What are hormones and what do they do? Hormones are chemicals that deliver messages to target areas of the body to perform a specific function. After being made by endocrine glands in the body, hormones are then released into the blood to regulate bodily functions like growth, blood sugar, appetite, reproductive functions, and more! We need hormones for proper growth, development, and survival.
Although there are over 50 different hormones in the human body, we’re going to focus on the six main hormones that can influence your weight. Weight is controlled by the directions of hormones, which are heavily influenced by the type of foods you eat. An unhealthy diet, high in processed foods, saturated fats, and refined sugars causes stimulation of hormones that store more fat. Compared to a healthy diet of whole foods, heart-healthy fats, and lean proteins that don’t cause the same response.
The problem is that abnormal levels of any hormone can affect your entire metabolic function causing not only weight changes, but also alterations in your mental and physical health. Therefore, keeping your hormones in balance is key, but there are plenty of factors working against us.
What Can Alter Hormone Levels?
- Gut problems/leaky gut
- Lack of exercise
- Stress & Poor sleep
- Genetic predisposition
- Being overweight
- Chronic disease
- Toxins from alcohol, smoking, environmental
- Hormonal birth control/other Rx
Symptoms of Hormone Imbalance
Females: Changes in menstrual cycle, bowel changes, infertility, decreased sex drive, sleeping problems, weight changes, facial hair growth, acne
Males: Reduced sex drive, decreased muscle mass, hair loss/thinning, erectile dysfunction, acne
Insulin is considered a growth hormone primarily affecting fat cells, muscles, and the liver. Insulin’s main role is to regulate blood sugar levels. Released from the pancreas when blood sugar is high, insulin unlocks cells and pushes circulating glucose in, thus reducing the amount in your blood. If blood glucose remained above the normal limit of 70-100, it not only causes damage to your blood flow highway (blood vessels), but it likely indicates prediabetes/diabetes. Over time, your body starts to ignore insulin after being stimulated so much, causing what’s known as insulin resistance. Once you develop insulin resistance your body stops responding to insulin, leading to more output from the pancreas, until it eventually can’t keep up, causing blood sugar to stay elevated, leading to Type 2 Diabetes.
- 1 in 10 adults in the U. S. has diabetes
- 1 in 3 are prediabetic and most unaware
- Diabetes is the 7th leading cause of death, but it contributes to an increased risk for heart disease, which is the #1 cause of death worldwide
Insulin works by signaling the liver to turn carbs (sugar/starch) into glycogen. Once converted, these carbs are then stored in the liver, but the liver has a limited capacity for storage. Therefore, the rest is made into triglycerides, a type of lipid (cholesterol). Triglycerides are then sent out into circulation, increasing cholesterol levels and the risk for cardiovascular disease, or triglycerides are stored in fat cells for energy reserves. When we eat too much sugar and sugar substitutes, the liver has a hard time keeping up, making fat faster than it can export, and fat starts to build up in the liver. Accumulation of fat in the liver leads to poor liver function and fatty liver disease, thus increasing the risk for insulin resistance/type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.
Insulin is a fat-storing hormone and it causes the body to grow wider by targeting the liver since this is where most of your glucose is made. The more fat cells you make, the more your body becomes insulin resistant due to alterations in hormone levels which increases your risk of developing metabolic disease. This is because fat cells release a hormone called leptin.
Leptin, known as the satiety hormone, suppresses the appetite. As the stomach fills with food, leptin levels start to increase to slow down your eating.
Released from fat cells, leptin signals the brain that energy reserves in the fat cells are full. Once you make more fat cells they never go away. Even with weight loss, fat cells only shrink, which is why it’s so easy to gain the weight back. Leptin is meant to protect you from overeating, but we can push past this signal and even develop leptin resistance, in which you have a difficult time feeling “full” because there’s a problem with your satiation signal.
During mealtimes, leptin is in communication with your fat cells. Depending on the number of fat cells that are full, will determine the level of leptin released into the blood. Leptin is a protective hormone for obesity. However, we can become resistant to leptin and overeat causing weight gain. Studies show that people who are obese often develop leptin resistance, which means that the body is no longer responding to the signal that you’re full, or satisfied, so you have high levels of hunger and tend to overeat.
Ghrelin, known as the hunger hormone, is released mainly from the stomach, to stimulate appetite. Ghrelin levels increase during periods of fasting and spike right before meals. When you eat, ghrelin levels decline to help digest stomach contents, and leptin levels increase to signal the brain that you’re full.
Ghrelin signals the brain that you need food. Hunger signals are released and the cravings start. The problem is that this feedback system is being held hostage by the food industry. Food ads on TV and on highway billboards trigger our brains to want food, even when we aren’t hungry. Your brain is playing tricks on you and the food industry uses this to sell their processed junk.
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid known as the stress hormone. Your adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, release cortisol when there is stress on the body. This can be actual or perceived stress. Activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the ‘fight or flight’ response uses cortisol to stimulate glucose to be released into the bloodstream. Glucose is needed in case muscles need a fast supply to fight or run from danger. Elevations in glucose, even without food, cause insulin to respond and now we have a metabolic cycle primed for weight gain.
