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Are your female hormones sabotaging your weight loss?

Nutritionist and Lifestyle Coach Effie Parnell-Hopkinson explains more about how female hormones can affect weight loss.

Are you struggling to lose weight despite doing all the right things? Although the key to weight loss seems to be a simple equation of eating less and burning more, there could be other factors sabotaging your fitness journey. 

Why can hormones affect weight loss? 

As we know, hormones support many vital functions within the body, including our ability to maintain muscle, lose body fat, and experience stress and hunger. When a hormonal imbalance occurs, it becomes considerably harder to lose weight.  

But don’t worry if your progress has plateaued, hormones are not the be-all and end-all for weight loss. Remember to prioritise your food quality and calorie intake to reap the benefits of a healthy diet and create an environment for optimal hormone production. 

Hormones that affect female weight loss include: 

What is calorie balance? 

Calorie balance is the number of calories you consume daily (food and drink) compared to the number of calories you burn. If the amount you eat is less than you burn, you are in a calorie deficit – meaning you should lose weight.  

Fat loss is generally a longer process for women compared to men, but as with any long-term goal, consistency and adherence are the keys to success. Although calorie deficit is the key factor in weight loss, it does not mean hormones are irrelevant – it’s actually the opposite – they can have a massive impact. 

Many factors can affect your hormone levels, including: 

  • Bodyweight 
  • Diet 
  • Stress 
  • Exposure to environmental toxins 

And when a hormonal imbalance occurs, losing weight may seem impossible. But keeping an eye on your hormones can help you understand whether they are sabotaging your weight loss.  

Our Female Hormone Blood Test provides a thorough hormone MOT to tell you if your hormones are typical for your age, or whether an imbalance could be affecting your health. 

But which hormones are the ones to look at when your weight loss has come to a halt? 

Female hormones that affect weight loss 

Oestrogen and progesterone

Oestrogen and progesterone are the primary female sex hormones and play a part in several essential roles. 

Oestrogen and progesterone help to regulate: 

  • Appetite 
  • Eating behaviours 
  • Metabolism

Ensuring you have the right levels of these hormones for your age can steer you away from any symptoms such as: 

  • Pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) 
  • Weight gain 
  • Fatigue 

Although a natural occurrence, hormone fluctuations during the menstrual cycle can also affect weight loss in females. Women tend to eat significantly more calories during the luteal phase (the days leading up to your period) compared to the follicular phase (starting on the first day of your period) [1]. Thus, reflecting the effects of progesterone on the appetite [2]. The increase in hunger in the luteal phase means starting a diet at this time may be a lot harder, so perhaps begin in the follicular phase. 

The natural fluctuation in sex hormones isn’t something that can be directly controlled, but it can be controlled by the food we eat and the lifestyle choices we make.  

By implementing the steps listed in the section below, it is possible to control any potential hormone imbalances caused by diet and lifestyle.  

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Cortisol

Cortisol is also known as the stress hormone and can be another source of weight loss resistance. The adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, release the hormone cortisol in response to both physical and psychological stress.  

Acute (short-term) stress is necessary for survival and adaptation as a human being. However, when this stress becomes a long-term (chronic), we need to act. 

When we experience chronic stress, cortisol levels become excessively elevated, which can lead to unwanted symptoms such as: 

  • Suppressed immune function 
  • Increased appetite [3] 
  • Abdominal weight gain [4] 
  • Muscle loss 

So, it is essential to find ways to manage our stress, whether that is through improving sleep, meditation, or exercise. 

Thyroid

Thyroid hormones regulate your metabolic rate and therefore play an essential role in maintaining a healthy weight.  

When your body can’t produce enough of the thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism), it slows down your metabolism significantly, causing weight loss to become more difficult.  

While diet can cause some thyroid abnormalities, it is also necessary to understand that these issues can be genetic. You can read more about your thyroid, thyroid hormones, and how to treat a thyroid condition in our thyroid guide

How do I maximise dieting success and minimise hormonal imbalances?

Hormones will always play a part in fat loss, but by making simple lifestyle changes, you can help to maximise your dieting success.  

I have put together five steps to help you optimise your health for weight loss, weight maintenance, and hormonal balance. 

1. Improve your diet

Following a well-balanced diet is vital.  

Foods to optimise your health include: 

  • Unprocessed produce 
  • Lean protein sources 
  • Whole grains 
  • Fruit and vegetables  

These foods can improve health, encourage hormone production, and reduce the risk of disease [5, 6].  

You can read more about diet and balancing hormones in my five ways your diet can help balance your hormones blog.

2. Reduce exposure to exogenous oestrogens

Hormonal imbalances may also be affected by our exposure to exogenous oestrogens. Exogenous oestrogens are an environmental source of oestrogen that mimics the oestrogen within the body and can cause imbalances. 

Examples of exogenous oestrogens include: 

  • Female contraceptive pills 
  • Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) 

There has also been a rising concern surrounding day to day exposure from sources within food, plastics, and other household products. 

