This is a common story that can describe any number of patients I see in my private practice: My patient has been doing well–she’s been exercising regularly; she’s been cutting out sugar and processed foods and watching what she eats. She’s been having salads for lunch. She’s even gotten her husband on board! He’s started to have salads for lunch with his cheeseburger (instead of fries) and given up having a row of cookies in the evening. All things considered, she’s been doing great. However, despite her best efforts, after one month of tiresome slog, restriction and dedication, she’s only managed to lose a few pounds. Her husband? He’s lost 10.
“He has more to lose,” I suggest to her. “Those few pounds you’ve lost are gone for life—slow and steady stays off forever.” I am her cheerleader, but the truth is: hormones, especially when it comes to women.
Hormones are the body’s telegrams. They are produced in glands in tissue like the gut, ovaries, adrenals and brain and act on distant cells in the body, telling them how to behave. When it comes to weight loss, hormones can be the culprit if diet and exercise have failed to produce results. Hormones control appetite, mood, food cravings, metabolic rate, fat gain and distribution and hunger, among other things. Any hormonal imbalance will sabotage weight loss efforts and it’s often the first place I look when a patient has weight loss goals that they aren’t achieving with diet and exercise alone.
There are numerous hormones in the body that are responsible for the above actions, however the main ones that we can affect through diet and lifestyle are insulin, cortisol, estrogen and the thyroid hormones. These are just some key players in a team, however just by working on these four, we can start to see results.
Hormones are complex entities, not only for the wide array of effects, but for their tendency to effect the action of each other. For example, high cortisol can effect levels of estrogen, insulin and the thyroid hormones. High insulin can affect cortisol and estrogen. And so on. Working on hormones is like attacking a giant knot and often requires starting from the basics: diet and lifestyle.
Insulin is an important hormone in the body—we can’t live without it. Released by the pancreas after a carbohydrate-rich meal in response to rising levels of sugar in the blood, insulin gets sugar into cells where it can be used as fuel. It also brings down blood sugar, making it a main culprit in hypoglycemic crashes and sugar cravings. The problem with insulin, however, is when we overeat carbohydrates and sugar, we overuse the insulin response. The result is abdominal fat, weight gain (insulin tells the body to store fat), a blood sugar roller coaster, mood swings (that “hangry” feeling) and intense sugar cravings and energy crashes.
Insulin is best balanced by diet, particularly managing carbohydrate intake and emphasizing healthy fats and protein in the diet. Fat and protein slow sugar absorption. This prevents a rise in blood sugar and decreases the need for insulin. The result is feeling satiated for longer, having stable energy and decreasing food cravings.
The first step in balancing insulin release is to increase morning protein. I recommend aiming for 30 g of good quality, lean protein for breakfast like a chicken breast, or scoop of whey isolate protein powder in a whole foods smoothie. I was once accused jokingly of “not knowing that breakfast is”, when recommending chicken breasts for breakfast. However, perhaps it’s North America that has a skewed sense of what makes a decent morning meal. If the aim of breakfast is to break the fast that you’ve had throughout the night, then starting it off with a high-carb, high-sugar, nutrient-sparse piece of toast or bowl of breakfast cereal seems crazy to me. In Colombia and India, two places I’ve spent some time, we started off the day with a protein-rich stew or meat soup.
To balance insulin make sure that every meal, even snacks, contain some form of protein or a fat. Avoid eating carbohydrates by themselves and keep servings of carbs to a minimum and in their unprocessed, whole form (like large flake oats, quinoa and brown rice as opposed to flours or cereals).
One of the main hormone imbalances I notice when it comes to stubborn weight gain is cortisol imbalance. Cortisol is the stress hormone. It’s released by the adrenal glands, two pyramid-shaped endocrine glands that sit on top of the kidneys, in response to stress. Animals have two modes of operation: fight or flight or rest and digest. Cortisol increases blood sugar and alertness and tells the body to divert attention to gearing us up for combat or escape, and moves us away from investing energy in digestion, immunity and concentration. Cortisol is a wonderful hormone; it keeps us awake, and makes us feel alert and well, priming us to be effective in our busy, stressful lives. However, our bodies weren’t made for long-term stress response and we spend most of our time in fight or flight mode.
Cortisol and blood sugar:
Cortisol raises blood sugar, causing insulin to be released. This starts us on a blood sugar roller coaster trip, leading to sugar cravings, energy crashes and storing fat.
Cortisol and fat distribution:
Cortisol doesn’t directly tell the body to store fat (it happens through other mechanisms that happen in response to high cortisol), but it does encourage fat redistribution. Cortisol tells the body to move fat from the hips and thighs and deposit in the abdomen, face and shoulders, leading to the sexy “Buffalo Hump”. We know that abdominal fat carries more health risks than fat in other areas of the body so this detail can be troublesome when it comes to long-term effects.
Cortisol and the thyroid:
Cortisol impacts the thyroid by preventing the conversion of T4 to the more active T3. T3 and T4 are important thyroid hormones that set the body’s metabolic rate, among other things.
Cortisol and the sex hormones:
Cortisol can lead to estrogen dominance by diverting resources away from estrogen and progesterone production. In menopause, this is particularly troublesome, as the body relies on the adrenal glands, rather than the ovaries, to produce the sex hormones. High cortisol can result in progesterone deficiency and estrogen dominance symptoms, which can negatively affect weight loss. Cortisol also causing accelerated aging and who wants that?
The main thing when it comes to cortisol balancing is to Calm Down—or as I like to poignantly put it, Calm the F#$% Down. The way this is done is highly individualized. Some recommendations I have are: meditation, yoga, exploring acupuncture (a wonderful way to balance cortisol, among other things), journaling, taking a day off, re-evaluating priorities at work and at home, etc. Mainly, getting 7-9 hours of sleep a night is essential for managing the stress response.
