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The role hormones can play in weight gain is important

Your hormones can become out of whack, leading to unexplainable hormonal weight gain.

The role hormones can play in weight gain is important
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Weight fluctuations are a normal part of any woman's life and your body can change with the ebb and flow of your hormones. Hormones are your body's chemical messengers: they play a vital role in the overall development of your body and the health of your organs.

Your hormones control everything from your heart rate, sleep cycles, and sexual function, all the way through to reproduction. But, with the stressors of everyday life, food choices and even disrupted sleep schedules, your hormones can become out of whack, leading to unexplainable hormonal weight gain.

Want to find out more about hormonal weight gain and how it works? We're going to dive into the critical role of hormones in your weight loss journey, how stages of life affect hormones and whether hormones are the reason behind weight gain in women.

What are hormones?

Your glands release hormones that run through your bloodstream to target cells and send signals to different parts of your body. This is known as your endocrine system.

Your endocrine system secretes substances (known as electrolytes, proteins or enzymes) straight to a target site via ducts or tubes [1]. Some of the major endocrine glands across your body are:

  • Pituitary gland
  • Pineal gland
  • Thymus
  • Thyroid
  • Adrenal glands
  • Pancreas
  • Ovaries 

These glands work together to distribute over 50 different hormones to different areas in your body [2].

What's interesting is that each of these hormones has a different function. Here are just a few of the main hormones that you'll find pulsing around your body:

  • Progesterone helps to regulate your menstrual cycle and prepare your body for a potential pregnancy.
  • Testosterone helps to grow and repair your reproductive tissue, and can even play a role in conditions such as PCOS.
  • Oestrogen is an important reproductive hormone that helps to maintain your reproductive system.
  • Cortisol is a type of steroid hormone and is correlated with stress levels.
  • Insulin is a hormone responsible for digestion and regulating your blood sugar levels.
  • T3 and T4 (thyroid hormones) play a major role in how your body uses energy as well as in setting your metabolic rate.

What is hormonal weight gain?

An imbalance in your hormones causes hormonal weight gain. Hormone imbalance is common for 80 per cent of women, so if you feel alone in your hormonal journey, it's definitely not the case [3].

It is common for the body to go through these weight changes are you progress in life. Research shows that perimenopausal women have, on average, a six per cent increase in waist circumference and a 10 per cent increase in total fat mass on their bodies [4].

Menopausal women have a decrease in leg fat of 3.19 per cent but an increase in waist fat percentage of 5.49 per cent — this is generally down to a few specific hormones, including oestrogen, cortisol and insulin.

Plus, conditions including thyroid disease, diabetes, and even stress can change your endocrine system — the glands throughout your body that produce hormones — and cause your hormone levels to fluctuate.

Let's look at your most important hormones and how they can influence weight gain.

How does oestrogen affect weight gain?

An oestrogen imbalance can go two ways: you have too much or too little. High levels of oestrogen can trigger the pancreas to secrete more insulin.

The body's cells are constantly signalled by insulin to convert sugar in the blood to energy. After some time, the cells become resistant to these insulin signals, a process known as insulin resistance.

During perimenopause and menopause, oestrogen levels begin to drop. Since the ovaries are no longer producing enough oestrogen, the body looks at other sources of oestrogen.

One source is fat cells in the body. The body starts converting all energy sources into fat to regain oestrogen levels, leading to hormonal weight gain, especially in the abdomen.

How does cortisol affect weight gain?

Cortisol is a stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands, and it controls the processes linked to your "fight or flight" response [5].

It also helps regulate blood sugar, metabolism, sleep cycles, and inflammation. Unfortunately, when the body is constantly stressed, you start to crave sugary foods, your appetite increases and motivation for exercise starts to dwindle.

Your body looks to reserve energy where it can and will start storing fat, especially in the abdomen. Your cortisol levels are a great indicator of stress in your body.

When you've had a bad day at work or something has been bothering you, you're more likely to stay in a state of stress. This heightened state activates your hunger hormone (ghrelin), making it harder to stick to a healthy diet and reach your weight loss goals.

How does insulin impact weight loss?

Insulin is a hormone created by your pancreas that controls the amount of glucose in your bloodstream at any moment. Insulin helps to transport sugar from food into your blood cells.

Unfortunately, many people stay in a heightened insulin response with modern food, highly processed meals and hidden sugars. Having insulin resistance means that your vital organs can't absorb insulin properly, spiking your blood sugar levels and leading to symptoms such as:

  • Cravings for sweets and salty foods
  • Darkening of skin in the groin, armpits, or behind the neck
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent or increased urination
  • Increased hunger or thirst
  • Tingling sensation in the hands of feet.

In some cases, if your body stays in a spiked insulin state over time, it can lead to type 2 diabetes, thyroid gland issues and even hormonal weight gain.

Does your thyroid play a role in hormonal weight gain?

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your neck. This perfectly shaped gland controls your metabolism and releases two essential hormones into your bloodstream, thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3).

A sluggish thyroid can cause weight gain, fluid retention, hair loss or thinning, depression, and constipation, among other problems [6]. A thyroid deficiency can be caused by immune system problems, specific medical treatments and inflammation around the body.

Is it normal to gain weight during your period?

