If there’s one thing I can count on each year, it’s the flood of women who come to see me after the holidays complaining of exhaustion, uncomfortable symptoms, and the dreaded weight they’ve put on again.
They tell me this happens every year, and once that weight is there, it’s there to stay no matter what they do.
Each year I reassure these women that all hope is not lost.
I can help them get back on track and get rid of that holiday weight with some lifestyle changes and hard work. But I also give them tips on how to avoid these problems in future years, even during the holiday season.
Of course, it’s even better if women know how to avoid gaining weight and developing other symptoms before it happens. Proactive solutions are always preferable to reaction!
Anyone who has followed me for a while will know how many common health concerns boil down to trouble with hormones and the adrenal glands. Weight gain is no exception.
When your body is out of balance, it sometimes overcompensates by holding on to fat just in case it needs that energy later.
Imbalances in your adrenal glands and hormones create a jumble of confusion in your body. It simply doesn’t know what you do – and don’t – need.
Let’s take a look at how adrenals and hormones impact weight, then I’ll give you some tips on supporting both through the busy (albeit unusual this year) holiday season.
Adrenals, stress and weight Gain
Whenever I bring up stress in the context of weight gain, patients look at me with surprise.
They know that stress can make them feel worn out, anxious, and even cause physical pain (tension headache, anyone?) but they have never considered that it could be behind their struggles with weight.
But when we think about it, and look at the chemical reactions stress initiates in our bodies, it makes perfect sense.
Chronic stress causes a build up of cortisol, and when it goes on too long can have the opposite effect, depleting your body’s supply of this vital hormone. Either way, the resulting imbalances can lead to weight gain, regardless of how little you may be eating.
Research supports the link between high cortisol and weight gain. Imbalance cortisol levels are a result of impaired adrenal gland functioning.
Your adrenals regulate numerous body processes and are in charge of the stress response in your body. They produce not only cortisol, but other vital hormones such as adrenaline and aldosterone that help your body use the energy it extracts from fats and carbohydrates.
Under constant stress, the adrenals continue to react, producing hormones when your body doesn’t truly need them. And because any type of stress causes the same reaction, even exciting events can impact this cycle.
Belly fat is one big clue that excess weight may be a result of dysfunctional adrenal glands. That’s because long term stress impacts both cortisol and insulin levels.
When insulin levels are off, glucose isn’t regulated and too much can remain in the blood. This prompts your body to store it as fat, primarily in the abdominal region.
The holidays can be particularly stressful as you try to carry on with your regular daily tasks and add all the pieces that make the holidays special – baking, extra cooking, decorating, shopping, gathering (even virtually) with friends and family.
That’s why so many women struggle to maintain their weight in the holiday season, even if they find it easy the rest of the year.
Hormones and weight
Hormones carry messages to your brain that tell it what your body needs, including how much fat to store for times of “famine” when energy is in short supply. If those messages get garbled along the way, your body stores fat that isn’t needed to survive.
Hormone levels fluctuate naturally, but when they become too unbalanced – particularly in relation to each other – problems result. If the ratio between certain hormones is off, weight gain can occur, and weight loss becomes nearly impossible.
There’s a lot of places along the hormonal pathways where things can go wrong, even from the beginning of the process in your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
As I said before, insulin helps regulate glucose levels.
If your body isn’t producing an adequate amount of insulin, you may end up with insulin resistance, meaning you can’t absorb the glucose produced by the food you eat properly. Instead, your liver converts this glucose to fat.
Leptin impacts appetite. It’s primary message to the brain is “I’m full,” which triggers your brain to tell you to stop eating. Too much leptin in your blood may leave you perpetually hungry.
Thyroid hormones are closely connected to your metabolism.
When levels of thyroid hormone are low, metabolism slows, which can cause weight gain (and other uncomfortable symptoms). Thyroid hormone levels can also impact sex hormone levels. In fact, many hormones impact the production and balance of other hormones.
When estrogen levels are too high, weight loss resistance may result. And even if estrogen levels are in the normal range, if the ratio between estrogen and progesterone is off, symptoms can occur.
Supporting your body to maintain balance
It may seem like there’s too much to think about. You need to balance adrenals and hormones? How can you pay attention to it all?
The good news is that many of the strategies that support healthy adrenal glands also support balanced hormones. The following tips are great ways to support your whole body – adrenals and hormones included!
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And in reality, it can be.
You may need to take baby steps to get there, but once it becomes your norm, you might just forget you ever ate any other way! That’s because the food is so delicious and you’ll feel so good.
Like sensible shoes, sensible eating doesn’t sound like much fun.
But it can be – you just need to shift your perspective a little. What does sensible eating mean? First, let me tell you what it’s not.
Eating well doesn’t mean never indulging in a piece of bread or a holiday cookie. And it certainly doesn’t mean avoiding all fat – in fact, healthy fat is a critical component in maintaining a healthy weight.
What it does mean to eat sensibly is to pay attention to the choices you’re making most of the time. Fresh organic fruits and vegetables should be a staple, filling half of your plate at each meal. Healthy fat, protein, and complex carbohydrates are also important.
