance can quickly become skewed. Remember, hormones are chemical messengers. If anything interferes with the transmission of these messages, your system may not have an accurate picture of what your body needs. And when one hormone goes out of balance, others quickly follow suit.
A healthy digestive system helps rid your body of estrogen metabolites. If this doesn’t happen (as is often the case with a leaky gut) you may develop estrogen dominance, which means you have too much estrogen in proportion to progesterone. These hormones need to be in sync to properly regulate menstrual function, help burn fat, decrease fluid retention and regulate mood.
Researchers have also identified the importance of the “estrobolome”: the collection of bacteria that help convert estrogen to its active form. If your gut microbiome (the broader collection of bacteria living in your gut) is out of balance, your estrobolome is likely to be, too.
Thyroid hormones are another important piece of your overall health puzzle, and some of the conversion of T4 to the more usable T3 form happens in a healthy gut. If your gut health is impaired, that T4 may not convert easily, leaving you low on T3. Imbalanced thyroid hormones are connected to many serious symptoms, including weight gain.
Insulin is important in the regulation of blood sugar. If your blood glucose levels are stable, you’re much less likely to release excess insulin. You also probably won’t crave sugar as much. However, an unhealthy digestive system can put you at higher risk for insulin resistance, which makes burning fat (and losing weight) more difficult.
Most of the serotonin, which helps you feel happy, is produced in your gut. That production can suffer when you have a leaky gut. This can also impact melatonin levels, making sleep more difficult. And since sleep and hormones are intricately linked, sleep deprivation can have a huge impact on how balanced your hormone levels are.
An angry, inflamed gut can also trigger your stress response, resulting in high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. The unhealthy bacteria produced in an unhealthy gut can also change levels of ghrelin and leptin, both of which regulate appetite.
As you can see, digestion and hormonal balance are connected in a number of ways. And hormonal balance is key to effective weight loss in many women. That’s why it’s so important to take good care of your digestive health if you want to maintain a healthy weight.
The connection between digestion and weight loss
The relationship between gut health and weight loss is complex. There are so many pieces to the digestive process – leaky gut is just one thing that can go wrong. Overgrowth of harmful bacteria (dysbiosis), candida overgrowth, food sensitivities, low gastric acid, and parasites are all factors that can disrupt your digestive tract and lead to weight gain.
These factors can also make it extremely difficult to shed those pounds once you have them. Weight loss resistance can result from an imbalanced microbiome, among other factors.
The primary function of your digestive system is to break down food to be used as energy or disposed of as waste. When it doesn’t break down foods properly, you may not absorb enough necessary nutrients, and you may also hold on to waste and toxins leaving you bloated and/or constipated. If you can’t absorb crucial vitamins, minerals and nutrients, you could also be dealing with a lower metabolic rate, which can leave you exhausted and holding on to excess fat.
If your digestive system isn’t working the way it should, the rest of your body will eventually be affected. That’s why so many women have symptoms that linger for years with no solution; they haven’t treated the gut issues that have lurked unidentified for years.
After a while, these women think that the way they feel is simply how aging feels. But that’s just not true! Even when symptoms are mild, when they’re ever present it wears on your body – and mind! That’s why it’s so important to know there IS something you can do about it.
5 tips to promote healthy digestion and hormonal balance
When you keep your gut healthy, you keep your hormones healthy. And when you keep your hormones healthy, you might finally find solutions for that stubborn weight gain. Here are some ways to keep your digestive system strong long term.
1. Take a probiotic regularly
You can keep the ratio of “good vs. bad” bacteria balanced through daily use of probiotics, which replenish the beneficial flora in your gut. My Biotic Support supplement is a proprietary blend that was specifically designed to effectively deliver beneficial bacteria to your digestive tract.
2. Make sure your diet includes plenty of fiber
Fiber is the part of plants that cannot be digested. Consuming plenty of vegetables, fruit and whole grains that are high in fiber can help improve digestion since fiber moves waste through your body for elimination. Some great options include sweet potatoes, carrots, peas, dates, apples, pears, beans, lentils, and whole grain breads.
3. Eat fermented foods
Fermented foods naturally contain probiotics, so making them a regular part of your diet can keep the bacteria in your gut balanced. There are plenty of choices – yogurt, kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, miso and kimchi are all good options.
4. Pay attention to lifestyle choices
Although it may not be immediately obvious that certain lifestyle choices impact digestion, I can assure you that they do! Stress and exercise are two of the most important factors when it comes to keeping your digestive process running smoothly.
Chronic stress leads to high cortisol, which can increase appetite, prompt digestive distress, and change your metabolic rate. Too little exercise slows digestion rate, which can lead to constipation and burning less calories (which then leads to weight gain). Exercise can be a great stress buster if you find something you love, so finding time to move is doubly important!
And, of course, a healthy, varied diet is key in maintaining good gut health. Equally as important is avoiding things that could disrupt gut health, including coffee, alcohol, processed foods, dairy, and any foods that prompt an adverse reaction. Everyone has their own unique sensitivities, so you can’t rely on doing what your friends do – you have to determine which foods don’t work for you.
5. Don’t ignore the emotional connection
What happens in your gut impacts your mood – and your emotions can affect your gut health. Like so many other relationships in your body, this connection can be cyclical so it’s important to heal your gut microbiome and let go of emotional upset. Those “gut feelings” are real, and should not be ignored!
Healthy digestion promotes healthy hormones – and weight loss!
After I teach the women I treat about how digestion can impact hormonal balance and keep unwanted weight around, they often make these simple changes and have great success shedding those pounds.
This was the case with Marisol. And once she improved her digestive system and hormonal balance, it turned out that she could lose weight– on a very simple and easy to follow whole foods diet.
Because there are so many things that can create havoc in your gut, it may take a while to find just the right combination of changes. But be persistent – I promise it’s worth it!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD