When my hormones are in balance, neither too high nor too low, I look and feel my best. But when they are imbalanced, I feel miserable, with a range of symptoms that include fatigue, sugar cravings, weight loss resistance, bloating, belly fat, trouble sleeping, anxiety or irritability, and constant stress. This was the case this week for me and that’s absolutely normal for weight loss in women because our hormones change throughout the month–which also dictates our behavior.
The number on the scale isn’t always a simple reflection of the number of calories we consume vs. the number we burn. In fact, the stress brought on by extreme diets and exercise can actually cause weight gain. The real key to losing unwanted belly fat, and gaining energy, clarity, and a better mood lies with our hormones, the body’s chemical messengers. They carry information and instructions from one set of cells to another.
I learned that 99 percent of weight loss resistance is hormonal. When I started as a personal trainer, I discovered that the calorie-in/calorie-out hypothesis has been widely disproven and remains the greatest misconception people have about diet and weight loss. Calories matter but hormones matter more. Almost anyone who struggles with weight also battles a hormone imbalance. It amazes me how easy weight loss becomes once hormones are back in their sweet spot. Hormones control how efficiently a calorie makes you fat and what your belly fat looks like. The following illustrates 4 types of bellies: the hormonal belly, alcohol belly, stressed-out belly, and mommy belly.
We must address the hormonal root causes that are the most common reasons for weight loss resistance, like excess cortisol, insulin and/or leptin blockage, estrogen dominance, a slow thyroid, low testosterone, and problems with the HPA (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal) control system. Nutrition and exercise strategies help us overcome weight loss plateaus and succeed at long-term weight loss.
The drill-sergeant approach of restricted eating and harsh exercise can escalate hormonal and emotional problems. I’ve had a battle with the bathroom scale my whole life and that has caused me shame, judgment, suffering, and obsession with weight—contributing further to my weight loss resistance. When meals are accompanied by guilt, suffering, or anxiety about our food or our bodies (for example, when you’re telling yourself, “I shouldn’t be eating this,” or “I’m blowing it again”), a physiologic stress response is activated, triggering a fight-or-flight reaction and raising cortisol. We must address our hormones in order to lose weight. The hormone issues discussed below often fade away with proper diet, exercise, sleep and stress management.
CORTISOL: One of the body’s primary stress hormones, cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands, which sit in the kidneys. When stress activates the “fight-or-flight” nervous system, the brain signals the adrenal glands to increase cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline production. The brain and the adrenal glands loop—called the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis)—responds to all types of life stressors, physical, mental and emotional. Adding B vitamins and omega-3s help manage this hormone. Ironically, elevated cortisol (i.e., chronic stress) can lower both testosterone and progesterone production. In addition, there are several other causes to lowered sex hormones, including pesticides, xeno-estrogens, and nutrient deficiencies.
INSULIN: Insulin is a fat-storage hormone. Insulin resistance or block means your cells can’t absorb the extra blood glucose your body generates from the food you eat—when that happens, your liver converts the glucose into fat. Insulin resistance usually causes weight gain and sugar addiction. Carbohydrates have the biggest impact on insulin output.
LEPTIN: Leptin is nature’s appetite suppressant. When you’ve had enough to eat, leptin signals your brain to stop eating. Foods high in leptin are apples, lean proteins, green tea, almonds and eggs; however, when you are overweight, your fat cells produce excess leptin. High leptin causes more weight gain and excessive hunger. When your brain gets bombarded with leptin signals from too many fat cells, it shuts down; leptin levels keep rising, receptors stop functioning, your body doesn’t get the leptin signal, and you don’t feel full. You keep eating the wrong foods in an addictive pattern, and you keep gaining weight.
ESTROGEN: Estrogen dominance is when you have too much estrogen compared with its counter-hormone, progesterone. Having too much estrogen in the body causes a number of symptoms, including weight loss resistance, moodiness, PMS, and heavy periods. The exercise solutions? Often, hourglass or pear-shaped body types do really well when training with heavier weights (e.g., strongwoman-type training). Many women still fear heavy weights, but they shouldn’t. Aim to lift heavier loads at lower rep ranges (always with good form). This will ramp up lean muscle gains, increasing metabolic rate and supporting long-term weight loss. Strong is the new skinny!
In males, if testosterone levels fall, it causes a loss of energy, limited ability to build and maintain muscle mass, and a loss in libido. In women, lowered progesterone production causes an imbalance in the estrogen to progesterone ratio resulting in irregular menstrual cycles, an increased risk for PCOS, pre-menopausal symptoms, and an increase of fat storage around the hips and triceps.
THYROID: Your thyroid acts as the gas pedal of your metabolism, managing how fast or slow you burn calories. When the thyroid is sluggish, it can cause weight gain, fluid retention, hair loss or thinning, depression, and constipation, among other problems. From an exercise perspective, training load should be your top priority.
CHANGE THE WAY YOU EAT AND DRINK. Remove processed foods, refined carbohydrates, sugars and sugar substitutes from your diet. Eliminate alcohol for 21 days (even a single serving can reduce a woman’s metabolism by more than 70 percent—it’s a temporary effect, but can add up over time if you drink most nights).
TARGETED EXERCISE. Make sure to keep moving, and choose forms of movement that you love, but exercise smart. Avoid chronic cardio. Burst training involves short periods of high intensity exercise with moderate-level exercise as recovery. It is incredibly efficient and comes without the cortisol-raising side effect of a long run. Not only that, but it is extremely effective at raising growth hormone, the growth-and-repair hormone that maintains your lean body mass, a crucial indicator of how your body is biologically aging. My suggestions:
The main cons of imbalanced hormones are:
Many hormone imbalances are symptoms of weight gain, which triggers pro-inflammatory responses that affect the body’s output of insulin, cortisol, thyroid hormones, estrogen, testosterone and many other hormones. To lose weight, you don’t need to balance hormones with fancy supplements, detox diets or medication. We can achieve success by adopting an integrated wellness plan and addressing lifestyle factors such as lack of sleep and chronic stress. Ultimately, finding a fitness strategy you can maintain over the long term is the key.
Today’s food & workout recap:
Total food calories for today: 1,581 = (150g, 37% Carbohydrates, 64g, 35% Fat, 115g, 28% Protein)
Hormones dictate what your body does with food. Address your hormones first, particularly cortisol, then match the right nutrient-dense food and the right quantity plus the exercise designed for your body shape. Hope this helps you understand weight loss a little more.