Have you been trying to lose weight unsuccessfully through a restrictive calorie diet plus hard cardio workouts? No matter your gender, the problem could actually be your hormones! And, [spoiler alert!] it’s not estrogen or testosterone.
It’s important to understand just what hormones are, and what they do. There are about 50 unique hormones produced by the human body. They’re produced by various endocrine glands, and travel through your bloodstream to tissues and organs to control most of your body’s primary systems, including your “metabolism” – which in simple terms is how your body produces energy from food.
In essence, every hormone is a chemical messenger that sends a signal to a particular area of your body to do something. When your hormones are in proper balance, your body thrives. But when hormones are out of balance, weight gain – or the inability to lose weight despite a caloric deficit – is one of the unfortunate results.
The primary hormones affecting weight, and especially fat stores, are insulin, cortisol, thyroid, and sex hormones. While everyone will experience a unique combination of hormone imbalances that result in an inability to lose weight, the two most likely to be an issue for most people, regardless of gender, are insulin and cortisol.
Insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, helps your body’s cells to absorb glucose (or “blood sugar”) from the foods you eat, which is then used to produce energy.
The process begins when your digestive system breaks food down into glucose, which travels in your bloodstream to your body’s cells. When your body’s blood glucose level rises (such as after a meal) your pancreas releases insulin to help cells take in and use the extra glucose.
Insulin resistance is a condition where muscle, fat, and liver cells don’t respond correctly to insulin’s help in absorbing glucose. As a result, more glucose stays in your bloodstream instead of entering your cells to be used for energy production. This causes your pancreas to produce even more insulin, because it thinks there’s not enough there to handle all that glucose. So with insulin resistance you end up with high levels of both glucose and insulin circulating in your blood at the same time. Excess glucose, and excess insulin, are both stored in your body as fat cells, primarily around your abdomen/midsection. If you have insulin resistance, you’ll struggle to lose weight through traditional methods, simply because your body is not burning fuel properly.
During exercise, your body burns glycogen, a form of glucose stored in muscle tissue. After exercise, your muscles replenish their glycogen stores with glucose from the bloodstream. Aerobic activities burn more calories (and glucose) per session, but strength training enhances your muscles’ ability to store glucose in the first place. By exercising with aerobic cardio exercise AND strength training, you’ll improve your body’s ability to use and store glucose in the right places (your muscles – not in fat tissue!)
Cortisol – The Stress Hormone
Believe it or not, being stressed out could be the cause of your weight loss difficulties. Stress is the “fight or flight” response to stimuli, either real or imagined. This could be something as real as being physically attacked, or merely imagined through fear – for example, that your boss is angry with you. In our world today, most of our stressors are the imagined variety.
Stress creates a hormonal response, and cortisol is the primary hormone involved. Produced by your adrenal glands, cortisol helps your body respond to stress by shutting down certain body processes (such as digestion), increasing your heart rate, and increasing blood glucose levels – all to provide immediate energy to run away from that saber-toothed tiger.
While these biological responses are vital to immediate survival, prolonged stress and its corresponding high levels of cortisol result in chronic high blood glucose, increased midsection fat, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and muscle loss. High blood glucose in turn generates more insulin production, and the cycle of insulin resistance. [Read: More About Cortisol, the Stress Hormone]
What’s interesting is that high cortisol levels can be caused by too much physical stress on your body – such as excessive high intensity cardio exercise, lack of adequate rest and recovery, and a severe calorie-restricted diet. All of these create “stress” that signal your body to produce more cortisol.
“Cardio junkies” often complain of an inability to lose weight, and continue to gain and carry excess weight around their midsections. They perform more and more cardio workouts without adequate recovery, and may restrict their caloric intake even further, believing this will help them lose the weight – when they should in fact be doing the exact opposite! [Read: How Much Cardio Training Do You Really Need?]
Equipping yourself with knowledge about how your hormones work, and especially how insulin and cortisol affect your metabolism, will help ensure your success in meeting your weight loss goal.
Want to learn more? I’d love to help! Contact me here and let’s have a conversation on what could be holding you back from effectively reaching your goal.
Hyman, Mark MD. How to Fix Your Hormones and Lose Weight. http://drhyman.com/blog/2016/08/05/how-to-fix-your-hormones-and-lose-weight/
Tumpati, Prab MD. Insulin Resistance as a Cause of Weight Gain and How To Reverse It. 5 June 2013 https://www.slideshare.net/philadelphiamedicalweightloss/insulin-resistancec
Ross, Robert PhD. Does Exercise Without Weight Loss Improve Insulin Sensitivity? American Diabetes Association. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/26/3/944.
Hormone Health Network. What is Cortisol? https://www.hormone.org/hormones-and-health/hormones/cortisol