(Hint: It’s Not Cause You’re Eating Too Much.)
The number on the scale is a more complex representation of the number of calories we consume vs. the number of calories we expend, despite what we’ve been told for a long time and the ubiquitous amount of food- and fat-shaming in our culture. Extreme diets and fitness routines can backfire by increasing stress, leading to weight gain. Hormones are often the key to losing unwanted belly fat and gaining energy, improved clarity, and a better mood.
When it comes to women, resistance to weight reduction is almost invariably hormonal in origin. Hormone imbalances have the most significant impact on our weight, as well as our mood and happiness. The question becomes what to do if our hormones are out of sync, including how to reset your metabolism and break painful food addictions without blaming yourself.
Many women know exactly how it feels to feel like nothing is helping. After having kids, many people have a hard time getting their weight down. As the mom of seven kids, I had no problem getting my body back child after child until kid number six came along. After a tough pregnancy and delivery with him, I never quite felt “right” after I had him. I told myself it was the stress of having six kids, with one on the autism spectrum, but as time went on and I didn’t feel better, I started to question that. Although I wasn’t heavy, I had not regained my “bounce-back” status after having him, and by the time he was about eight months old, I was sure there was more going on.
As a former trainer and a nutritionist, I exercised and ate good foods; however, my body was in no way responding like it once did, and I was extremely fatigued and just felt puffy.
I went to see my doctor, who smugly said that I was now older and all I needed to do to lose the 10 lbs of weight was “eat less and exercise more.” At first, I felt ashamed. I was eating appropriately AND exercising. And, then, I got angry when I realized how many other women have to deal with the same mistaken belief — that they lack self-control — while trying to lose weight. That’s an entirely incorrect assumption.
After leaving the appointment, I decided to check my hormone levels since I suspected they were abnormal. However, the levels of my primary stress hormone, cortisol, were shockingly three times the normal range: The stress hormone cortisol is responsible for belly obesity, PMS, and short temper. In addition, although my thyroid levels were still in the “normal range,” they were at the bottom of what is considered normal, and after comparing them to previous labs, I could see a pattern of struggle. After some more testing, I realized I was in adrenal fatigue, and my thyroid levels fluctuated between too low and the bottom level of “normal.” I quickly got to work, learning everything I could to balance my hormone levels naturally and get back to feeling good.
Balancing my hormones was the key to my wellness success and subsequent happiness.
After doing some research, I concluded that the calorie-in/calorie-out notion is a myth perpetuated by the diet and exercise industry. This is something that I had learned in school over and over and used as a guide in my personal training practice for years. But the fact is, although calorie intake is essential, hormone levels are much more crucial.
After reading the literature, I realized that hormonal imbalances account for nearly all cases of weight-loss resistance. I learned the calorie-in/calorie-out idea is a myth many people continue to believe even though it’s been thoroughly debunked. Specific individuals may benefit more than others from watching their caloric intake, but overall, hormones are far more critical. Hormonal imbalance is a common problem for those who struggle with their weight. Getting your hormone levels where they should be makes losing weight surprisingly simple. How quickly a calorie turns into fat is regulated by hormones.
Excess cortisol, insulin and/or leptin blockage, estrogen dominance, a sluggish thyroid, low testosterone, and problems with the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) control system are common reasons why women’s weight loss efforts fail. However, these hormonal issues should be addressed along with proper dietary recommendations. After experiencing each of these hormonal misfires firsthand, I developed a three-step protocol to quickly correct them functionally, beginning with dietary and lifestyle changes to address nutritional deficiencies and moving on to herbal therapies if symptoms persist. Finally, if imbalances persist, refer them to doctors I work with who understand functional medicine and use bio-identical hormones in the smallest effective doses for the shortest possible duration.
Most of the time, I find that cortisol is the primary hormone imbalance (which ends up disrupting other hormones, too). In reaction to stress, your body produces cortisol, but most of us carry stress levels too high. Lowered levels of feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and disrupted sleep cycles due to chronically elevated cortisol levels lead to increased fat storage, particularly around the midsection. Depression, substance abuse, and a desire for sweets are also all connected to chronically elevated cortisol levels.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis regulates all of your hormones, including cortisol, and its dysregulation is typically the underlying cause of cortisol imbalance.
When the HPA is stimulated, excess cortisol is produced. The result is rapid weight gain. In addition, mood swings, irritability, angry outbursts, and a “muffin top” are all symptoms of stress.
The HPA is susceptible to fatigue and deregulation over time. Then you feel exhausted, have a pessimistic outlook, get sick often, and perhaps have thyroid issues that temporarily improve before crashing again.
Since the HPA is typically at fault, resetting it with cortisol is typically the first step in fixing the problem. Without correcting the hormone imbalance caused by HPA, any other efforts to restore hormonal balance are doomed to fail. My goal is to help women become more objective about their stresses and achieve a healthy cortisol balance while nourishing their bodies.
Some ways to get started with balancing cortisol levels include:
- Learning to confide in your partner and talk about the things that bother you.
- Exercising in a low-impact, restorative way through yoga or meditation.
- If you lack B vitamins or omega-3 fatty acids, supplement with those substances. (make sure you have versions that are bioavailable for YOUR body)
- Eat nourishing foods, and don’t skimp on good fats and quality protein sources.
- Try to schedule a massage once a month.
- Cut back on the booze and coffee. You can have them in moderation, but try to replace them with green tea, which contains L-theanine, an amino acid that helps alleviate stress without causing drowsiness while in balancing mode.
- Get some dark chocolate (80 percent cacao or higher).
Natural remedies should be used in addition to conventional therapy if symptoms persist. My preferred adaptogen is ashwagandha since it balances out my daytime cortisol levels, keeping them from dipping too low or rising too high. Try Rhodiola if that doesn’t help.
There is a lot to digest in this article. Still, the key takeaway is that if you have been fighting that weight-loss struggle, counting calories and exercising like crazy, you could add to your cortisol levels leading to weight gain instead of weight loss. Having the whole picture is critical. Talk to your wellness provider today.