The main role of cortisol is to increase glucose in the blood. Cortisol also contributes to insulin resistance because its job is to keep blood sugar high so we ignore insulin’s signal. This can lead to weight gain and Type 2 Diabetes. Cortisol increases appetite, blood pressure, and heart rate. It also suppresses the inflammatory and immune system response, allowing you to become sicker quicker. Constant stress can literally make you sick!
Cortisol is naturally highest early in the morning, as this is like our alarm clock. Cortisol releases right before you wake up to make sure you get a burst of adrenaline and glucose, ready for the day. Then it typically lowers throughout the day.
However, chronically high cortisol from stress and medications can lead to Cushing’s Syndrome, characterized by abdominal weight gain, thin arms and legs, fat around the neck, and a round face. Often this is related to taking too many corticosteroids like cortisone and prednisone.
Your thyroid, known as the powerhouse gland, controls your metabolism. How fast or slow you burn glucose for energy is influenced by the thyroid. The thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) comes from the pituitary gland in the brain and signals the thyroid to start making thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones, T3 and T4, regulate metabolism and use of energy for digestion, temperature control, mood, alertness, and circulation. The TSH level has an opposite relationship with the thyroid gland, meaning if the TSH is high, thyroid function is low. Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the TSH is chronically low and usually causes weight gain since it slows metabolism.
6. Sex Hormones
Estrogen & Testosterone
Although there are a few different hormones involved in sex characteristics and reproduction, we will focus primarily on those with the potential to affect weight, which is primarily estrogen and testosterone. Both are present in males and females, but just at different levels.
Estrogen affects fat levels, but more specifically, where fat is distributed. High levels of estrogen are often associated with more subcutaneous fat distributed around hips, buttocks, thighs, and breasts. When estrogen is at its highest, during child-bearing years, this extra fat helps prepare for reproduction. When estrogen levels are low, during menopause and after, fat tends to accumulate around the abdomen. Low estrogen is linked to more visceral fat accumulation, which is the fat around your abdominal organs. Having a high amount of visceral fat is linked to poor health outcomes like increased risk for metabolic syndrome and heart disease.
Estrogen affects fat distribution, but testosterone affects muscle mass. Testosterone, which is naturally higher in males, helps to build and maintain muscle. The more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism, or basal metabolic rate (BMR). Therefore, more muscle leads to more calories you burned each day.
However, both estrogen and testosterone decline with age, thus contributing to weight gain later in life. Besides aging, other conditions that can alter hormones, such as PCOS, endometriosis, menopause, pregnancy, and breastfeeding, can affect weight. Hormonal Birth control is known for contributing to hormonal imbalances, as well as excess cortisol levels (the stress hormone), which can reduce sex drive and may even play a role in fertility issues as well.
What Can You Do?
Balancing hormone levels must be done with a multilevel approach by addressing diet, exercise, sleep hygiene, stress management, and chronic disease management. Here are some tips to get you started:
- Diet- reduce intake of processed foods and added sugars. Avoid Omega 6 fatty acids, like sunflower and corn oils, since these tend to increase inflammation. Instead, eat more Omega 3 fatty acids, like salmon, flaxseed, and walnuts, since omega 3’s reduce inflammation. Adding more fiber to your diet can also help restore your gut health, as well as probiotics since together they can improve your gut microbiome.
- Exercise- physical activity can help improve your metabolic function, which can help balance out your hormone levels, relieve stress, and help you sleep better.
- Stress & Sleep Management- reduce stress with techniques like deep breathing exercises, meditation, massage, acupuncture, or therapy. Identify your stressors, address what you can change, and learn to let go of what’s out of your control. Sleep is essential to your health as this is when the body repairs and recovers itself. Click here to check out my sleeping tips!
- Supplements & Medications- supplements can help, but you must know what you’re treating. The endocrine system is so intertwined that often these hormones, once abnormal, start affecting others. For example, having high cortisol levels can affect your sex hormones and insulin sensitivity. If you’re treating your estrogen levels with supplements, you’re missing the root of the problem which is really to reduce your cortisol/stress. This is why I would suggest seeing your PCP for proper testing. Also, supplements may not help, as sometimes you may need prescription hormone replacement therapy.
The good news is that once you start to make these positive lifestyle changes to your daily routine, your hormones should start to balance. That being said, if you have a genetic predisposition or other health conditions and medications that alter hormone levels, such as birth control, I would talk to your PCP about your symptoms. Review medications that you’re currently taking to see if they could be affecting your hormones. Download this medication review form to bring to your appointment. From here it may be best to have your hormone levels checked, which can be done in a few different ways with blood, saliva, and/or urine testing.
It’s important to remember that balancing hormones will take some time so don’t expect an overnight fix. In some cases, lifestyle interventions can help drastically, but you may still need medications to help correct the hormone imbalance so be sure to follow up with your PCP.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health conditions without consulting your healthcare provider. Information used is based on experience and opinion, not 100% evidence. Always consult with a health care practitioner before relying on any information in this article or on this website.