How Female Hormones Affect Weight Loss and Fat Storage
If you’ve tried every possible diet under the sun and still can’t lose weight, there could be a lot more to it than meets the eye. When people talk about weight loss, the discussions often revolve around diet foods, eating schedules, workouts, drinking adequate amounts of water, sleeping well, aging, or just plain genetics.
For most women, losing weight happens naturally by following a healthy, balanced diet and exercising regularly. But for a smaller percentage of women, the ability to lose weight and keep it off could be hampered by a very important piece of the puzzle that’s become more visible in recent years — female hormones.
What Are Hormones?
Hormones are chemical messengers released by the endocrine glands directly into the bloodstream. Hormones control the way cells and organs do their work in the body. They are responsible for almost all of the major functions performed by your body, including:
- Turning food into energy
- Growth and development
- Emotional regulation
- Sleep cycles
- Sexual function
- Heart function
When your body doesn’t produce the right amount of a hormone, the imbalance can cause issues such as high blood pressure, lack of sleep, moodiness, fatigue, and weight gain.
But before we rush to make hormones the evil villain of the story, let’s do a quick fact-check on hormonal weight loss/gain.
Why Hormones Aren’t Always the Bad Guys
According to endocrinologist Dr. Joshua Thaler, while there are many hormones involved in regulating body weight, few directly cause weight loss or weight gain in an individual. It’s often the health conditions resulting from hormonal imbalances that may lead to significant weight gain or loss.
Levels of certain hormones change with age as well, and that can sometimes cause weight gain. For most people who are overweight, however, hormones are not the main cause.
The Connection Between Female Hormones and Weight Gain
The female human body produces over 200 hormones, but only some of them pose challenges to weight management in women. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most important ones.
Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. It helps you convert the food you eat to blood sugar used for energy right away or stored for when you need it later. Insulin is also responsible for the way your body stores fat and holds on to it.
When there’s not enough insulin in your body, your sugar levels can go up, eventually causing diabetes. One of the treatment protocols for diabetes is insulin therapy, which can cause weight gain. If you have a condition called hyperinsulinemia, where you have high insulin levels, it can also cause obesity.
What You Can Do
Because insulin is caused by excess sugar, having a healthy diet without excess calories is very important. A low-carb diet has been found beneficial in balancing insulin levels. Work on reducing or completely cutting out sugar while adding good quality protein.
Leptin is the hormone that signals to your body that it’s full, so you can stop eating. When leptin isn’t working properly in your body, you don’t accurately get the signals that tell you when you’re hungry.
Women who are overweight often have high levels of leptin in their blood. Sometimes genetics can cause your leptin imbalance. But it could also be caused by inflammation, which can be managed by most people with a healthy diet and lifestyle changes.
What You Can Do
In general, following good diet, exercise, and lifestyle habits can help you greatly relieve any inflammation that could be contributing to high leptin levels. Cut out processed foods and sugar, as these can cause inflammation in your body. Eat a protein-rich diet and supplement with omega-3 fatty acid-rich foods like salmon and sardines. Aim to exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and drink adequate amounts of water.
Ghrelin works differently from leptin in that it tells you that you need food because your stomach is empty. Ghrelin also influences how energetic you feel. If you feel sluggish, you won’t be as motivated to exercise or follow a healthy diet — or any type of healthy lifestyle change. In this sense, ghrelin can be linked to the all-too-familiar battle of the bulge.
More ghrelin gets released while you sleep so that you wake up feeling hungry. And that’s not a bad thing. It means that your body is working exactly the way it should.
What You Can Do
The same things that work to balance leptin are just as effective for ghrelin. But good diet, exercise, and lifestyle habits are just basic common sense protocols to live a long, healthy, and productive life. Avoid processed foods and sugar. Aim to eat fresh, wholesome foods as part of your daily diet.
Cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone,” is produced by the adrenal glands. It helps break down protein to produce more energy. Cortisol often gets released in response to stressful situations such as physical injuries or daily stress from work, relationships, and other lifestyle triggers. It can also be released during some forms of exercise such as weight lifting or cardio workouts.
Cortisol release, when it’s needed, is an essential part of our body’s fight-or-flight response. But when your levels of cortisol are elevated over a long period of time, it can cause your insulin levels to increase. This makes you want to eat more sugary foods.
High cortisol can also upset your immune system and the way other hormones are produced in your body. You may even start to see more fat around your waist and lower abdomen.
What You Can Do
Aside from maintaining a healthy lifestyle, it’s important to manage your stress levels to keep cortisol balanced. Indulge in activities that make you feel happy and revitalize you, whether that means taking up a hobby, going for a full-body massage, or learning something new. Cultivate healthy, positive relationships.
Additionally, avoid caffeine at night and aim to get good-quality sleep.
Thyroid hormones are produced by the thyroid gland located at the lower part of the front of your neck. These hormones are responsible for many important functions in your body including regulating your heart and metabolic rate.
When your thyroid hormones are imbalanced, you may have an unexplained change in weight where you either put on a lot of weight or lose a lot of it. Hypothyroidism is a common condition where your body doesn’t have enough thyroid hormones. It can make you feel tired, sluggish, and fatigued.
Hypothyroidism is relatively common for women over 60, and because it disrupts your moods and menstrual cycles, it can often be mistaken for menopause. The real cause can be determined by consulting a doctor and getting tested.
If you have more thyroid hormones than you need, you can lose an unusual amount of weight, a condition called hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroidism can make you feel irritable, anxious, and cause difficulty sleeping.
What You Can Do
Consult a physician who can advise you on the right course of treatments for your condition. Interventions in the form of medication or sometimes surgery may be needed. Early detection can help with successful management.
Testosterone and Estrogen
The hormone testosterone is just as important for women as it is for men. Testosterone regulates sexual function and metabolism, promotes bone density and follicle growth, and synthesizes protein to build muscle. When your testosterone levels drop, your energy levels and metabolic rate can also drop, causing weight gain. Stress and aging can also cause testosterone levels to come down.
Estrogen is a female sex hormone that doesn’t just develop your secondary sex characteristics — it also influences how you use up sugar for energy. It impacts bone health, memory, and cognition. During the perimenopause stage of a woman’s life, estrogen levels can start to drop, and you can often see the weight begin to pile on as a result.
What You Can Do
Losing testosterone and estrogen as you get older is a natural part of aging. You may opt to choose hormone replacement therapy — consult your doctor for options. Try to incorporate weight lifting or strength training into your exercise program to stave off the adverse effects of aging.
The Bottom Line
While it’s true that hormones play a major role in weight gain or loss for women, imbalances aren’t the likely culprit for the extra pounds you may see as you get older. However, treating any that may arise is usually as simple as making changes to your diet and exercise. Maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle is really the key to remaining fit for life.