You’ve eaten healthy, exercised, and maintained a consistent water intake, but the number on the scale still hasn’t shifted, at least not as much as you’d expected it to. Sound familiar? At Neurvana Naturopathic Medicine, I work with plenty of women who struggle with similar stubborn weight gain. There are a ton of reasons why this could be happening, particularly your hormones.
Hormones are powerful chemicals. Too much or too little of one of your body’s many hormones can cause noticeable differences in both your appearance and your overall health — differences that can manifest as unexpected weight gain. Take a look at how various female hormonal imbalances can impact your weight journey and how we can work together to balance them.
What are Hormones and Why Do We Have Them?
Hormones are your body’s chemical messengers. They are created in glands located throughout your body and released into your bloodstream to send certain messages. Various bodily systems have specific receptors to recognize and respond to each hormone. They work slowly over time to communicate different bodily processes, such as growth and development.
Hormones are a key driver of metabolism, the process for converting what you eat and drink into energy. They also play a major role in blood sugar regulation, sexual reproduction, and stress response, all three of which can impact weight loss and weight gain. We must have hormones to control and regulate our biological processes, but it’s important to have them at the correct levels.
Which Hormones Impact Weight Gain and Weight Loss?
A special group of cells called endocrine glands produce hormones. The major female endocrine glands that we’ll discuss in relation to weight gain and weight loss are the adrenal glands, thyroid, and ovaries. When understanding the source of your weight concerns, we’ll specifically monitor the stress hormones produced from your adrenal glands, the function of the thyroid and your levels of thyroid hormone, and your female sex hormones, namely estrogen and progesterone.
1. Cortisol: The Stress Hormone
Cortisol is a type of hormone produced and released by your adrenal glands. It impacts several bodily functions and mainly helps regulate your response to stress, known as your fight or flight response. When you’re super stressed out, your body is more likely to produce more cortisol. This is because your body is preparing you for that fight or flight response.
When you have a lot of cortisol in your body, it’s essentially like you’re preparing to run away from a bear or square up against a mountain lion. So, you tend to have more abdominal weight gain as your body brings in more resources to prepare. However, that response is really not something you should be experiencing daily — not just for your weight, but truly for your general well-being.
To understand if excess cortisol is to blame for your unexplained weight gain or trouble with weight loss, we’ll start by looking at relevant lifestyle factors and assessing your stress levels. In particular, we’ll analyze the cortisol levels in your blood or urine to determine how it’s secreted daily and if there’s a concern with it either being too high or too low.
2. Thyroid Hormone: The Metabolism Hormone
Your thyroid gland is super important to your overall metabolism, or how you get energy from your food. It essentially kickstarts your metabolism and gets your body’s energy pathways working more efficiently. However, the thyroid doesn’t produce just one hormone. There are a few we need to talk about in relation to weight loss and weight gain, specifically the:
- Thyroid stimulating hormone, which comes from the pituitary gland in your brain.
- Thyroxine (T4), the inactive hormone that’s released by the thyroid gland.
- Triiodothyronine (T3), the active hormone that’s released by the thyroid gland.
A comprehensive overview of the thyroid involves a thorough analysis of all three markers. You see, when we’re looking at the thyroid, thyroxine or T4 is released from the thyroid gland but it doesn’t actually bind to receptors in the body. T4 cannot start metabolism, which leads to energy production and weight loss, so we need an active form of triiodothyronine or T3.
However, the thyroid releases T4 the majority of the time. So, we rely on what’s called peripheral conversion, or a conversion from T4 to T3 in the bloodstream. There are a ton of cofactors involved here, such as nutrients like selenium, zinc, and iron. An analysis of your nutrient status can provide insight into if you’re converting your T4 into T3 to maintain proper metabolism and weight loss.
Now, if we’re under a lot of stress, your cortisol stress hormone can also play a role in blocking your conversion from T4 to T3. It’s essential to receive a thorough overall assessment of the cortisol and thyroid hormones together to understand if stress is contributing to underlying thyroid conditions that can lead ultimately to weight gain.
3. Estrogen and Progesterone: Female Hormones
The last category we’ll examine for hormonal causes of weight gain is female hormones. Estrogen and progesterone are two hormones that are really important in the female cycle or monthly period. A woman’s ovaries make most estrogen and progesterone; however, your adrenal glands and fat cells can also produce small amounts of each hormone.
Estrogen is typically higher in the first half of your cycle to stimulate ovulation. Progesterone is higher in the second half of your cycle and will rise once ovulation has occurred so that you can rebuild the endometrial lining you shed during your last period. Weight gain can be a concern when these hormones are imbalanced, especially if there’s cyclical weight gain right before your period.
This type of weight gain or excess abdominal bloating is typically a culprit of estrogen dominance, where estrogen is too high in relation to progesterone. An underlying cause of this may be anovulatory cycles, or when you’re not ovulating monthly. If you’re no longer cycling and in perimenopause to menopause, weight gain could be caused by estrogen and progesterone drop-off.
When your body stops regular estrogen production, an enzyme in your fat tissue can create estrogen instead. So, your body may produce excess abdominal fat to create enough estrogen until your typical number of estrogen receptors begins to reduce naturally through menopause. We’ll always begin treatment with a hormone assessment to determine what may be imbalanced.
Can Hormones Be Balanced for Weight Loss?
A hormonal imbalance can present itself in multiple ways in the body. For women, it’s often in unexplained weight gain or complicated weight loss. The most important step in getting your weight journey back on track is to conduct a hormone assessment. We’ll measure the amount of specific hormones, either in your urine or blood, to create a baseline of your current levels.
Depending on the results of your hormone panel, we’ll move along to other types of diagnostic testing to gain a comprehensive overview of how hormones are released and received in your body. We’ll take a deeper look into the function of certain endocrine glands, such as your adrenal and thyroid glands, to ensure they’re operating at optimal levels.
Once we complete comprehensive testing, we can implement a plan to effectively balance your hormones. We can help enable proper function through supplementation or nutraceuticals, diet, and lifestyle changes that support your body’s natural abilities and aid in a healthy weight loss plan. Our goal is to balance hormones for the long-term, so you can take control of your weight for good.
Tired of seeing the same number on the scale?
Hormonal imbalances may be to blame for unexpected weight gain and complicated weight loss plateaus. Learn how a naturopathic doctor with a focus on women’s hormones can help.