In this article I talk about the hormones that are most commonly referred to as being influential in weight fluctuation among women. This is by no means comprehensive. If you are concerned about hormonal imbalance, I recommend referring to your GP and a simple blood test will check your levels so you can choose what action to take. For now, here’s my take on hormones and weight.
Possibly one of the biggest influencers among hormones is the one associated with stress, cortisol. Now, stress is not necessarily what you think it is. The stress response that kicks off a number of chemical changes in our bodies, including diverting glucose away from digestion and immune function and into fight or flight mode, can be kicked off by heightened emotion. Have you ever heard it said that stress is a catch-all phrase for emotion?
If you are constantly worrying about your job, your relationship, the kids, your body image, or what you are eating, it all activates a stress response within the body. Not so long ago this response was only activated if you were getting chased by a woolly mammoth, these days we are stressed about lots of things, a lot of the time.
When our stress response is activated this is what typically happens biologically:
The stress hormone, cortisol, increases glucose in the blood stream (getting the body ready to flee the woolly mammoth). The body creates another hormone epinephrine which raises heart rate and blood pressure. Our sympathetic nervous system turns on which, among other things, increases the rate of our breathing, makes our mouths dry, and increases adrenaline levels, and our parasympathetic nervous system turns off, which controls bodily functions like digestion and growth.
So when we are in a state of prolonged stress, as we often are these days, from worrying about work, weight, the family, money, drowning under a pile of emails, and we are not physically running away from the mammoth, you can begin to understand why we end up with problematic symptoms. Excess abdominal weight can result from prolonged increases in blood sugar levels that haven’t been used up, and digestive problems like irritable bowel can result from stressed out digestive systems.
Another group of hormones linked to weight loss resistance in women, particularly around our 40’s and 50’s, are oestrogens. The loss of oestrogens in menopausal women is said to contribute toward weight gain around the mid-section of the body. Part of the function of some oestrogens is in metabolising fat cells and sugars, and when levels decrease it can contribute toward weight gain. There are other factors that could affect this in middle age too: both sleep and stress share pathways that affect the central nervous system and sleep disturbance, night sweats and fluctuations in mood are all common at this time of life. A lack of sleep can cause ghrelin, the hunger hormone, to increase, and leptin, the “stop eating” hormone, to decrease. This is why you can often feel more hungry when you are feeling tired.
So with all this in mind, what can you do to balance your hormones and improve your health?
The good news is, there is quite a lot you can do…
I know, you may think this is predictable answer and one that you probably didn’t want to read, but I can’t stress (like what I did there?) enough how important this is. The challenge is, most of us what to skip exercise when we are stressed, but it really is the best thing for you particularly when you are feeling that way. Numerous studies have shown that people who exercise more have a decreased physiological response to stress.
Exercise improves your mood through the release of endorphins and the act of doing it distracts you and relaxes the mind. Moderate intensity activity can increase brain power and improve your sleep quality (another factor that can help you to lose weight).
If you are 50+ Resistance training, i.e. working with weights, is said to be good for us girls as it improves bone density, helps with natural age-related muscle loss and helps to beat stress. This doesn’t mean you have to pump iron in the gym! Simple squats, lunges and workouts you can do at home are just as good for you.
Muscle mass also typically begins to diminish with age so if you continue to eat as you always have but are not increasing your physical activity you could be likely to gain weight.
A word of advice on movement! Try moving more for enjoyment rather than moving more to achieve a weight loss or health goal. Look for activity that gives you emotional reward – this is when it is truly beneficial and ignore any hype about how it should be e.g. 30 mins a day etc. Just do what you can and do it consistently
2. Connect with Your Breath
Breathing techniques can engage your parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system conserves energy, slows heart rate, and improves digestion. Activate your parasympathetic nervous system by practicing some simple breathing techniques. There is a good one I recommend in this guide.
Try 10 minutes a day of meditation or yoga – both activities help you to tune into your breath and quiet the mind which is good for calming stress and balancing hormones. 10 mins is all you need!
3. Eat Your Greens
Green leafy veg, root vegetables, and whole grains are high in dietary fibre and many other compounds that support gut health. You have no doubt heard that the health of your gut has a huge influence on your overall health. It is also now known that the gut plays a role in regulation of estrogen levels in the body, which influences the risk of developing estrogen-related diseases such as endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, and breast cancer. Complex carbs are good for gut health and therefore and important factor in hormonal balance.
4. Check Out Your Vitamin Balance.
B vitamins are good for hormonal health. B12 promotes brain function and supports a healthy nervous system. Lack of B12 can make us vulnerable to physical and emotional stress, so get your levels checked, get the right food on your plate and supplement if needed.
Also, folate, otherwise known as B9 is a good defence against irritability and depression. It is also widely documented as helping to improve the nervous system and reduce oxidative stress in the body.
5. Limit alcohol and caffeine
No brainer I know! But try to bring your cuppas down or swap to green tea and don’t drink too much.
The bottom line is that women’s hormone levels change throughout their reproductive years and through peri-menopause, menopause, and beyond. It’s not all bad though, we just need to evolve our lifestyle to match these changes. The absolute best thing you can do to keep yourself in balance is to:
- Move regularly, in a way that you enjoy
- Eat a good diet full of veg, dietary fibre, good fats and protein
- Get your vitamin levels checked and supplement if you think it’s necessary
- Get some stress management solutions in place: Breathing, yoga, meditation, Qigong, whatever it is
- Do what you can to improve your sleep patterns: Night-time routine, empty your head before bed, no caffeine after mid afternoon
- Talk to your friends about it – there is comfort in sharing and us girls are good at that!