To counteract and help balance exposure to exogenous oestrogens, there are some foods that can help balance the body’s oestrogen. 

Foods to help balance oestrogen include [7]: 

  • Broccoli 
  • Cauliflower 
  • Kale 
  • Collard greens  

My blog on should women be worried about exogenous oestrogens explains more about where they are found and how to avoid them. 

3. Move daily

Regular physical activity will not only help with regulating calorie balance and weight control but can also help reduce [8]: 

Being inactive and sedentary can lead to increased circulating oestrogen [9], causing a hormonal imbalance and making weight loss even harder. 

If the gym is not for you, there are many more ways to keep active. Our how to move more without going to the gym blog gives five ways to help you move more. 

4. De-stress

Incorporating stress management into your routine is fundamental to living a balanced life.  

Activities such as meditation and yoga may not be for everyone, but studies have shown them to improve many symptoms.  

Meditation and yoga can reduce [10,11]: 

You can test your cortisol levels with a Stress Cortisol Saliva Tests (4), to see if stress is the cause of any unwanted symptoms.

5. Sleep well

Prioritising sleep can do wonders for healthy cortisol secretion and weight loss. 

Sleep has many benefits to your health and studies have linked poor sleep quality to weight gain, due to lack of sleep causing increased hunger and cravings [13].  

Many factors can cause poor quality sleep, including: 

  • Medical conditions 
  • Medication 
  • Stress 
  • Diet 

You can read more about whether sleep is affecting your health in our is your sleep pattern risking your health blog. 

We have also put together some ways to improve your sleep and in turn, your health.  

Where do I start? 

If you think hormones are sabotaging your weight loss, it may be worth getting a blood test (such as our Female Hormone Blood Test), to check key biomarkers such as your thyroid and oestrogen levels. 

Knowing whether you have an imbalance in hormones is a great starting point and depending on which hormones may be affected will depend on the best lifestyle changes to make. For example, if your cortisol levels are found high, then your first step may be to look at ways to de-stress. 

Ultimately though, improving your diet, increasing your physical activity, and finding ways to manage your stress levels will have a positive impact on your health, body weight, and hormone production.


References 

  1. Barr, S., Janelle, K. and Prior, J., 1995. Energy intakes are higher during the luteal phase of ovulatory menstrual cycles. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 61(1), pp.39-43.  
  2. Hirschberg, A., 2012. Sex hormones, appetite and eating behaviour in women. Maturitas, 71(3), pp.248-256. 
  3. Vicennati, V., Pasqui, F., Cavazza, C., Pagotto, U. and Pasquali, R., 2009. Stress-related Development of Obesity and Cortisol in Women. Obesity, 17(9), pp.1678-1683.  
  4. Spencer, S. and Tilbrook, A., 2011. The glucocorticoid contribution to obesity. Stress, 14(3), pp.233-246.  
  5. Eilat-Adar, S., Sinai, T., Yosefy, C. and Henkin, Y., 2013. Nutritional Recommendations for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention. Nutrients, 5(9), pp.3646-3683.  
  6. Lichtenstein, A., Appel, L., Brands, M., Carnethon, M., Daniels, S., Franch, H., Franklin, B., Kris-Etherton, P., Harris, W., Howard, B., Karanja, N., Lefevre, M., Rudel, L., Sacks, F., Van Horn, L., Winston, M. and Wylie-Rosett, J., 2006. Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations Revision 2006. Circulation, 114(1), pp.82-96. 
  7. Li, Y., Yang, Z., Gong, T., Liu, Y., Liu, F., Wen, Z., Li, X., Gao, C., Luan, M., Zhao, Y. and Wu, Q., 2022. Cruciferous vegetable consumption and multiple health outcomes: an umbrella review of 41 systematic reviews and meta-analyses of 303 observational studies. 
  8. Oh, H., Coburn, S., Matthews, C., Falk, R., LeBlanc, E., Wactawski-Wende, J., Sampson, J., Pfeiffer, R., Brinton, L., Wentzensen, N., Anderson, G., Manson, J., Chen, C., Zaslavsky, O., Xu, X. and Trabert, B., 2017. Anthropometric measures and serum estrogen metabolism in postmenopausal women: the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study. Breast Cancer Research, 19(1).  
  9. Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E., Gould, N., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., Berger, Z., Sleicher, D., Maron, D., Shihab, H., Ranasinghe, P., Linn, S., Saha, S., Bass, E. and Haythornthwaite, J., 2014. Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being. JAMA Internal Medicine, 174(3), p.357. 
  10. Pascoe, M., Thompson, D., Jenkins, Z. and Ski, C., 2017. Mindfulness mediates the physiological markers of stress: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 95, pp.156-178.  
  11. St-Onge, M. and Shechter, A., 2014. Sleep disturbances, body fat distribution, food intake and/or energy expenditure: pathophysiological aspects. Hormone Molecular Biology and Clinical Investigation, 17(1).