I’m sure it’s no surprise to hear that you should avoid processed food or anything loaded with added sugar. But it might be a surprise to hear that you might need to eat more, not less, to support your adrenals and hormones properly.
When you aren’t eating enough (as most fad diets require) you’re depriving your body of essential nutrients that help keep it functioning well.
Remember to keep a regular eating schedule as well.
If you wait too long, you’re bound to eat the first thing you see — and if that just happens to be a holiday treat, you might be in trouble! Eating on a schedule helps keep blood sugar stable and hormones balanced.
Even during the holidays, you can begin to make small changes that will keep you on track.
Instead of three desserts and two cocktails at a holiday gathering, limit yourself to one of each. Or bake with xylitol. Sample mini-portions of holiday favorites.
Drink seltzer infused with fresh fruit instead of wine. Set yourself up for success by prepping ahead of time and bringing your own food when necessary.
Relax your expectations – and your body!
Women often have impossibly high expectations for themselves, especially during the holiday season. It can be difficult to pull back and realize that trying to do it all simply isn’t in your best interests.
But a constant barrage of tasks and demands is the quickest route to elevated stress leading to adrenal and hormonal imbalances.
Slow down a little. Take time to truly enjoy the holiday events you choose to participate in.
This may be a little easier this year, so take advantage of the fact that many traditional events aren’t happening to discover what you really miss – and what you can let go of, even when things return to “normal.”
Reducing stress is so important when working to support your adrenal glands. An overly busy lifestyle increases stress levels pushing your adrenals into overdrive.
Now is a great time to try meditation, learn to say no (we’ve all had a lot of practice in that this year!) and discover what you can realistically accomplish each day.
Remember, you don’t have to manage everything all by yourself – especially during the holidays.
Get your family involved in the baking, decorating or shopping and not only will your load be lighter, you might find yourself connecting in truly special ways.
Sleep is essential to so many aspects of health, including your ability to maintain a healthy weight. Disrupted circadian rhythms also disrupt cortisol cycles.
The minimum amount of sleep you should get each night to keep your body healthy is 7 hours. Turn electronics off an hour before bed to help yourself fall asleep more quickly, and set a regular bedtime to build a healthy routine.
Practice mindfulness and deep breathing
Being mindful means focusing on exactly what is happening in that moment. This can be especially helpful for making healthy choices.
If you’re paying attention to every chip you put in your mouth, you’ll probably stop before the bag is gone, for instance. Try setting aside five minutes a day to practice being mindful.
Training yourself to hone in on the present will help you appreciate the little moments you might otherwise miss. And it can help you manage big emotions in productive ways, rather than heading for the cupboards.
There is no better stress buster than deep breathing. There are many effective methods for calming your body through breath. Choose one that works for you and make a point to use it whenever you feel stress rising.
One of my favorites is 7-7-7 breathing.
Breathe in for seven counts, hold for seven, and exhale for seven. Breathe in through your nose and feel your stomach expand to really fill yourself with breath. Exhale through your mouth, letting your shoulders and ribs relax as you do to completely expel the air.
Find joy in the season – and every day!
‘Tis the season to be jolly… but why limit yourself to this time of year to cultivate joy and happiness in your life?
Finding something you truly love to do – and giving yourself the space to do it in – is essential to keeping your hormones balanced. It doesn’t have to take much time.
Even a few minutes spent sipping a cup of tea and watching the sun rise can give you a much needed boost.
Art, dance, music, writing, sports — it doesn’t matter what it is that you love; it only matters that you do something that brings you joy each and every day.
Move your body – but not too much
Exercise is crucial to finding proper balance, but vigorous exercise can put additional strain on your adrenal glands.
If you don’t already exercise, start slowly – a ten minute walk twice a day, for instance. If you regularly exercise but find yourself struggling with weight and exhaustion, you may need to pull back a little until your adrenals heal.
And if you can find movement and joy all in the same activity, that’s a bonus!
Treat yourself with Keto desserts
Everyone wants a treat now and then, and if you have a sweet tooth there’s no need to deprive yourself.
Packaged Ketogenic treats are available online – and they have NO sugar in them. There are endless recipes you can find online as well, many of which are quick and easy to prepare.
For thanksgiving this year I made Keto Bombs, using Lilly’s chocolate chips (which I found at my local Whole Foods Market), which are sweetened with Stevia rather than sugar. They had amazing flavor and I could enjoy them knowing I was still taking care of my body.
Give yourself a boost with targeted supplements
Your body counts on you to supply it with the full range of nutrients it needs to keep hormones balanced and systems functioning properly. It’s exceedingly difficult to get everything you need these days, and the holiday season may make it even more so.
During the stressful holiday season, it may also be wise to proactively use supplements designed to support your adrenals and/or hormonal balance. I have many options in my online shop available to help you support your body in whatever way you need.
Healthy balance can keep the scales balanced too!
The holiday season is often the most stressful time of the year (unless you’re an accountant, maybe). It’s easy to lose track of healthy habits and let extra pounds creep on. But you have the power to make different choices this year.
A little awareness goes a long way! It’s already a unique year, due to COVID-19. Why not take this opportunity to focus on YOU. Keeping your adrenals and hormones balanced will lead to a healthier, happier post-holiday season – and you might enjoy the holidays a little more too!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD