The key to losing excess weight isn’t as simple as eating fewer calories or exercising more. If that were true, everyone who tried to lose weight with these measures would be successful. Unfortunately, many people find that their most diligent efforts to shed pounds simply don’t work, and more often than not, they have no idea why. One important factor in weight loss that is often overlooked is hormone levels. Hormones and weight are closely linked, and hormones imbalances often have to be addressed in order for any weight-loss plan to be successful.
Can hormones affect weight loss?
How quickly and easily someone loses weight may be linked to certain hormone levels. Some hormones encourage the body to hang onto excess pounds despite dieting efforts. The key is to know how hormones could be affecting you and what you can do to help balance them if you’re trying to lose weight.
Leptin: the starvation hormone
Leptin is a hormone and protein that’s produced by fat cells. When leptin levels are ideal, the body can maintain a healthy weight balance. Leptin tells the brain that the fat cells are at the right level and we don’t need to eat. But, when a person restricts calories too drastically, their fat cells lose some fat, and plasma levels of leptin go down. Studies show that this decrease in leptin happens in both thin and overweight people when they lose weight.
These low levels of leptin send a starvation signal to the brain, telling the body to preserve energy because it doesn’t have enough fat. In other words, the body will try not to burn calories or fat when that’s exactly what you’re trying to do. This is obviously detrimental to a person’s best weight-loss efforts.
To add insult to injury, these lower leptin levels can also trigger hunger. This can partially explain why many people feel so hungry on conventional diets that restrict calories. People who are overweight may also develop leptin resistance, which means the brain can’t hear the leptin signals. As a result, they could keep gaining weight, increasing their leptin levels, and the brain doesn’t realize it. Leptin resistance may be a key factor in obesity.
How to balance leptin
Some healthy lifestyle steps can help you balance out leptin levels:
- Control blood sugar and insulin. If you have diabetes or prediabetes, keep it under good control with a doctor’s care, regular exercise, and a healthy diet. Avoid or minimize any added sugars in your diet. Insulin resistance can cause the body to become resistant to leptin as well.
- Control triglycerides. High triglycerides may interfere with leptin’s signals to the brain. Some ways to do this include eating more fiber and little to no added sugar, getting exercise, and consuming healthy monounsaturated fats and omega-3s.
- Get regular exercise. While this may seem like a weight loss no-brainer, exercise does more than boost energy levels and help burn calories. Studies suggest it may help control leptin resistance, too.
- Get plenty of sleep. Sleep deprivation has already been implicated as a cause of weight gain. But if you’re not getting sleep, you may also be lowering your leptin levels, making it more difficult to shed pounds and causing increased hunger.
Can hormones cause weight gain?
Why does it seem like some people can eat what they want without gaining a pound, and others aren’t so fortunate? A person’s hormonal balance can affect things like hunger and how easily someone gains weight. In some people, certain hormone imbalances could be the reason they diet but don’t shed pounds, or find that their hunger is too powerful to overcome.
Ghrelin: the hunger hormone
Ghrelin, a hormone that signals your brain when it’s time to eat, is produced by the stomach. Its levels shoot up when the stomach is empty, and conversely, they decrease after you eat. But it’s not just food intake that affects ghrelin: stress has a big impact on it as well. Ghrelin levels may increase during times of stress, which explains why many people “stress eat.”
Keeping ghrelin in check
Although ghrelin is a useful hormone, abnormally high levels can make someone more prone to weight gain. Make these healthy lifestyle adjustments to help keep ghrelin levels in the normal range and ward off unwanted weight gain:
- Manage stress. Studies show that stress increases ghrelin. Deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or relaxing music can be helpful if you have chronic high levels of stress. Find something you enjoy that helps you respond to stress in a healthy way.
- Get proper sleep. Just as sleep deprivation decreases leptin, lack of sleep is associated with higher ghrelin levels. Aim for seven to nine hours per night. If you think you have a sleep disorder, talk to a doctor about a sleep study.
- Avoid extreme or yo-yo diets. Losing weight frequently through repeated dieting is associated with higher levels of the hunger hormone.
- Don’t eat processed foods. Not only are processed foods less nutritious than real, whole foods, but they may also be linked to higher ghrelin levels. Processed foods activate the reward center in the brain (think potato chips and cookies), and may actually trigger the stomach to produce more ghrelin.
What you can do about hormones and weight
Hormones play a crucial role in all of the body’s processes, including weight gain and weight loss. But, most people don’t know if their hormones are in balance without having lab tests done. So, what can you do to rebalance hormones and finally lose the weight for good?
For starters, adopt the healthy lifestyle habits described here. They will be an important first step to getting both leptin and ghrelin levels under control. Also, avoid crash or fad diets. While these diets may work for a lucky few, most of the time they leave you with further hormone imbalances because their restrictive plans simply aren’t customized for your body’s needs.
Stop the dieting-hormone negative cycle by looking into a medically managed weight-loss plan. A plan that is customized for you will be designed to help you avoid common diet pitfalls like hunger.
At Garcia Weight Loss, we will create a weight-loss plan that unlocks your health potential. Your plan will include an optimized combination of the right foods, supplements, and medical supervision based on your lab test results and unique needs. Contact us today for your no-cost consultation.
Medically reviewed by Jay J. Garcia, MD on October 8, 2018