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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 even though it seems like you’re doing everything right? Although the key to weight loss really is a simple math equation, there may be other factors playing the villain in your weight loss story.

Why can hormones affect weight loss?

As we know, hormones play a large role in many vital functions within the body including our ability to maintain muscle, lose body fat and how we experience stress and hunger, and when there is a hormonal imbalance it becomes infinitely harder to lose weight. If you are stuck in a weight-loss plateau, don’t worry! Hormones are not the be all and end all for weight loss, there is still hope! As long as your food quality and calorie intake are prioritised, then you will reap the benefits associated with a healthy diet whilst creating the ideal environment for optimal hormone production.

The most important factor when weight loss is the goal is calorie balance. Your calorie balance is the number of calories you consume (food and drink) compared to the number of calories you burn every day. If this amount is LESS than the number of calories you burn in a day, this means you are in a calorie deficit: the KEY component for weight loss. Fat loss is generally a longer process for women compared to men but as with any long-term goal, consistency and adherence will always be at the core.

Now, of course, I am not saying that hormones are irrelevant to fat loss as they can have a massive impact on fat loss, making it either a walk in the park or a dieting nightmare. If there is a hormonal imbalance, caused by factors including body weight, diet, stress levels and exposure to environmental toxins, then losing weight may seem impossible.

The main offenders in women include the sex hormones (oestrogen and progesterone), cortisol and the thyroid hormones. Within this article, I am going to explain how these hormones are potentially sabotaging your weight loss efforts, how to overcome these and increase your chances of dieting success!

Women weight

  • Oestrogen & Progesterone

Oestrogen and progesterone are the primary female sex hormones and play essential roles in the regulation of appetite, eating behaviours and energy metabolism. The balance between these hormones (oestrogen to progesterone) can have an impact on fat loss and health, with high oestrogen causing symptoms of PMS, weight gain and fatigue.

Although a natural fluctuation, hormone imbalances are also seen during the menstrual cycle and is an unavoidable topic when discussing weight loss in females. Women tend to eat significantly more calories during the luteal phase (~2013 kcal) compared to the follicular phase (~1790 kcal) [1] reflecting the effects of progesterone on the thyroid hormone and consequently appetite [2]. The increase in appetite and hunger in the luteal phase may mean starting a diet will be A LOT harder, so it may be a wise option to start in the follicular phase.  

The natural fluctuation in sex hormones isn’t something we can directly control, but we CAN control the food we eat and the lifestyle choices we make. By implementing the steps at the bottom of this article, we can begin to control the potential hormonal imbalances caused by diet, lifestyle and exogenous oestrogens.

  • Cortisol

Another source of weight loss resistance is stress. The stress hormone cortisol is released from the adrenal glands in response to both physical and psychological stress. Acute stress is necessary for survival and adaptation as a human being, however, when this stress becomes a chronic state of being then we need to take action.

When we experience chronic stress, cortisol levels become excessively elevated which leads to suppressed immune function, increased appetite [3], abdominal weight gain and obesity [4] and muscle loss. Stressful thoughts also activate metabolic pathways that may cause changes in insulin levels [5] leading to weight gain. So it is essential we find ways to manage our stress whether that is improving our sleep, taking more time to yourself through meditation and doing activities you enjoy.

  • Thyroid

Thyroid hormones play an important role in maintaining a healthy weight as they regulate metabolic rate. When your body isn’t able to produce enough of the thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism) is causes our metabolism to slow down significantly leading to weight loss becoming infinitely more difficult.

Healthy levels of thyroid hormones are really important when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight. While some thyroid abnormalities can sometimes be caused by diet, it is also important to understand that these issues can be genetic. If you think that you have hypothyroidism, it is important that you speak to your GP as it can be treated.

How to maximise dieting success and minimise hormonal imbalances

Hormones will always play a part in fat loss but by implementing the simple steps below you will be able to optimise your health and lifestyle for weight loss, weight maintenance as well as hormonal balance.

1. Improve Your Diet

Following a well-balanced diet focusing on unprocessed produce, lean protein sources, whole grains and plenty of fruit and vegetables will improve health, encourage hormone production and reduce the risk of disease prevention [6, 7]. You can find my five tips on how a good diet can improve a hormone imbalance here.

