If you’ve gained weight recently but are at a loss as to why, what you’re eating and how often you’re working out are only part of the puzzle.
Hormones act as chemical messengers that are involved in basically all areas of health, appetite, mood, and metabolism. In other words, they’re pretty powerful and can significantly influence your entire body, especially for women.
“While we often see changes in hormonal balance associated with weight gain or difficulty in losing weight, it can be difficult to isolate a specific hormonal change as the culprit,” Dr Matt Vickers, a GP at Juniper, explains.
“Normal life changes such as the menopausal transition or healthy ageing can account for the hormone-driven changes in fat distribution throughout our bodies,” he adds.
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Fortunately, rebalancing hormones is possible through simple lifestyle changes, holistic health strategies, and proper support. But before we dive into that, let’s explore the key hormones that impact your weight.
Oestrogen is an important hormone that helps maintain your reproductive system. Though your ovaries produce the most oestrogen, your adrenal glands and fat cells produce a small amount too.
When you have too much of it, you may start to notice fat accumulate, especially in the waist, hips and thighs. Interestingly, declining levels of oestrogen after menopause can also lead to weight gain – though in this case, it typically shows in the stomach area.
Earlier this year, the hashtag #howtoreducecortisol was trending on TikTok and the truth is that this hormone affects most of our lives, in one way or another. Also known as the stress hormone, cortisol controls the processes linked to your ‚fight or flight‘ response, preparing your body to tackle situations it deems as harmful.
When your cortisol levels are high, your body focuses on the systems and functions it needs to survive, which ends up slowing down other processes that aren’t as essential – like your metabolism. Plus, stress can also activate ghrelin, another hormone that impacts your weight.
Your pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that controls the amount of glucose (sugar) in your bloodstream and ensures you have enough energy for your usual day-to-day activities. What many people struggle with is insulin resistance. In 2021, more than 1 in 20 Australians were living with diabetes – which leads to higher-than-usual blood sugar levels. This, in turn, can result in symptoms that include sugar cravings and increased hunger, potentially leading to weight gain.
Leptin is the hormone that helps your body maintain its current weight, regulating the balance between the food you eat and the energy you expend. Similar to insulin, some people develop leptin resistance, which causes the brain to respond differently to the hormone and not get the feeling of fullness or satiety, causing them to overeat and as a result gain weight.
Ghrelin is another hormone that affects your weight. Also known as the hormone hunger, ghrelin tells your brain that you’re hungry, regulates body fat levels and controls your blood sugar. Some research suggests that lower levels of ghrelin are linked to increased hunger and there is a hypothesis that people with obesity are more sensitive to ghrelin, meaning they don’t need as much of the hormone to experience hunger.
Can you prevent hormonal weight gain?
Hormonal weight gain isn’t always preventable, especially because women’s bodies need to store a certain amount of fat to maintain reproductive health. However, there are things you can do to help keep your hormones balanced.
“Focusing on improving lifestyle factors that might lead to hormonal imbalances, such as improved sleep, reduced stress and a healthy diet, can be far more effective than trying to treat a specific hormone result,” says Dr Vickers.
Add more fibre to your diet
Fibre is important for hormonal health, as it promotes healthy bowel movements, helps your body eliminate excess hormones and plays a role in stabilising insulin levels. The easiest way to incorporate more fibre into your diet is by eating a variety of colourful vegetables, fresh fruits and whole grains.
Eat more probiotic foods
Kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and yoghurt are all probiotic-rich foods that help regulate your bowel habits, preventing the build-up of toxins that are bad for hormonal balance.
Steer away from sugary foods
Think syrups, soda, lollies, and juices – all of these foods increase your blood sugar levels.
Staying hydrated also helps you regulate metabolism, while also keeping you feeling fuller for longer. If you get bored of water, kombucha, coconut water and lemon water are three great alternatives.
Working out can help prevent hormonal weight gain by lowering stress levels, enhancing sleep quality and releasing feel-good hormones like endorphins.
Get 7-9 hours of sleep every night
Quality sleep is integral to overall health and it influences hormone production and regulation. Not getting enough sleep for a long period can result in hormonal imbalances and disturbances to your circadian rhythm, potentially leading to weight gain.
“While it can be difficult to lose weight or avoid weight gain because of the body’s natural processes, it’s important to understand that a holistic weight management program that addresses the lifestyle factors that might be driving hormonal weight changes provides the best chance of long-term, sustainable success.“