Weight and the Hormone Connection

Women have always felt more vulnerable to weight gain especially around their period, during stress, after a hysterectomy and at menopause.  Finally, Scientists are discovering proven links between female hormones, hunger, weight loss, and fat metabolism. Traditionally, physicians have been using the “calories in vs calories out” to counsel their patients on weight loss. The hidden key to weight loss may be in balancing your hormones and not just counting calories and push-ups.

Hormones are very powerful chemical messengers, secreted by various glands in your body. They can send an instant twitter message to your tissues to execute changes in body function such as digestion, reproduction, immune systems etc. A very complex cocktail of some 200 hormones and chemicals circulates in the blood at any given time.  They can modulate what, when, why and how much we eat. The most influential hormones for weight loss are insulin, cortisol, thyroid, leptin and ghrelin. These hormones are in turn affected by estrogen, progesterone and even testosterone. Thus it is important to understand the hormone connection and how to keep them in optimal range for ideal body weight.


Secreted by the pancreas, insulin is released in response to high blood sugar levels. When a certain weight threshold is reached or there is a genetic predisposition, one can become resistant i.e. insulin does not work properly. This can lead to adult onset type 2 diabetes, characterized by abdominal weight gain and abnormal blood sugar levels. When insulin is secreted in higher amounts, you feel hungrier and you eat more. Willpower does not exist when insulin is high.


This is the well-known fight-or-flight hormone. Most women have many demanding roles, and a never-ending to-do list  -all this while being sleep deprived most of the week. Stress activates the release of cortisol (and adrenalin). Cortisol automatically ramps up the appetite and increase cravings for sweets and carbs. These foods cause the insulin levels to spike, resulting “stress fat” which is concentrated around the belly. This visceral fat then predisposes you to hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Cortisol levels are also affected by sleep; several studies have shown that even partial sleep deprivation can elevate levels.


This hormone regulates almost every cell in the body. It is responsible for many functions including rate of metabolism, cardiac activity, body temperature and regulation of other endocrine tissues.

Leptin And Ghrelin

These two hormones have been recently recognized to play a major role in weight and energy regulation. They send signals to the brain causing a cascade of neurotransmitters to be released which influence eating behaviour.
Leptin signals us to stop eating if we’re full.  In obese patients this hormone level is quite high in the blood as there may be “leptin resistance”.

Ghrelin — the only hunger hormone identified to date — counteracts leptin and other hormones and tells the body it’s time to be fed.

Unfortunately, we can’t count on these hormones to switch off when we’ve gotten what we biologically need from our food: Recent research suggests that these hormones of fullness and hunger play a role not just in our need for food but also in our pleasure of eating.

Estrogen, Progesterone and Testosterone

As we age, our hormones decline. These sex hormones play a significant role in metabolism and maintenance of muscle mass, which decreases as our hormone levels go down.  Female sex hormones also execute complex actions on weight and food regulation. Deficiencies and fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone may drive women to “binge eat” or crave high carb foods.

 As we know there is no “Miracle Diet Pill” we can give our hormones a better chance by creating a stable environment in which they can work.


Reset your stress-o-meter by putting in place effective strategies such as reframing and meditation so that you are not experiencing stress-related hormone cravings. Notice your eating patterns. Do you tend to over eat when anxious, bored, or overwhelmed? Become more conscious of your “feelings” preceding the behaviour. Research confirms that lowering stress not only lowers stress hormones, in fact it optimizes the function of all the other hormones.

Research shows that people who practice yoga three times a week tend to gain less weight over a 10 year period than those who do not. Stress reduction can happen in many ways –find a hobby that engages you – music, dance, theatre. Laughter is often the best medicine.

Mindful Eating

Using all of your senses to register the food on a multisensorial level. Look at it, smell it, and savour the unique flavours. You will end up eating less when you are in the moment and focused on what you are doing. Taking three deep breaths before putting food in your mouth is another way to stay present. Researchers have found that fast eaters produce different gut hormones that do not send signals to be brain that they are full.

Be mindful of what you put in your body -Think a diet high in fiber, complex carbs, and low-glycemic-index foods like whole grains and fiber-rich vegetables and fruit, as well as unsaturated fats, which will take longer to metabolize and help you stave off cravings and regulate your blood sugar levels. Avoid highly processed foods and watch for hidden fats, salt and sugar in the ingredient labels.


Westcoast Women’s Clinic recommends exercising an hour per day, five days a week, to combat hormonal weight gain. Exercise lowers cortisol levels and raises your endorphins giving you a natural “high”. So go do something thrilling. Strength training can also help with hormonal balance as it improves the muscle to fat ratio. Muscles burn more calories than fat at rest thus improving your metabolic rate.

Remember, not all cycles have to be vicious. Research shows the more you exercise, the better you sleep, which can make you less hungry. Also, the more you sleep and exercise, the better your mood and stress levels may be, so you’re less likely to get the neurochemical cues that might lead you to overeat or eat mindlessly.

If you have “done all the right things” and are still frustrated it may be related to a hormone imbalance. Get the help you need – get informed, see your doctor. For educational seminars on hormone health, visit www.westcoastwomensclinic.com