2. Reduce Exposure To Exogenous Oestrogens

Hormonal imbalances may also be affected by our exposure to exogenous oestrogens, so including cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale and collard greens may help to balance the body’s levels of oestrogen [8, 9]. My previous article on exogenous oestrogens discusses the effects of exogenous oestrogens and what you can do to reduce your exposure to these chemicals.

3. Move Daily

Incorporating regular physical activity and exercise will not only help with regulating calorie balance and weight control, but it also reduces stress, your risk of hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and improves your quality of life [10]. Being inactive and sedentary leads increased levels of circulating oestrogen [11] causing a hormonal imbalance, making weight loss even harder. 

4. De-stress

When it comes to health, finding ways to help manage stress that can be incorporated into your routine is fundamental to living a balanced life. Incorporating activities such as meditation and yoga may seem peculiar for some of you but has shown to improve anxiety, depression and pain [12], as well as decreased physiological markers of stress including cortisol, blood pressure and heart rate [13].

5. Sleep Well

Prioritising sleep will do wonders for healthy cortisol secretion and weight loss, with studies linking poor sleep quality with increased hunger and cravings leading to a higher daily calorie intake [14]. 

Improving your diet, increasing your activity levels and finding ways to manage your stress levels will all have a positive impact on your health, body weight and hormone production. By focusing on calorie balance and food quality, your body weight will start to drop which improve hormone levels and production, which will lead to weight loss. You can start to see the upward spiral now, right? There is never one simple answer to improving your health, all you have to do is make a start and the positive effects will flow into every aspect of your life. 

[1] Barr, S. I. (1995). Energy intakes are higher during the luteal phase of ovulatory menstrual cycles. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 61(1), 39-43.

[2] Hrischberg, A. L. (2012). Sex hormones, appetite and eating behaviours in women. Maturitas, 71(3), 248-56.

[3] Vicennati, V., Pasqui, F., Cavazza, C., Pagotto, U. & Pasquali, R. (2009). Stress-related development of obesity and cortisol in women. Obesity (Silver Spring), 17(9), 1678-83.

[4] Spencer, S. J. & Tilbrook, A. (2011). The glucocorticoid contribution to obesity. Stress, 14(3), 233-46.

[5] Engert, V., Smallwood, J., & Singer, T. (2014). Mind your thoughts: associations between self-generated thoughts and stress-induced and baseline levels of cortisol and alpha-amylase. Biological Psychology, 103, 283-91.

[6] Eilat-Adar, S., Sinai, T., Yosefy, C., & Henkin, Y. (2013). Nutritional recommendations for cardiovascular disease prevention. Nutrients, 5(9), 3646-83.

[7] American Heart Association Nutrition Committee. Lichtenstein A.H., Appel L.J., Brands M., Carnethon M., Daniels S., Franch H.A., Franklin B., Kris-Etherton P., Harris W.S., et al. (2006). Diet and lifestyle recommendations revision 2006: A scientific statement from the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee. Circulation, 114(1), 82–96.

[8] Pilátová, M., Chripková. M., & Mojžiš, J. (2011). Cruciferous vegetables in cancer prevention. Acta Facultatis Pharmaceuticae Universitatis Comenianae, 58(1), 62-71.

[9] Aggarwal, B.B. & Ichikawa, H. (2005). Molecular targets and anticancer potential of indole-3-carbinol and its derivatives. Cell Cycle, 4(9), 1201-1215.

[10] WHO (2018). Physical Activity -

[11] Oh, H., Coburn, S. B., Matthews, C. E., Falk, R. T., LeBlanc, E. S., Wactawski-Wende, J., Sampson, J., Pfeiffer, R. M., Brinton, L. A., Wentzensen, N., Anderson, G. L., Manson, J. E., Chen, C., Zaslavsky, O., Xu, X., … Trabert, B. (2017). Anthropometric measures and serum estrogen metabolism in postmenopausal women: the Women's Health Initiative Observational Study. Breast Cancer Research, 19(1), 28.

 [12] Goyal, M., et al. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine, 174(3), 357-68.

[13] Pascoe, M. C., Thompson, D. R., Jenkins, Z. M., & Ski, C. F. (2017). Mindfulness mediates the physiological markers of stress: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 95, 156-178.

[14] St-Onge, M. P., & Shechter, A. (2014). Sleep disturbances, body fat distribution, food intake and/or energy expenditure: pathophysiological aspects. Hormone Molecular Biology and Clinical Investigation, 17(1), 29-37.