The effect hormones have on weight gain is just starting to be recognized and, more importantly, it’s making mainstream news. This information is finally reaching people who have struggled with their weight forever, and it’s about time.
Are you among the 71% of Americans who are overweight or obese? If so, you have probably struggled with weight control issues for years, searching for the solution that will help you permanently lose weight, but always disappointed.
During your search and your struggles, you may have been insulted, humiliated, degraded, shamed, and/or guilted by others. You’re not alone. Fat shaming is unfortunately quite common, and body weight (fat) is probably the last acceptable bias. It’s time fat shaming stops. Being overweight is NOT your fault.
The accepted “wisdom” held that if you were carrying extra weight, you were eating too much and exercising too little and that you were totally in control of your weight gain and loss. Now that it is becoming common knowledge that hormones cause weight gain (and many of the behaviors driving weight gain), it is time for you to stop blaming yourself and for others to stop blaming you. Your hormones are in charge of this process, not you.
Hormones and weight gain
You probably don’t think about hormones very much, but they control everything in your body, including your weight.
The hypothalamus, located in the center of the brain, is the control center for many crucial functions in the body. Specifically, it is in charge of maintaining homeostasis (equilibrium.) It does this by continually monitoring and adjusting physiologic processes.
As regards weight maintenance, certain key hormones report the status of your weight to the hypothalamus, which then directs hormones to perform specific actions. For instance, the hypothalamus can signal hormones to cause hunger pangs or store fat, or slow the metabolism.
Normally, hormones send correct signals to the hypothalamus regarding your levels of fat. But if they become dysregulated, they no longer send correct signals. The hormones and the hypothalamus become confused and don’t know how much fat you need. But since their main goal is to keep you alive, they give you more fat just to be on the safe side. When the hormones become dysregulated, it causes an elevated setpoint weight, leading to weight gain.
What is setpoint weight?
Your setpoint weight is the level of fat your body thinks you need based on input from your hormones, your brain (hypothalamus), and your gut. This weight varies by about 12-20 pounds, and your body defends it at all costs.
How does the body do this? Contrary to the calorie deficit theory of weight loss that treats the body like a scale, the body is like a thermostat. It regulates calorie intake and calorie burn around your setpoint weight. If you eat more calories than your body needs, it simply increases the calorie burn of a few metabolic processes so that the calories balance out. If you eat fewer calories than your body needs, it decreases the calorie burn, known as slowing the metabolism.
By the way, this is not just a theory. Studies show the metabolism speeds up when you eat more food and slows down when you eat less food. Calories are still important, and a calorie deficit is necessary for weight loss, but your body adjusts your metabolism to keep your calories in line with your setpoint weight.
If it were not like this, there would be no naturally thin people. Everybody would be overweight or obese. Speaking of obesity, here’s something else for you to think about…if your body didn’t regulate your weight around your setpoint weight, you wouldn’t stop gaining weight.
The heaviest person ever documented was John Brower Minnoch, born in 1941. His peak weight was 1,400 pounds. He also eventually lost 923 pounds, the largest weight loss ever recorded. But if Minnoch’s body didn’t regulate his weight, he wouldn’t have stopped there. He would have gained weight until he exploded!
How did Minnock reach 1,400 pounds, to begin with? It’s a good bet his hormones had become dysregulated.
Causes of hormonal dysregulation
The hormones are key players in setpoint weight elevation. There are many reasons the hormones might become dysregulated. Here are a few of them.
Eating a poor-quality diet
Regularly eating the standard American diet of processed and fast foods is one of the biggest reasons for dysregulated hormones.
Many studies show more than 70% of foods on grocery store shelves are heavily processed, meaning they are manufactured foods made in a laboratory. Though they originated from animals or vegetables, they no longer have any of those properties. They have no fiber and few vitamins and minerals. But they are loaded with processed fats, chemicals, preservatives, and additives that cause systemic inflammation that leads to many diseases, including obesity. Processed foods also dysregulate the hormones and elevate setpoint weight.
Overconsumption of sugar and starchy carbs
Though part of the poor-quality diet category, sugar and starchy carbs deserve their own section because they are particularly damaging to hormonal balance.
Overconsumption of sugar and starchy carbs triggers the pancreas to continually release the hormone insulin, increasing the levels of insulin in your bloodstream. Insulin’s job is to shuttle glucose from your blood into your cells for energy. The cells’ doors will not open without insulin to unlock them. High levels of insulin in your blood eventually cause cells to become numb to its signals, Consequently, they cannot use insulin well as they are unable to easily take up insulin from your bloodstream, a condition known as insulin resistance.
You’re left with insulin and glucose circulating in your blood, and insulin is also a fat-storage hormone. High levels of insulin make you store fat and prevent you from burning your fat stores. (More about that later.)
Lack of sleep
Sleep deprivation is a major cause of hormones becoming dysregulated. Many studies show hormones that affect appetite are significantly affected by sleep deprivation. Those who do not get enough sleep, these studies show, are hungrier than their well-rested counterparts. Also, their level of hunger increases in proportion to the length of their wakefulness.
The weight loss hormones affected by sleep deprivation include the following:
- Thyroid hormones
Being under a chronic state of stress, as most people are today, can cause the hormones to become dysregulated. The culprit here appears to be the stress hormone cortisol.
Studies show when people are stressed, levels of serum cortisol increase. If their stress goes on too long or becomes chronic, it disrupts the performance of other hormones. For instance, cortisol triggers a release of insulin, making you crave sugary and starchy carbs. Cortisol also causes an accumulation of fat in the stomach region, increasing your risk of many serious diseases. (There are more cortisol receptors in your stomach than in any other place on your body, so stress-induced fat automatically goes to your stomach.)