Yes! It's totally normal to gain weight during your period: your body is going through a regeneration time and uses different energy sources to help make this happen. Your body weight can fluctuate between two to five kilos during your menstrual cycle.

The menstrual cycle comprises two processes that interact and overlap — one happening in the ovaries and one in the uterus. The brain, ovaries, and uterus work together and communicate through gut hormones.

Progesterone increases a week before your period and impairs intestinal muscle contractions, resulting in slow digestion and constipation.

Oestrogen also regulates serotonin, a neurotransmitter that controls mood and reduces appetite. When oestrogen drops right before your period, so does serotonin. The result is a bigger appetite, so it's not uncommon to see weight gain or a change in body weight during your menstrual cycle.

Why can hormones make it difficult to lose weight?

Stressors such as long work days, irregular sleep schedules and poor diet all lead to extreme fluctuations in your hormone balance. Often the real key to losing unwanted belly fat, resolving weight gain, gaining energy, clarity, and a better mood lies with your hormones.

Unfortunately, no amount of exercise or change in diet can impact the way you feel if your hormones are imbalanced.

And whilst your hormones can't technically be seen, these chemical messages are vital to the longevity of your health. It's understandable if your weight loss journey feels like an uphill battle if you're trying to lose weight with hormonal imbalances.

On the one hand, you may feel that a particular diet is an answer to your body composition goals, but if you have hormonal imbalances, this diet could damage your health in the long run.

Plus, hormones are influenced by your emotions as well. Feelings of guilt, shame and an obsession with weight can cause your hormones to spike. Plus, lifestyle changes can cause stress levels to rise, making it hard to lose weight and maintain a healthy weight.

Hormones and weight gain after 45

What's the connection between hormonal weight gain and menopause?

There is speculation about the connection between menopause and weight gain. Menopause changes a female's reproductive cycle in later life, occurring 12 months after the last menstruation.

Menopause occurs in women aged 45 to 55 and menopausal symptoms include headaches, weight changes, hot flushes, night sweats and anxiety.

With this bodily change comes changes in your hormones, naturally. But hormones aren't the only factor in potential weight gain as you age. For example, muscle mass typically diminishes with age while fat increases, and losing muscle mass slows the rate at which your body uses calories.

This can make it more challenging to maintain a healthy weight. Plus, during menopause, your body reduces oestrogen production, affecting bone density. If there isn't a stable amount of oestrogen, it can lead to a condition known as osteoporosis.

Stress levels also play a significant role in weight gain, so managing stress effectively can make losing weight easier [7]. Whilst all these changes may seem daunting, it is possible to keep your body balanced and thriving even into your later years — we promise!

How can you stop hormonal weight gain?

Sometimes hormonal weight gain is inevitable. The female body has to store a certain amount of fat to maintain a healthy reproductive system.

But there are ways to keep your body balanced to feel your best throughout every stage of your life. Here are seven practical ways to keep your hormones balanced and resolve any hormonal imbalances:

Incorporate fibre into your daily diet

Fibre is incredibly important and you can get more into your daily diet by eating a variety of colourful vegetables and whole fruits. Vegetables in the cruciferous family (which includes broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, and bok choy) must be consumed daily as they are rich in micronutrients.

Be sure to include whole grains, lean proteins, healthy plant-based fats, and fatty fish in your diet as well. Ground flaxseeds, which are rich in fibre and lignans, can help balance hormones.

Avoid processed foods

As a natural extension of the above point, avoid all refined grains, processed meats and anything processed, such as ready-to-eat snacks.

Stay hydrated

Consume lots of water, coconut water, kombucha, smoothies and organic juices. Staying hydrated also helps you regulate metabolism and stay satiated for longer.

Cut down on sugar

Drastically reduce consumption of sugary sweets, syrups, sodas, juices and other beverages. In addition to sugar, some of these items are high in High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), which can increase your blood sugar levels.

Consume more probiotic food

Constipation builds up toxins in your body that are bad for hormonal balance. Follow the above tips for regular bowel habits. Probiotic foods include yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, tempeh, kimchi, sourdough bread and some cheeses.

Make sure you get consistent, high-quality sleep

While poor sleep can be common during menopause, if you can, try to aim for eight to nine hours per night. Setting aside an hour before bedtime to wind down will help you create a healthy sleeping routine.

Create a healthy exercise routine

Half an hour per day can help balance hormones. Involve yourself in relaxing activities like pilates, yoga, long walks or intuitive dance.

Tackling hormonal weight gain with science

Your hormones are brilliant and intricate messages that help your body to live and function from day to day. While hormonal imbalance can cause issues around the body such as weight gain, you can bring them back into balance to feel vibrant, energised and healthier again.

But, diet and exercise aren't always enough to make a significant difference and it becomes about biology. This is where Juniper's Weight Reset Program comes in — designed for long-term weight management, this holistic program is designed by medical experts and health coaches to tackle the root causes of why you're gaining weight.

The program combines breakthrough medication, which works to regulate your digestion and decrease your appetite, with health coaching and one-on-one health tracking with your Juniper doctor to help you lose weight and keep it off for good.

Plus, if hot flushes and night sweats are causing you stress and discomfort, Juniper's menopause treatment can help you target all of the dreaded symptoms related to menopause, while also allowing you to be supported by our specialised Juniper GPs on this journey.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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