Dr. Orlena talks hormones and weight loss

Hormones and weight loss

Trying to lose weight and nothing you do seems to work? You might be struggling with hormonal issues. If some of your hormones are out of normal range, weight loss can be nearly impossible. Happily, there’s lots you can do to get those hormones back on track, so you can lose or maintain your weight.

The hormones you really need to watch for weight loss

Hormones are the chemical messengers of your body. They give a signal from one part of the body to another. Hormonal systems are interconnected and complex. To keep it simple, let’s stick with two hormones that are key players for weight loss. These two hormones are great to look at, as many people have raised levels and simple lifestyle measures can bring them down.

  1. Cortisol
  2. Insulin

1. How cortisol affects weight gain or loss

Cortisol is our stress hormone. When we get anxious or stressed, we release cortisol (along with adrenaline). Cortisol is a naturally occurring steroid. It’s similar to hydrocortisone that doctors prescribe.

Chances are you know someone who has taken a long course of steroids, like prednisone. One of the big side effects of steroids is that you put on weight, normally around the middle. This is known as “truncal obesity.” Weight around your middle is the worst kind of fat with the highest risk of medical problems.

Steroids make it easier to gain weight because they increase your appetite. Even naturally occurring steroids in your body, like cortisol, can cause weight gain when you produce too much of them. In fact, many of us live with chronically raised cortisol levels because the body has a difficult time distinguishing between big and small stressors. So, even when you worry about something “small,” like traffic or running late, your cortisol levels go up.

Managing high cortisol levels

What can you do about high cortisol levels? We can retrain how stressed we are during the day with mindfulness. Simple ways to decrease stress loads include:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Mindfulness practices, such as meditation
  • Relaxation, such as coloring, listening to music, reading, taking time out of your busy day to just be and enjoy life
  • Sleeping 8 or more hours per night

2. Insulin and fat storage/your weight

Insulin is another hormone that affects weight. It helps us metabolize glucose. (You’ve probably heard of it in connection to diabetes.) Glucose is a carbohydrate. Even though there are different types of carbohydrates, many of them are broken down to glucose in our body. When you eat a carbohydrate that is broken down to glucose, the body releases insulin to enable glucose to enter cells.

Bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, and even vegetables (natural sources of carbohydrates), are all foods that get processed into glucose. The glucose enters your blood stream. We use glucose as energy throughout the body. But high levels of glucose in your blood stream are dangerous and damage cells. When blood glucose levels rise, your pancreas secretes insulin. Insulin acts like a lock and key to open gateways that allow glucose to enter cells, where it can be used as energy. When all the cells have enough energy, insulin helps us store the glucose in various deposits around the body.

For example, we have energy stores in our liver. Another well-known energy store is fat. Insulin is the “fat storage” hormone. When our insulin levels are high, the body is busy storing energy as fat, like a squirrel storing nuts for later on. When glucose levels drop and we don’t eat anything, our insulin levels drop. Another hormone, glucagon now rises. (I told you hormones could get complicated easily!) Glucagon helps us reverse this process, breaking down energy stores and releasing glucose.

Glucagon and insulin are like a seesaw, or a brake and accelerator. If your insulin level is high, it won’t allow your body to access its energy stores. Insulin prevents you from using those deposits as energy. In order to lose weight, you need to make sure your insulin levels are in the normal range, so glucagon can rise.

How to get insulin in normal range

Once your insulin levels are in a normal range, you’ll find it easier to lose weight. Here’s how to lower insulin.

  • Eat slow-release carbohydrates rather than “quick-release” processed foods. Out with processed foods and in with yummy vegetables. Everyone processes carbohydrates differently, but if you’re struggling with weight loss, I recommend giving up white bread, pasta, rice, and white potatoes. Replace them with whole grains, legumes, and vegetables
  • Eat less frequently. Snacking frequently through out the day can lead to raised insulin levels
  • Eat smaller portions. How much your insulin rises is proportionate to how much we eat. You’ll get a bigger rise with the more you eat

Looking after your hormones and weight loss

Understanding physiology can quickly get complicated. But making sure we look after our hormone levels is easy. Just stick to the four pillars of self care, and you’ll find your hormones can help you lose weight.

  • Eat healthily: fewer processed foods, and more healthy vegetables. This lowers your insulin levels
  • Sleep hygiene: turn off screens, and make sure you get 8 hours a night. This lowers cortisol levels
  • Exercise regularly: exercise helps you to feel fit and fabulous and helps us regulate our hormones. Exercise indirectly helps insulin and your cortisol levels because it reduces stress
  • Mindfulness and emotions: how we think about things matters. Not only does it affect our emotions and actions, it affects our cortisol levels

Healthy living can be easy and fun without feeling like a chore

Healthy eating and living doesn’t have to be complicated. The secret is to create healthy habits that work for you. Once you’re in the habit of healthy living, you’ll do it without thinking. And once you’re in the habit of healthy living, you’ll naturally lose weight.

Orlena Kerek, MD
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