Balancing Hormones: The Missing Link in Weight Loss

Published on May 08, 2014 by Dr. Colin O'Brien

At any given point in time, more than 50% of us are trying to lose weight. Yet, the most frustrating part of this journey is that even if we’re successful, most of us will regain a portion or all of that weight back over time. This begs the question: Why is everyone having the same problem? How come all of the dietary adjustments, exercise regimens, and fat-burning pills don’t seem to stick for a great proportion of the population? Well, perhaps it’s your hormones.

I’m not saying that exercise and a proper diet aren’t the foundation for achieving a healthy weight, it’s just that they are not the entire story. Here are some additional key factors to consider when trying to shed some pounds:

  • Stress
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Blood sugar dysregulation
  • Obesogens (hormone-disrupting chemicals)
  • Poor thyroid conversion
  • Medication side effects
  • Psychological barriers

At first glance it may not seem like a lot of those have much of anything to do with hormones. On the contrary, they all have the power to affect our key body hormones such as cortisol, insulin and thyroid hormones. These all work synergistically and affect one another to create harmony or disharmony in the body. Let’s highlight a few of these factors:

Stress

When our bodies experience stress, the adrenal glands release the hormone cortisol to help fight back and keep up with demands. It is a great hormone to have in the short term to help us cope. However, over the long-term, the chronic stimulation of cortisol can lead to an array of side effects including weight gain.

Elevated cortisol directly leads to increased blood sugar levels and increased fat storage. Moreover, cortisol blocks the activation and conversion of thyroid hormone (see below), which leads to a slower metabolism. Finally, when we’re stressed, we tend to crave sugars and refined carbohydrates. And we all know how this story goes: more weight gain, more stress, and more weight gain. This isn’t a coincidence. Carbohydrates help to upregulate the neurotransmitter serotonin, a chemical that helps to relax and calm the stressed out mind! Your body is trying to self-medicate but you need to find a better way.

Deep breathing techniques, laughter, massage and journaling are all great places to start improving your stress coping mechanisms and reducing your cortisol. High quality B-complex supplements as well as adaptogenic herbs like Rhodiola rosea and Withania somnifera also have a place in treating an overwhelmed or maladaptive stress response. Of course, these must be recommended under the supervision of a practitioner to ensure that they are safe for you.

Sleep Deprivation

Aside from the obvious resulting lack of energy, poor sleep can increase cortisol levels in the body (insomnia is a form of stress, after all) and drastically disrupt our natural cortisol curve. By this, I mean that cortisol is supposed to be elevated during the day and absent during the night when we’re resting. If our sleep rhythm is irregular then our cortisol management is likely disrupted as well.

Sleep deprivation has been linked to poor stress coping, unhealthy food cravings, and a decreased metabolism. It should be no surprise then that poor sleep has been linked with obesity and diabetes. To add insult to injury, there is also the theory that being awake for more hours of the day leads to more opportunity for eating. Late night snacking certainly doesn’t help to break the vicious cycle of sleep deprivation, stress and weight gain!

Obesogens

“Obesogen” is a term that was coined to describe chemical compounds that alter hormones and lipid metabolism, ultimately leading to the build up of fat tissue. A 2011 study reviewed the relationship between these certain chemicals and obesity. It was found that all of these chemicals were associated with an increase in body size! Here are some of the offenders that were examined:

  • Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB)
  • Dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE)
  • Hexachlorobenzene
  • Polybrominated biphenyls
  • Beta-hexachlorocyclohexane
  • Oxychlordane
  • Phthalates

So what does this mean? Quite simply, get rid of those plastics, mosquito repellents, unnecessary make-ups, fungicides, etc. and start living a chemical-free life (or use the least amount possible). Your hormones will thank you.

Thyroid Conversion

Most people are well aware that thyroid function will impact weight. The thyroid gland primarily acts as a metabolic regulator. If the thyroid isn’t working well enough, your metabolism slows down and you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain, constipation, dry skin, hair loss and cold extremities.  Collectively, these are symptoms indicative of hypothyroidism. (See: Could Stress be Affecting my Thyroid? for more information)

The problem is that even if our thyroid labs are “normal”, or the gland itself is fully functional, many factors alter our thyroid hormone levels and the ability of our body to utilize them. The thyroid itself may be releasing an appropriate amount, but peripheral organs like your liver and kidney are not converting or activating the hormone as they should. Additionally, thyroid hormone receptors must be in optimal working condition. Any of the following factors may be inhibiting thyroid conversion or utilization:

  • Deficiencies in iodine, iron, selenium, zinc, vitamins A, B2, B6, B12
  • Birth Control Pill
  • Elevated Cortisol
  • Heavy metals
  • Phthalates (another hormone disrupting chemical)
  • Calcium & Copper excess

All in all, let’s think outside the box. If you’ve been trying the same diet and exercise routine over and over, without considering these other factors, you are inevitably going to get the same results. At least consider that your hormones may be a part of the problem and start with the simple changes first!

For more information on healthy weight loss, check out the latest articles here and here.

Image by © 2013 brainsil via DollarPhotoClub

Selected Reference:

Tang-Peronard JL et al. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals and obesity development in humans: a review. Obes Rev. 2011 Aug;12(8):622-36.