Weight loss - the hormonal connection

Weight loss mini series

Part 1 - The Hormonal connection

Many people struggle to maintain a healthy weight, despite following various diet and exercise plans. In this three part mini-series, we will take a look at the hormones involved in weight control, why cutting calories doesn’t work, and how cravings and addiction fit into the picture.

In this section we explain the key hormones involved in weight control and steps we can take to balance them.


Hormones and weight control

Hormones are chemical messengers that control vital processes within the body, and this includes the processes of hunger, appetite, metabolism and fat storage. Together, these processes have a significant impact on overall weight gain or loss.

Many people who struggle with their weight have a hormonal imbalance, and if you have tried calorie controlled diets without long term success, your resistance to weight loss is highly likely to be hormonal.  In order to lose weight and keep it off we need to understand these hormones and why they become out of balance. Water can also be a big cause of excess weight and excess water in the body can also be due to hormonal fluctuations.The key hormones are:

Leptin – the appetite hormone

  • Leptin sends signals to the brain which control appetite. When leptin is low the appetite increases and metabolism slows. High levels send a signal to the brain to suppress the appetite.  Overweight people can become resistant to these leptin signals – although they often have high levels of leptin they become less sensitive to it over time, and therefore less likely to feel full after a meal. Studies indicate that overall leptin levels fall when a low calorie diet is followed, which may explain why dieters often regain all of their lost weight, and sometimes extra.

  • What you can do: Avoid trans fats, refined sugars and processed foods, as these eventually lead to leptin resistance. Increase exercise levels to improve leptin sensitivity, and follow an anti-inflammatory diet containing plenty of Omega 3 fats.

Ghrelin – the hunger hormone

  • Ghrelin works together with leptin, and controls hunger signals. Ghrelin is lowest just after a meal, but rises when the stomach is empty. When ghrelin is low is sends a signal to the brain to tell a person to stop eating. But in obese individuals, ghrelin levels don’t decrease enough after eating and the brain doesn’t receive the signal to stop eating, which means the person still feels hungry.

  • What you can do: eat sufficient amounts of protein at each meal and avoid excess sugar, this helps the feeling of satiety (fullness) after a meal.

Insulin – the fat storage hormone

  • Insulin is released every time carbohydrate foods are consumed, including bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, fruit juice, biscuits and sweets. It allows the body to remove sugar from the blood, promotes the storage of fat, and prevents stored fat from being broken down. A poor diet, high in sugar and processed carbohydrates, causes excess insulin to be released to deal with the increased level of sugar in the blood. Over time the cells become resistant to this high level of insulin, resulting in weight gain, sugar cravings, metabolic syndrome and eventually diseases like type II diabetes.

  • What you can do: Avoid eating more than is needed. Reduce sugar, refined carbohydrates and highly processed foods and follow a low glycaemic diet to keep blood insulin levels stable.

Cortisol – the stress hormone

  • Cortisol is a hormone that is produced in response to stress. High levels of cortisol deplete serotonin, which in turn affects sleep and triggers your body to store fat – especially around the middle. Cortisol levels are designed to rise and fall in a daily pattern to make you alert in the morning and relaxed in the evening, but continued stress and sleep deprivation elevates cortisol in an unnatural way. High cortisol is linked to depression, cravings, food addiction and overeating - which may explain why many people overeat when they’re stressed or depressed.

  • What you can do: Deep breathing, relaxation, meditation and yoga can all help to balance cortisol. Look for ways to decrease stress and improve your sleep quality, and if necessary, seek the help of a qualified counsellor.

Oestrogen – the fat distribution hormone

  • Oestrogen influences how and where body fat is distributed. Either too much or too little can cause weight gain and some women are more sensitive to changes in oestrogen than others. Women with high levels of oestrogen compared to progesterone tend to store fat in their lower body (‘pear-shaped’), while men, postmenopausal women and women with lower levels of oestrogen tend to store more fat around the abdomen (‘apple-shaped’). Fat stored around the middle (visceral fat) promotes insulin resistance and increases the risk of developing health problems in later life.

  • What you can do: take regular exercise and eat a diet high in fibre and cruciferous vegetables (e.g. broccoli, cauliflower, sprouts, kale, and cabbage). There is some evidence that Japanese style diet may be helpful in balancing oestrogen.

Thyroid – the metabolism hormones

  • Finally, the thyroid gland may be impacting your ability to lose weight. The thyroid helps to control the body’s metabolism, managing how quickly or slowly calories are burned as energy. When the thyroid is sluggish, it can cause a lack of energy, weight gain and feeling constantly cold, among other symptoms. On the other hand, an over active thyroid can cause weight loss, hyperactivity, feeling too warm, and anxiety.

  • What you can do: If you have any symptoms of over or underactive thyroid, contact your GP for a blood test and further advice.


A hormone balancing diet

The good news is that dietary and lifestyle changes can help to rebalance the hormones that are affecting your weight. The key principles to a hormone balancing diet are: reducing sugars and refined carbohydrates, eating more fibre, consuming a form of protein at every meal, including anti-inflammatory foods such as Omega 3 fats, and eating regularly but not excessively. Alongside the diet, lifestyle changes like improving the quality of sleep, taking regular exercise and using meditation or mindfulness are very beneficial.

If you think hormone imbalance is at the root of your struggles with weight loss, a Nutritional Therapist can work with you to create a bespoke hormone balancing programme that targets your specific needs.


Coming soon… why counting calories doesn’t work


Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

Tags: Nutrition

This entry was posted on 18 November 2021 at 10:15 and is filed under Health | Nutrition.