The hormones are substances that act as chemical messengers in your body. Secreted by different glands in your endocrine system, they travel through your bloodstream with instructions to coordinate certain behaviors and physiological processes, including sleep, appetite, and metabolism —even body fat distribution.
This is why hormones can play a significant role in overweight and obesity and a factor to consider if you’re trying to lose some of those extra pounds.
Hormonal Imbalances And Weight Gain
About 42.4% of American adults were obese in 2017-2018. And while this is mostly linked to the Western diet, genetic predisposition, and sedentary lifestyle, there are hormonal imbalances that contribute to weight gain —or avoid weight loss in individuals who are already overweight.
Here are the hormones that are most commonly involved in this:
Leptin is a hormone whose function is to inhibit hunger and food intake by signaling satiety to the brain. It’s made in fat cells, which means that the more body fat you have, the more leptin you will produce. The problem is that excessive amounts of leptin can lead to leptin resistance, a condition in which there is diminished responsiveness to the hormone. This means that your brain doesn’t receive leptin’s message properly, ignores that you’re full, and makes you overeat. Additionally, because it interprets that you’re not getting enough food, it burns fewer calories to save energy.
The thyroid hormone is the hormone that’s most commonly associated with weight gain because it regulates your metabolism, and when you have an underactive thyroid gland or hypothyroidism, your ability to process what you eat and convert it into energy is much slower than normal. This way, you burn fewer calories than you should, and as you may already know, the unburned calories may eventually turn into fat.
Other symptoms of hypothyroidism include tiredness, dry skin, slow heart rate, and constipation.
Somatotropin comes from the pituitary gland, and it’s most known as the growth hormone (GH) because it activates growth. It’s determinant for height, muscle and bone development, cell regeneration, and cell reproduction. But it also stimulates the production of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), a protein that helps burn fats, sugars, carbohydrates.
Maybe because of this, it’s no surprise that obese people have reduced levels of GH, according to research. Growth hormone deficiencies increase fat mass, which makes it more difficult to lose weight.
Ghrelin is called “the hunger hormone” because there’s more of it in your blood when you’re hungry and much less after you’ve eaten. It’s secreted mainly by the stomach when it’s empty. It “tells” your brain that you have to fill it and activates gastric acid production, preparing it to receive food.
While research hasn’t sustained that ghrelin is to blame for overweight and obesity, ghrelin levels increase during calorie-restriction diets, which explains the food cravings. The body naturally wants to make up for weight loss by producing this hormone to make you eat and regain calories and fat reservoirs.
This stress hormone made in the adrenal glands plays a part in metabolism and blood sugar levels. It can produce glucose from non-carbohydrate precursors (a process called gluconeogenesis) to boost energy and revert hypoglycemia episodes. But it can’t raise your blood sugar levels if it doesn’t reduce your insulin levels (a hormone made in the pancreas that has the opposite effect).
To achieve this, cortisol induces certain insulin resistance in the cells. Insulin resistance is linked to obesity and diabetes when it’s chronic. This is why it’s important for cortisol levels to go back to normal after the stressful situation has passed or after blood sugar levels have been stabilized.
Sex hormones play a part in body fat distribution, which is different in men and women.
Because women in some cases, can have a more curvy body, sex hormones order the fat to stow in the breasts and around the hips. With an excess of estrogen levels, women’s bodies could turn pear-shaped. This is called gynoid obesity.
Men store fat in the belly instead, so their bodies turn apple-shaped when they gain too much weight. This is typical male-type obesity, but postmenopausal women can also be affected.
Belly fat is easier to lose, but it’s more dangerous in terms of disease related to obesity.
Testing And Correcting Your Hormone Levels
There are several tests that can be performed to check your hormone levels. Blood tests usually reveal your levels of cortisol, sex hormones, and TSH (the hormone that stimulates the thyroid). Sometimes, your doctor may request a thyroid scan. It depends on the hormones that are suspected to be imbalanced.
There are also at-home tests. These are convenient kits created to measure male and female hormones, cortisol levels, and/or thyroid function with blood, saliva, or urine samples that can be taken at home but must be sent to a lab afterward.
Besides weight gain or the inability to lose weight, additional symptoms can appear if you have hormonal imbalances. The symptoms will depend on which hormones are imbalanced. For example, someone with too much cortisol in their bloodstream may develop Cushing syndrome, which involves fatigue, muscle weakness, bone loss, low sex drive, acne, stretch marks, and others.
Your doctor will try to find the cause of your hormonal imbalance and treat it accordingly. They may also recommend you to:
● Exercise. Physical activity promotes the secretion of growth hormone, insulin, testosterone (which helps build muscle and burn fats in both sexes), and even endorphins.
● Sleep well. The human body has schedules based on circadian rhythms driven by its internal biological clock and influenced by natural light. If you stay up late and/or fail to get around 8 hours of sleep every night, you may disarrange these natural schedules and suffer from hormonal imbalances.
● Address your stress. Stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, are meant to activate the fight-or-flight response in critical situations. But they’re also supposed to stop that response once the threat is gone. When they don’t, you get chronically stressed, and you’re at risk of developing health issues related to the excess of stress hormones in your bloodstream. To manage your stress levels, simple practices like sleeping well, eating healthily, exercising regularly, and practicing yoga and/or meditation is recommended.
● Mind your diet. You can help your body to regulate your hormones by eating fiber, proteins, vitamins, minerals, fish, and healthy fats. Healthy fats include avocado, nuts, grass-fed butter, eggs, coconut oil, and coconut milk. Choose green tea over caffeine and alcohol, and avoid refined carbs, fried foods, and sugars.
● Get a Blood Test. A simple hormone blood test can give you the information to start your journey and possibly indicate the best strategy to optimize your weight loss journey.