Are your hormones sabotaging your weight loss?

Anita Marley
Lake Regional Health System
Hormones are involved in many functions in the body.

 If you are like most middle-aged Americans, your waistline is a bit wider than it was in your 20s or 30s. There are many reasons for gradual weight gain as we age: less activity, bigger portions, more alcohol, chronic disease and more. But the blame often goes to hormone imbalance because there are many hormones involved in the regulation of body weight. Certain conditions involving hormones can lead to substantial weight changes; however, this is not a common cause of obesity or gradual weight gain.

Hormones are involved in many functions in the body. Let’s look at the ones that may have an impact on our weight.

Appetite and Hunger Hormones:

Leptin is the primary weight regulatory hormone, and it is made by fat tissue. It tells you when to stop eating. The more fat you have, the more leptin you produce. When you lose weight, your leptin levels go down. Unfortunately, it is easy to ignore our leptin signals. Leptin deficiency is extremely rare. There is nothing you can do to change your leptin levels.

Ghrelin is released by the stomach to provoke your appetite, which causes you to increase how much you eat. It also promotes fat storage. Ghrelin is our hunger hormone. When you are losing weight, your body produces more ghrelin making it harder to cut calories and lose weight.

Blood Sugar Control Hormones:

Insulin is produced by the pancreas to help bring glucose into the cells to use for fuel or to store extra glucose as fat. Insulin sensitivity is a measure of how well the body responds to insulin. As you gain weight, insulin sensitivity decreases, causing cells to lose their response to insulin. This can result in type 2 diabetes, as well as weight gain.

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that sit atop the kidneys. It is often called the stress hormone because of its role in the body’s response to stressful situations. When stressed, your body releases extra cortisol to help mobilize fuel. This can influence blood sugar levels. Too much cortisol in our body over a long time can cause inflammation that leads to a suppressed immune function and other diseases. Stress may be physical, mental or emotional. Chronic stress can increase your appetite, cause abdominal weight gain and muscle loss.

Sex Hormones:

Estrogen plays a significant role in metabolism and how we use glucose for energy. Estrogen preserves bone health, memory and cognition; it also helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and plays a big role in insulin sensitivity. In women, estrogen nudges fat to be stored in the hips and thighs. When estrogen levels plummet with menopause, women tend to gain more weight in the abdomen. Estrogen affects men as well as women. Males can convert testosterone into estradiol or estrogen. Too much or too little estrogen in men can lead to increased belly fat or swollen breast tissue.

Testosterone helps burn fat and build muscle, and it aids in energy and motivation. Levels of this hormone naturally drop five to 10 percent per decade. However, boosting testosterone when you have normal levels probably won’t change your body composition and can have harmful side effects. 

Thyroid:

The thyroid gland, located in the lower part of the front of the neck, makes thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormone release is regulated by other hormones produced in the brain. Thyroid hormones help control how quickly or slowly your body burns calories. If you have low thyroid levels, or hypothyroidism, it can slow down your metabolism. Hyperthyroidism, or too much thyroid hormone, can result in a dramatic weight loss, but it is also harmful to your heart, bones and eyes. Hypothyroidism is especially common in women. Between ages 35 and 65, about 13% of women have an underactive thyroid; this proportion rises to 20% among those older than 65. Your primary care provider can test your thyroid levels and prescribe medication to correct the deficiency.

While it is easy to blame hormones for your weight gain or difficulty with losing weight, they likely play an insignificant role. Hormone supplements aren’t helpful or safe for people who don’t really need them, so you shouldn’t take them unless advised by your medical provider. If you have normal levels, there can be multiple side effects and harm from treatment.

Calories in versus calories out is the most critical factor in losing weight. Following a healthy diet with more high-fiber fruits and vegetables and less refined carbs, sugars, processed foods and alcohol is the best way to keep hormones from hampering your weight loss. Exercise stimulates weight regulation and hormone production, as well as improves insulin resistance. Controlling stress and getting adequate sleep are also important factors in weight control.

Chicken Fajita Bowl

Serves 6

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast or thigh

3 Tbsp salt-free taco seasoning

¾ tsp salt

1 Tbsp olive oil

2 (16 ounce) bags frozen sliced peppers and onions

1 can black beans, no salt added, drained and rinsed

3 cups cooked brown rice

Remove any excess fat from the chicken, and cut into ¼” strips. Place in a bowl, and toss with 1 tablespoon taco seasoning. Heat oil in a large sauté pan, over medium heat. Add the chicken strips, and cook and flip until browned. Add the vegetables, remaining taco seasoning and salt. Toss to finish cooking chicken and soften vegetables. Add beans, and cook until hot. Serve over rice. Top with avocado, sour cream or plain yogurt and lime if desired.

Nutrition Information: 1 cup chicken/ vegetables plus ½ cup rice: 330 calories, 5 g fat, 45 g carbs, 9 g fiber, 24 g protein, 410 mg sodium

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Missouri.