Have you ever wondered how your hormones influence your weight? Do you ever feel like you do “everything right” – eat healthy, exercise daily – yet you still can’t budge the few extra kilos?
This weeks guest is nutritionist Alex Hamlin and she dives into the complexity of our hormones, what role they play with our weight and she also provides actionable tips to implement to support hormones for sustainable weight management.
When it comes to weight loss and weight management there are many pieces that form the puzzle. Weight loss is complicated and it doesn’t just come down to diet and exercise. You can’t just change one aspect of your health and expect to lose weight and keep it off forever.
Weight loss is super individualised. We are all different and there are a number of factors that need to be considered from your hormones to your sleep health, your diet and stress levels to your emotions and underlying health problems. Each factor needs to be addressed to help solve your weight loss puzzle for sustainable and long term weight management.
In regards to your hormones, weight gain or difficulty losing weight is one of the many symptoms of a hormonal imbalance. More often than not a hormonal imbalance will be a factor in an individual’s weight loss puzzle and due to the complexity of hormones, especially when they are out of balance, they can make it hard to lose any weight at all.
Long term weight loss and weight management start by balancing our hormones, so let’s start by focusing on one hormone at a time by firstly understanding how each hormone contributes to your weight and how you can balance them. Remember balancing your hormones will not only help you be in control of your weight but benefit your mind and body or at least empower you to do so.
Here are 3 hormones that may be contributing to your weight and the action steps to balance them.
The chronic activation of our stress response causes our cortisol levels to imbalance. The body makes cortisol in response to stress and this is a battle when it comes to weight gain, as most of us seem to be stressed, all the time. Chronic stress contributes to high cortisol in an effort to protect itself from danger, the body holds onto fat as a form of energy.
Over time, chronic stress can dysregulate the body’s stress response system, the HPA axis and the sympathetic nervous system (‘fight or flight’ response). A chronic activation of the ‘fight or flight’ response can often disrupt normal body processes like cortisol and stress hormone levels leading to weight gain paired with inflammation, poor immune system function, digestive issues… and the list goes on.
Cortisol is often responsible for the excess fat storage around your waist. It contributes to stimulating your appetite (que the sugar) and increasing your blood sugar levels causing insulin (the fat-storing hormone) to transport sugar from your blood and then into your cells where it is stored as fat.
How to balance your cortisol:
- Think stress management techniques and ask yourself what makes you feel calm and relaxed?
- Go outside and ground yourself in nature, every day.
- Ditch the caffeine and replace with herbal teas (green tea, chamomile) and herbal elixirs
- Slow down and practice mindfulness. Meditation and deep belly breathing are great.
- Choose a gentle exercise and movement like yoga, qigong, pilates, gentle swimming or walking.
- Prioritise your sleep and implement a solid sleep routine.
- Choose a nutrient-dense, whole foods diet to nourish your body, brain and hormones.
A quick look at insulin. Insulin, a hormone made by the pancreas, is directly linked to body fat burning and regulation as its main role is to store energy for later. Insulin moves glucose out of the blood and into the muscles and fat cells which can result in a weight increase. It helps the body control the level of glucose (sugar) in the blood. An imbalance of insulin causes blood sugar highs and lows and usually results in storing fat.
Insulin is made when we eat. Carbohydrates increase the release of insulin whereas protein only drives the release of a small amount of insulin.
- When you eat a source of carbohydrates, they are broken down into glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream. The body then identities that blood sugar levels are elevated.
- To protect the blood vessels from any damage the pancreas releases insulin into the blood. Insulin’s job is to remove any excess glucose from the blood.
- Insulin takes the glucose to the muscles and the liver where it is then stored as glycogen. Here it can be released quickly and easily as a form of readily available energy (when needed) or our body can draw on the sources if we have not eaten for a while.
- When these stores are full, and glucose in the blood needs to be removed, the excess glucose is transported to fat cells and stored.
Large surges of insulin throughout the day or constant high circulating insulin can become a problem when it comes to burning fat. Insulin is unbalanced and your cells become desensitised to the hormone causing you to store fat as your body’s glucose becomes unregulated.
How to balance your insulin:
- Ditch processed and packaged foods (high in refined sugar) and aim to follow a whole foods diet abundant in fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Choose quality carbohydrates over quantity. Swap simple carbohydrates to complex carbohydrates E.g. Swap white bread and pasta, cakes, biscuits and processed foods for → whole-grain products, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and fruit.
- Eat smaller more frequent meals throughout the day to stabilise your blood sugar levels.
- Limit your alcohol intake and when you do drink alcohol, consume it with food.
- Ensure you include a palm-size portion of protein in every meal.
- Include resistance training in your exercise regime to build muscle.
Estrogen, one of our sex hormones promotes the development and maintenance of female characteristics like our breasts and hips. The key problem with estrogen is that it can cause a challenge when there is too much or too little of it compared to other hormones.
The tricky thing with estrogen is there are a number of factors that can create an imbalance of the hormone in the body like a poor diet, chronic stress, poor gut health, excess weight, environmental toxins and medical conditions.
In regards to weight loss, fat cells produce a small amount of estrogen, therefore, excess estrogen can mess with us on a physical and emotional level due to excess body fat. A common symptom of excess estrogen and low progesterone is weight gain around the stomach and the hips and estrogen can make it difficult for women to lose weight. [It’s important to note that we need to differentiate if an individual is estrogen dominant from excess estrogen or due to low progesterone levels, or both. The best way to do this is by getting a blood test].
As a result of excess weight, the body will often be in a state of inflammation and estrogen producing enzymes are switched on. This may lead to increased production of estrogen in the body, contributing to weight gain and inability to lose weight.
How to balance your estrogen:
- Promote detoxification via the gut and the liver to ensure proper excretion of estrogen.
- Ensure you have adequate fibre in your diet to promote healthy bowel function to clear excess hormones from the body. Think plenty of vegetables (specifically cruciferous vegetables) every day aiming to fill half your plate with every meal.
- Ditch alcohol and caffeine where possible as they increase estrogen in the body and impact detoxification processes plus they contribute overall inflammation.
- Manage your stress where possible (ideas above).
- Prioritise your sleep and implement a solid sleep routine.
- Be aware of environmental toxins and pay attention to what you are putting on your skin and using around the house and make natural swaps where possible.
Are hormones a piece of your weight loss puzzle? Consider that a hormone imbalance may be holding you back from losing or managing your weight. Please note, weight loss is multifactorial, sometimes complicated and very individualised AND is so much more than the number on the scales. It’s about feeling energetic, confident, healthy and empowered and in tune with your body, knowing what is best for you.
As a holistic nutritionist I urge you to continue to not only nourish your mind and your body, but your hormones so you can feel and function at your best. Every. Dam. Day. To do this, you need to consider a holistic approach and take a look at the ways your hormones may be out of balance.
Alex Joy is a holistic nutritionist, health + wellness advocate and weight management consultant based out of Sydney, Australia. Alex Joy helps stressed and busy women to un-diet, eat with balance and regain control over their weight and health through the power of holistic nutrition. Alex Joy provides the essentials to help individuals nourish their wellbeing to glow, feel energised, happy, healthy and confident.