How Hormone Dysfunction Can Inhibit Fat Loss!
Today’s topic is one that is pretty hot in the fitness industry right now, and for good reason! In the past, I used to look at the process of weight loss as pretty black and white. If you ate too much and exercised too little, you would gain weight. If you ate less and exercised more, you would lose weight. There is still a good amount of validity to this statement, but when one of these strategies stops working, we need to look further into why it’s not working and what other physiological processes could be coming into play.
Most of us can make fat loss progress by improving our diets and exercising more, but when that progress stalls, it might not mean that you need to diet harder and exercise more vigorously. It might simply mean that your physiology is inhibiting your response to the diet and exercise.
There are a lot of hormones that come into play when it comes to how well our body functions, but today I am going to touch on a few that have the most significant impact on fat loss. These are insulin, leptin, and cortisol. I could write an entire blog post on each of these and their intricate roles in our systems, but today I am just going to provide a summary of each!
Insulin is a peptide hormone that is secreted in our pancreas. One of the functions of the pancreas is to help regulate blood sugar. To do so, the pancreas releases two hormones: glucagon and insulin. These two hormones are meant to bring our bodies back to “homeostasis” or balance. Glucagon is released when the blood sugar gets too low, and insulin is released when the blood sugar gets too high.
Blood sugar (glucose) is our primary and preferred energy source for ALL vital organs and we need a certain amount in order to sustain their function. If blood sugar gets too high, however, it becomes toxic to your body, and therefore insulin is released in order to help regulate. Insulin signals cells in the body to pull glucose out of the bloodstream and move it into storage, bringing blood sugar levels back to normal.
When all of the components of this system are doing their part, the system runs smoothly. However, there are a couple of things that can go wrong. One is that the body is unable to produce enough insulin. This would mean that glucose couldn’t get into the cell. This would be referred to as type I diabetes.
The other thing that can go wrong, and is more common, is insulin resistance. Excess food consumption, lack of exercise, lack of sleep, and too much stress can all cause too much blood sugar and therefore too much insulin. When there’s too much insulin, receptors on the cell membranes will start to down-regulate because they can’t store any more energy. Therefore, you could have all the insulin you want, but if the receptors aren’t working, the glucose can’t get into the cell, and blood sugar levels remain elevated.
Continual elevation of insulin due to high blood sugar can lead to fat gain, raised blood pressure, increases cholesterol, increases risk of cardiovascular disease, increases chances of mood disorders, and increases cancer risk. Elevated insulin in men can cause testosterone to be converted into estrogen making it more difficult to lose fat. Conversely, elevated insulin in women can cause increased testosterone, also making it difficult to lose fat.
Strategies for keeping an insulin balance include:
- Exercising 5 hours per week, especially resistance/strength training
- Maintaining high amounts of muscle mass
- Getting a higher intake of vegetables, whole-grain foods, legumes, lean proteins, and nuts/seeds
- Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids
- Maintaining adequate vitamin D status
- Drinking water and tea and limiting calorically dense beverages and alcohol
- Getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night
Leptin is a hormone that works to decrease hunger by signaling “fullness” to your brain. Leptin is released in proportion to the amount of fat that is stored, so if you have more body fat, you will produce more leptin. If you have very little body fat, leptin levels will be very low. Your brain will sense the lack of leptin and receive the message that body fat levels are too low. This will cause you to be hungrier, eat more, and store enough body fat to produce some leptin, signaling to your brain that you can stop eating now. Proper leptin functioning helps to keep us within a healthy body fat range.
The above paragraph might cause you to think that a fatter person would somehow start magically losing weight because they have higher leptin levels due to their increased body fat. Unfortunately, an excess of body fat can actually cause you to become leptin resistant.
In the case of leptin resistance,
you can have a lot of fat making a lot of leptin, but your brain isn’t hearing it. You won’t have a drop in appetite or an increase in metabolism. In fact, your brain may actually think you’re starving, because as far as it’s concerned, there’s not enough leptin, so you feel even hungrier!
This becomes a very vicious cycle of eating more, gaining body fat, increasing leptin, having too much fat so leptin signaling is disrupted, thinking your starving because your brain isn’t receiving fullness signals, eating more, getting fatter, and so on!
Strategies for maximizing leptin sensitivity include:
- Getting adequate sleep (7-9 hours a night)
- Including antioxidant-rich berries, greens, and red vegetables in your diet
- Decreasing intake of simple carbohydrates and refined foods
- Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids
Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone” because it is secreted in order to help the body recover from acute stress responses. It is secreted in response to low blood sugar, physical or psychological stress, intense and prolonged exercise, and sleep deprivation. Cortisol can become chronically high as a result of many different kinds of stress – emotional stress, physical stress, injury, lack of sleep, going too long without eating, engaging in long-duration cardio, eating too few carbohydrates, etc.
Chronically elevated cortisol sends a variety of messages via different hormonal pathways all designed to do the same thing – preserve body fat. In fact, chronically elevated cortisol levels can also start to erode your muscle mass, leaving you with more fat and less muscle!
Elevated cortisol levels preferentially direct body fat to the abdominal region. Excessive abdominal fat has been linked to a collection of symptoms such as high blood pressure, insulin resistance, elevated triglycerides, and low HDL (good) cholesterol. Excess abdominal fat is also correlated with heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease. Elevated cortisol will also decrease your bodies ability to use insulin and leptin, resulting in insulin resistance and overeating due to lack of “fullness” hormones.
Strategies for lowering cortisol levels:
- Exercise on a daily basis. Exercise produces endorphins which help to make you feel better and lower stress levels
- Meditate, read, listen to music, play with a pet, etc. Do things that help you to relax and alleviate stress
- Take vitamin and mineral supplements – specifically with vitamin C which naturally lowers cortisol levels
- Stay away from processed sugars and flours and stick to lots of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains
It is no longer good enough to tell someone to just eat less when it comes to losing weight. Clearly there are other systems in the body that are compromised based on an overall unhealthy lifestyle. It is not enough to decide one day that you’re just going to eat less. You need to be eating the right foods, in the right combination, in the right amounts. You ALSO need to be getting enough sleep, using supplementation when necessary, reducing your stress levels, and exercising regularly. If one or more of these things get left on the back burner, you will be severely limiting your ability to lose body fat and keep it off!