Though physical exercise is good for your body, prolonged exercise can dysregulate your hormones. That’s because if you exercise for a long time, your levels of cortisol increase. Again, this causes insulin secretion, sugar/starch craving, and belly-fat storage.
7 hormones affecting your weight
Here are the hormones that affect your weight.
Leptin is a hormone secreted by adipose tissue (body fat) that aids in the long-term maintenance of a healthy weight. It signals your brain when your body fat is at an acceptable level. When your fat stores rise, more leptin is secreted into the bloodstream, traveling to the hypothalamus in the brain, telling it to make you feel full. It will even make you feel like being active or make you fidget so that you’ll unconsciously burn more calories. In this way, you’ll eat less and exercise more without even trying, and you won’t gain weight.
If your fat levels fall, less leptin is secreted into the bloodstream. This signals the brain to tell the body to eat more and be less active, preventing you from losing weight.
The reason you struggle with your weight is not that you don’t have enough leptin. You have plenty of this hormone circulating in your bloodstream because it’s in proportion to your level of fat. However, eating inSANE foods cause leptin resistance, preventing this hormone from getting its message of fullness across to the brain, which elevated your setpoint weight. When the body resists leptin, you feel hungry and eat more even when it has sufficient fat reserves.
As mentioned above, insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps remove excess glucose from the bloodstream and move it to the body’s cells to be used for immediate energy or stored for later usage. When the cells don’t respond well to insulin, a condition called insulin resistance, this hormone must still do its job of removing glucose from the bloodstream. Where does it take it? To your fat cells. Your fat cells will accept an unlimited amount of energy for storage.
Sooner or later, though, the non-fat cells of your body send distress signals that they are starving. This elevates your setpoint weight.
Ghrelin is a hunger hormone that is primarily produced in the stomach. When the brain wants you to eat more food, it signals an increase in ghrelin. This is the biggest reason traditional starvation diets don’t work. The minute you slash calories, your ghrelin levels increase, making you ravenously hungry. It’s not your imagination. It’s your hormones, something that can be fixed by eating SANE foods that lower your setpoint weight.
This so-called male hormone is present in both men and women, though women have much lower levels. Low levels of testosterone have been shown to increase fat storage and inflammation, so it is very important to keep this hormone in balance.
Estrogen is present in both men and women, but men have much lower levels than do women. Research shows estrogen has an effect on weight gain. For instance, a few years before menopause, women’s levels of estrogen begin to fall. This makes her body retain fat, especially belly fat.
6. Stress hormones
Secreted by the adrenal glands, stress hormones affect hunger signals and weight. The most influential stress hormone, as regards setpoint weight, is cortisol.
When you are stressed, levels of cortisol in your blood rise. This triggers the release of insulin into your cells to give you the energy to fight the threat. This is designed for a short-term, actual life-or-death situation, such as a bear attacking your camp. Once the threat has passed, the cortisol levels decrease, and relaxation takes over.
Unfortunately, most people act like they’re in a constant life-and-death struggle. They’ve got bills to pay. Family responsibilities. Work. All this stress leads to chronically elevated cortisol levels. This causes insulin to also stay elevated, as well as glucose. Meanwhile, because of insulin resistance, your cells aren’t getting glucose. They’re sending signals they’re starving. So…this triggers cravings for sugary, starchy foods.
You eat these inSANE foods, and it just makes the problem worse. It’s a vicious circle, but it can be fixed with a SANE eating plan.
7. Thyroid hormones
Your thyroid regulates your metabolism, so starvation dieting slows the function of your thyroid and your metabolism. The most common thyroid condition is an underactive thyroid or hypothyroidism.
The main symptom of hypothyroidism is 5-20 pounds of weight gain, insulin resistance, fatigue, feeling cold, and memory problems.
How to SANEly regulate your hormones to lower your setpoint weight
There are other hormones that impact your weight, but these are the most common ones. You can bring your hormones back into balance by eating a high-quality diet of foods that are filling and nutritious and practicing some SANE living tips. Here are some of the principles of a SANE lifestyle that will lower your regulate your hormones and lower your setpoint weight.
Eat a SANE Diet: A SANE diet means reducing or eliminating heavily processed foods as much as possible, replacing them with whole foods. The four main SANE food groups are non-starchy vegetables, nutrient-dense proteins, whole-food fats, and low-fructose fruits. Try to eat foods as close to their natural states as possible, meaning they should be minimally processed or unprocessed. Frozen is fine as long as the product doesn’t contain additives.
Lower your stress levels: Make a point to de-stress every day. You can do this through meditation, yoga, going out to the movies, taking a walk in the park. Anything you do for fun or relaxation will lower your stress levels.
Get plenty of sleep: Research shows getting 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night keeps your cortisol levels low, which lowers your setpoint weight. One good way to do this is to turn off the TV, stay away from your computer, and put away your smartphone an hour before bedtime. The light from these items cause a decrease in your melatonin levels, which tells you it’s time to wake up. You don’t need that right before bedtime.
Stay hydrated: Studies show staying well-hydrated increases fat burning. Though the standard “wisdom” of getting 8 glasses of water a day is not necessarily true, you should drink several glasses of liquid. If you don’t like plain water, add a spritz of lemon to it. Or, drink green tea.
Isn’t it time to go SANE?
Eating SANEly and living a SANEr lifestyle will regulate your hormones and lower your setpoint weight. You’ll burn fat and lose weight easily. How awesome is that?
Next step: hormone cure with SANE
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