So many women come into my office in their forties, frustrated and upset because no matter what they do, they find themselves gaining weight. “Is this just what happens?” they ask me nervously. “Is there no way to avoid it?” I’m happy to be able to tell them that although there are factors that make weight gain more likely as we age, particularity weight gain hormones. If we understand what these are, weight gain is NOT inevitable.
My patients are so discouraged when they come to me, because they think they’re doing everything right. They eat well and exercise regularly, but still find their weight creeping up. When this happens, it’s time to look more closely at what’s going on with their hormones.
So many health issues are connected to hormones; more specifically, to hormonal imbalances. Some women have chronic imbalances in essential hormones, and they have no idea. But when they know what to look for, they can find solutions.
So which hormones can can be considered weight gain hormones – ones that impact weight gain the most? They might not be the ones that immediately come to mind. When women are in perimenopause or going through the menopause transition, it’s easy to get stuck on fluctuating sex hormones for everything. Yes, those hormones can play a role in weight gain, but there are others that have just as great, if not greater, impact. Cortisol, insulin and leptin, in addition to estrogen, are the key hormones to consider if you find yourself unable to shed those extra pounds.
Let’s take a closer look at all of these hormones and how they can influence your weight. Then, I’ll give you five easy steps to turning off your weight gain hormones and find the balance you’re looking for.
How Do These Weight Gain Hormones Work?
Hormones have varied responsibilities in your body, and each one has at least one important job intended to help you survive – and thrive. But when they aren’t working properly, or you have too much of some and not enough of others unintended consequences – such as holding on to extra pounds – arise. Let’s take a look at some of the main culprits.
Have you heard of leptin? If not, it’s time you did. This is the hormone that sends the signal to your brain that it’s time to stop eating. Typically, leptin is released from your fat cells, travelling through the bloodstream to your brain, letting it know you’re full. But leptin can’t send the right signals if the levels are too high or too low. 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.
You know how hungry you get if you aren’t 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!
Everyone is talking about the impact of stress on cortisol levels these days, and there’s a good reason. Elevated cortisol levels can affect a number of major health issues, including weight gain. Cortisol is designed to help your body react to threats. In ancient times, it’s the hormone that helped people survive. But 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. When cortisol levels rise, your body hangs on to calories, storing them as fat. This was useful for our ancestors, helping them through long stretches where food wasn’t readily available. But with a supermarket on every corner, and plenty of other places to easily obtain food, our bodies don’t need this survival mechanism any longer.
Most women associate insulin with diabetes, and may think that if they are not diabetic, insulin isn’t an issue for them. But it’s a little more complicated than that. 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 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!
Estrogen is particularly relevant to weight gain during perimenopause or menopause, even though levels tend to drop significantly during this transition. It’s not simply 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 with which can come from hormonal imbalance, secondary to high cortisol from stress, causing a vicious cycle. 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.
5 Simple Steps to Turn Off Your Weight Gain Hormones
Now that you understand some of the key hormones to pay attention to, let’s talk about some easy changes you can make to help flip the switch to off and 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. There are plenty of natural ways to deal with insomnia, including setting a regular sleep schedule for yourself, and making sure the place you sleep is a quiet haven free from electronics and other distractions.
2. Develop Optimal Eating Habits
It’s clear that if you want to avoid weight gain, you have to eat right. What you put into your body directly impacts many of these weight gain hormones, as well as many others. Eat fresh, organic foods as often as you can. At the very least, know what the “dirty dozen” are and buy those organic.
Be sure to have some protein at each meal. I’ve come to believe that snacking between meals isn’t necessary unless you have blood sugar regulation issues. If you feel the need to snack, make sure it’s something that will sustain you rather than offer a quick boost 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, you won’t find yourself running out for takeout at the end of the day. You can even prepare a whole meal that can be tossed into the crockpot when you know you have a busy day ahead. Because I travel a lot, I know it can be tough to find healthy choices while on the road or in the air. I always 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. 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 gives you something to do other than eating. The key is to find something you love; if you don’t love it, you won’t do it! 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.
Take Control of Your Weight Gain Hormones at Any Age
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. This is particularly common talk for women in perimenopause or menopause. They feel their weight gain hormones are out of their control. But I want to assure you there is hope.
Despite what modern culture might be telling you, you can control your weight gain hormones to lose unwanted weight at any age. 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!