By Candace Burch, ZRT Laboratory
If you cannot figure out why you are gaining weight or can no longer shed pounds easily like you used to – despite your best efforts to eat right, exercise, and take your vitamins every morning– you might be walking around with a hormone imbalance that has you hardwired to put on pounds.
Even when we think we’re being healthy, hormonal triggers to unwanted weight gain are too often neglected or overlooked. Testing can help you find the answer. But in the meantime, let’s boil this down to the collective wisdom on eight big culprits behind unwanted weight gain.
1. You have an estrogen to progesterone imbalance.
Many women – especially those of childbearing age – have an estrogen dominance problem. If you exercise strenuously, you could be making less progesterone and estrogen is dominating, leading to weight gain in the hips, thighs and bottom. Other causes of estrogen dominance include disrupted ovulation (meaning no progesterone is produced), and supplementing with estrogen alone, in the absence of its balancing partner, progesterone. Or environmental factors such as pesticides, plastics, industrial waste products, car exhaust, meat, soaps, and chemicals in furniture and carpets could be part of the problem.
Diet, most importantly making sure you eat “hormone-free” (the label should clearly read “these animals were raised without hormones or antibiotics), environmental avoidance of xenoestrogens, and taking supplements can bolster your natural progesterone production and decrease estrogen dominance. Check out the Environmental Working Group for the full revelations and actions you can take!
2. You’re not getting enough vitamin D.
Possibly due to our awareness of skin cancer and the use of sunscreen, our levels of vitamin D are lower than they were decades ago. Not to mention that we are spending more time working indoors in front of computers, or exercising inside vs. in the great outdoors. Vitamin D, synthesized by the action of sunlight upon the skin, is converted to a vital hormone in our bodies, and deficiency has been linked to allergies including food allergies, asthma, weight gain, fatigue, diabetes, and even cancer. Vitamin D levels can be tested through your provider with our Weight Management Profile and if testing uncovers a deficiency, supplemental vitamin D is cheap and readily available.
3. You have high cortisol levels.
High levels of cortisol (our “stress hormone”) are another big reason we tend to store fat and keep weight on, particularly in the abdominal area (that dreaded muffin top) until the stressor is minimized or resolved. One of the naturopaths we work with talks about how she used to wake up very early to do a spin class or intense run, then race home to get ready for work, deal with her young kids and then after work tackle dinner and endless chores. These stressors increased her cortisol levels and worked against her goals of having a lean body.
If you can relate, and feel like you need to be on a caffeine drip at all times, it means you’re having too many highs and lows with cortisol as a big culprit. High cortisol is associated with increased appetite, cravings for sugar, and weight gain, belly fat in particular. You need to unwind every day with whatever it is (deep breathing, meditation, yoga, walking), that shuts off your hyper-vigilence – even if it’s for 10 minutes per day.
4. You’re eating processed “healthy.”
Excess salt and sugar are often hidden ingredients that are both inflammatory and causes of excess weight gain. Just because it’s at a health food store and it’s “gluten free” or “low fat” or “natural,” DOES NOT mean it’s good for you. It can take a long time to get over this, because packaging with the words “natural” and “healthy” can be very persuasive – and misleading.
5. You’re eating too much fat.
Paleo and other higher-fat diets work for some people, but keep in mind that it's easy to get too many calories with foods that are high in fat. Fat is a nutrient, and our bodies need some essential fatty acids – especially the “good fats” found in nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, etc. (even more nutritious when added to greens) – but be careful not to go overboard if you want to lose weight.
6. You’re skimping on quality sleep.
This still remains tried and true – your hormones need sleep. Your brain needs it, your muscles, bones and every cell in your body needs it for repair and restoration. The two hormones that are key in the relationship between sleep and weight loss are ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin is the so-called ‘hunger hormone’ that tells you when to eat, and leptin its counterpart, the ‘satiety hormone’ tells you when to stop. But when you’re sleep-deprived (defined 7 hours or less a night), you have more ghrelin and thus more appetite.
At the same time you have less leptin, so you never get the signal that you are full, and continue to feel hungry all the time. These key appetite hormones operate on the sleep-wake cycle, so anything that disrupts that cycle, such as a high night cortisol (the stress hormone) level can upset the balance leading to overeating and cravings. Testing your melatonin (the sleep hormone) in concert with cortisol stress hormones can reveal an imbalance that can ultimately impact weight.
People having sleep disturbances or jet lag often use melatonin and magnesium (an all too common mineral deficiency associated with sleep disturbances AND chocolate cravings) as supplements to get back on the right track, but dealing with the stress that is disrupting your sleep and eliminating sources of light in your bedroom that can interfere with natural melatonin secretion are good places to start.
7. You’re not eating your cruciferous vegetables.
Cruciferous vegetables are in the Brassica vegetable family and include Brussels sprouts, kale, cauliflower, bok choy, broccoli, and other similar green vegetables. Not only are they good for you because of the feeling of fullness you get from the fiber, but they’re also good for estrogen metabolism through a compound called indole-3-carbinol (I3C). It is a natural source of DIM (3,3-Diindolylmethane) that helps promote estrogen balance AND helps clear the body of the toxic xenoestrogens we pick up from the environment. This is one of the cheapest, easiest ways to get your hormones and your weight in balance.
8. You’re not strength training or getting enough exercise.
Moderate exercise lowers stress hormones, which in turn reduces the body’s tendency to store fat, and increases calorie burning. Stretching exercises like yoga and Pilates, etc. also help to release tension in the body. Additional strength training or weight bearing exercise (e.g., 2-3 workouts a week) builds muscle, increasing anabolic hormones like testosterone and DHEA that rev metabolism.
In a nutshell, eating right, exercising and getting enough sleep are essentials that help keep hormones in balance, weight under control, and belly fat at bay.
Consider testing to identify existing imbalances that could be thwarting your best efforts to lose weight. It is simple, pain-free and convenient. The test results could reveal hidden imbalances and provide helpful information about what to do next. This is news we can all use.