Your Hormones and Weight Loss: How to Find Balance

Scientists are discovering there’s a hidden key to shedding pounds, and it’s got little to do with calories or willpower. Meet your hormones — and the surprising effect they have on weight.

Say you eat a doughnut. The doughnut you deserve because it’s a hellish day, and carbs are what will make this week — the one before your period — worth living through. Oh, the bliss when that powdered sugar hits your system! Until, inevitably, you crash, which leaves you exhausted and depressed… and sniffing around for another doughnut.

Because a doughnut is never just a doughnut. It’s a Molotov cocktail that you’re lobbing into your hormonal ecosystem.

Hormones are the chief executives of the body, governing everything: our sex lives, our stress lives, our immune response. Research has implicated hormonal imbalance in everything from breast cancer to short-term memory loss — as well as what we eat, why we eat it, and what happens to the body once the food is down our throats. Which means that when you picked up that doughnut, you weren’t just having a weak-willed moment. You were obeying your team of internal managers.

“There are at least 40 chemicals in our bodies that influence our appetite and what we eat,” says Robert Greene, M.D., medical director of the Sher Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Sacramento and the author of several books on optimizing hormones, most recently “Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility.” “The good news is that we’re developing strategies to shift hormone signals to help people avoid weight gain as well as lose weight.”

It Starts with Good Balance
Three recent books claim that stabilizing our hormone levels is at least as important — if not more so — as the old equation of calories in, calories out. In “The Perfect 10 Diet,” Michael Aziz, M.D., founder and director of Midtown Integrative Medicine in New York City, claims any diet will fail unless it steadies the body’s level of insulin. “I know it sounds counterintuitive, but calorie counting is not everything,” Aziz says. “When insulin is secreted in higher amounts, you feel hungrier and you eat more. Willpower does not exist when insulin is high.”

Neuroscientist Daniel Amen’s diet plan in “Change Your Brain, Change Your Body” recommends optimizing hormone levels through daily interval training, balancing insulin, sleeping well, and lowering stress. 

“For your brain to be right, your hormone levels have to be healthy,” Amen says. “The neurotransmitter serotonin, which affects mood and appetite, needs proper estrogen levels to be optimal. Low testosterone has been associated with a worsening of memory and mood, and more fat on your belly.”

Meanwhile, naturopathic doctors Jade and Keoni Teta, in their book, “The New ME Diet,” go so far as to contend that we all have individual metabolic profiles (predisposed to burn sugar, muscle, or a mix of sugar and fat), and that eating for our type will unlock our fat-burning hormones. Despite this high-concept theory, however, they prescribe — like the other authors — an insulin-controlling plan that emphasizes protein and fiber and restricts carbs, a basic recipe for endocrine balance.

The Hormone-Weight Link
A complex concoction of some 200 hormones circulates in the bloodstream at any given time, Greene asserts; each can signal different things to different parts of the body. The most influential for weight loss are the thyroid hormone, which helps regulate metabolism, and insulin, which allocates sugar in the bloodstream. (The doughnut prompted insulin to flood your system, directing glucose to your muscles and liver and converting excess sugar into fat. The resulting plunge in glucose led to the sugar crash.) Other hormones that may send you to the refrigerator:

Cortisol
This well-known fight-or-flight hormone, which drives our natural stress response, increases glucose in the blood so we have the energy to hightail it from dangerous situations… or deal with crazy-making jobs.

But according to studies, excess cortisol leads to a heightened appetite and cravings for sugar and simple carbs, as well as increased belly fat — which is linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other health problems. (Drugstores are crammed with “cortisol blockers,” but there’s no clinical evidence these pills will have any mitigating effect.)

“We know cortisol results in greater food intake, particularly rewarding comfort food that’s high in fat and sugar,” says Elissa Epel, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied the cortisol-appetite link. “It may be evolutionarily that during times of stress, it benefits our survival to seek food with the most calories.”

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