Taking it easy:
When it comes to weight loss, I often notice that certain efforts hinder our progress. It’s important to keep caloric intake adequate—eating too few calories can stress the body out, causing cortisol release. It’s also important to manage exercise. While exercise can teach the body how to manage stress, it does produce cortisol in the short-term. Therefore it’s important to keep exercise short and intense. Weight-training, short bursts of cardio (no more than 20 minutes) and varying intensities with High Intensity Interval Training, Tabata or Crossfit, are the best choices for weight loss. Training for a marathon or long-distance bike race may be fun and fulfilling, but they are not the best choices for weight loss, as they prolong the stress response and can work against you, rather than in your favour.
When I have a patient who is intensely tracking what they eat and over-exercising my advice is often (and it’s not that well-received, as you can imagine) “Take it easy”. Easing up on exercise and relaxing calorie-counting may be hidden pieces in the weight loss game.
Herbs and supplements:
There are a variety of nutrients to take to support adrenal function. The main things to consider, with the advice and counsel of a trained naturopathic doctor are B-vitamins, magnesium and adaptogenic herbs (the help the body adapt to stress).
Estrogen, actually a group of hormones, are female sex hormones. Their main job is to promote the expression of female sex characteristics, the growth of breast tissue and to control ovulation. Estrogen also causes body to fat to be distributed to the thighs, buttocks and lower abdomen. The problem with modern society is an imbalance in the two female sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone. Due to stress and toxic environmental estrogens, or xenoestrogens, among other things, modern women have more estrogen relative to progesterone in their bodies. The effects of this are numerous and include, stubborn weight gain in the thighs (the famed “saddlebags), cellulite, acne, PMS, painful menstrual periods, fibroids, hormonal conditions such as PCOS, and the occurrence of certain female cancers, especially breast cancer. Estrogen can also contribute significantly to anxiety symptoms.
Correcting estrogen dominance primarily involves supporting estrogen detox pathways in the liver. Chemicals such as I3C, DIIM and calcium-d-glucarate help increase the liver’s ability to clear foreign estrogens from the body. Supporting digestive health also allows us to remove estrogens—they are neutralized in the liver and eliminated through the colon. Leafy greens contain a high amount of these chemicals, so ensuring you get adequate amounts in your diet is important for estrogen metabolism. Ground flaxseed, rosemary and fish oil are also important nutrients for clearing excess estrogen from the body.
Try to reduce exposure to foreign estrogens by avoiding the use of plastic bottles and plastic-lined cans, using natural skincare and body products and natural cleaning aids whenever possible. It’s also important to see a naturopathic doctor 2-4 times a year for a medically-assisted natural detoxification to clear the body of toxic estrogens.
The thyroid gland sits on the neck, just below the Adam’s Apple. It releases two hormones T4, and the more active T3. These hormones are responsible for setting the body’s metabolic rate—converting fat into heat and energy. Thyroid deficiency, or hypothyroidism is more common in our society than we think (naturopathic doctors have stricter criteria for laboratory reference ranges than conventional medicine—we look for signs of health, not disease). Conventional medicine deems hypothyroidism as having a TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) level above 5—for this hormone, all you need to know is lower is better—however ND’s will start to treat the thyroid when symptoms are present and TSH is above 2.5. Symptoms of hypothyroidism are stubborn weight gain, constipation, feeling cold, fatigue, especially brain fog, weak memory, hair loss, dry skin and thinning of the eyebrows.
Supporting the thyroid:
The thyroid gland is a fragile organ, sensitive to inflammation and stress. When there is inflammation in the body, often caused by stress, diet or insulin resistance, the thyroid is the first gland to suffer. Most cases of hypothyroidism are autoimmune in nature. Therefore, naturopathic doctors aim to correct inflammation by prescribing an anti-inflammatory diet and looking for food sensitivities. When we identify food sensitivities (through specialized IgG antibody testing or an elimination diet) and remove them from the diet, we can focus on gut healing which treats inflammation and helps repair the thyroid.
Low calorie diets have the effect of suppressing thyroid function, which leads to the yo-yo dieting effect. Avoid extremely low calorie diets, or opt for intermittent fasting or calorie-cycling instead. Aim for slow and steady weight loss so as not to harm metabolic rate, which makes weight loss more difficult in the long run.
I previously mentioned that cortisol can harm the thyroid and that hormones are interlinked. Cortisol prevents the conversion of T4 to the more active T3, which can slow metabolism.
A deficiency in iodine, zinc, iron and selenium, among other nutrients, can negatively impact the thyroid. Talk your naturopathic doctor about testing and supplementation.
What would a visit to a naturopathic doctor look like? When it comes to hormones, treatment is often complex as it targets the root cause of symptoms and involves detangling the complicated web of hormones that are at play. This can require some diagnostic detective work. A naturopathic doctor will take your complete health history, order labs and perform physical exams if necessary. A common treatment plan might look like this:
- Sleep: 7-9 hours per night
- Take stress seriously: sign up for a round of acupuncture, start meditation, do yoga, journal, etc.
- Measure hormones via saliva: cortisol, testosterone, DHEA, estrogen, progesterone
- Identify food sensitivities via an elimination diet or an IgG Food Panel that tests for antibodies to certain foods in the blood.
- Correct nutritient deficiencies through diet and supplementation
- Herbs for hormonal support: estrogen detoxification, thyroid support, gut healing, adrenal support, glucose control and blood sugar balancing.
- Exercise: short, intense bursts that target muscle-building
- Diet: high protein, especially in the morning, healthy fats, low carbs and eliminate sugar, processed foods and food sensitivities.
This article was republished with permission from taliand.com.
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