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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 maths equation, there may be other factors that might be playing the villain in 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. Therefore, 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.

Calorie balance is the most critical factor in losing weight. Calorie balance is the number of calories you consume daily (food and drink) compared to the number of calories you burn. If this amount is less than that which you burn, you are in a calorie deficit: the key component for weight loss. Fat loss is generally a more protracted process for women compared to men, but as with any long-term goal, consistency and adherence will always be at the core.

Now, I’m not saying that hormones are irrelevant to fat loss as they can have a massive impact. Factors such as body weight, diet, stress levels, and exposure to environmental toxins can all have an effect on hormone levels in the body. When a hormonal imbalance occurs, losing weight may seem impossible. The main offenders for women include the sex hormones (oestrogen and progesterone), cortisol, and thyroid hormones. A Medichecks Female Hormone Check 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.

In this article, I’m going to explain how these hormones are potentially sabotaging your weight loss efforts, and how to overcome them to increase your chances of dieting success!

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 can have an impact on fat loss and health, with high oestrogen causing PMS symptoms, weight gain, and fatigue.

Although a natural occurrence, hormone fluctuations during the menstrual 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], reflecting the effects of progesterone on the thyroid hormone and consequently the appetite [2]. The increase in hunger in the luteal phase means starting a diet may be a lot harder, so perhaps begin 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 listed below, 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 adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, release the hormone cortisol 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, 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 [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 to find ways to manage our stress, whether that is through improving our sleep, meditation, or activities we enjoy. 

Thyroid

Thyroid hormones regulate your metabolic rate, therefore playing an essential role in maintaining a healthy weight. When your body isn’t able to produce enough of the thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism), it slows down our metabolism significantly, causing weight loss to be more difficult. While diet can cause some thyroid abnormalities, it is also necessary to understand that these issues can be genetic. If you think that you have hypothyroidism, speak to your GP as it can be treated.

How do I 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 for weight loss, weight maintenance, and 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 proper 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. Eating cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and collard greens may help balance the body's oestrogen [8, 9]. My previous article on exogenous oestrogens discusses the effects of exogenous oestrogens and what you can do to reduce exposure to these chemicals. 

3. Move Daily

Regular physical activity will not only help with regulating calorie balance and weight control but will also reduce stress, risk of hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and improve quality of life [10]. Being inactive and sedentary leads to increased circulating oestrogen [11], causing a hormonal imbalance and making weight loss even harder.  

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 have studies have shown them to improve anxiety, depression, and pain [12], as well as decreasing 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. Studies link poor sleep quality with increased hunger and cravings, leading to a higher daily calorie intake [14]. 

Where do I start?

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. By focusing on calorie balance and food quality, your body weight will start to drop, and hormone levels should improve. A health check could also help highlight any issues so you can take action before they progress. Our Female Hormone Check Blood Test explores key blood markers that allow you to determine the cause of the problem and adjust any imbalances. With Medichecks' online health portal, it's easy to monitor your levels over time and take control of your health. There is never a straightforward answer to improving your health, but by making a start through healthy lifestyle changes, you will start to see the positive effects on both your physical and mental wellbeing.


References

[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 - http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/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 wellbeing: 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.