There are many things that affect our weight that we have control over and some that we do not. Our diet and how much we exercise are variables that we can control and can have a huge impact on our body shape and weight gain. Unfortunately we can’t change our genetic makeup (at least not with today’s technology!). Hormone levels are something that can frustrate even the most diligent dieter and avid exercise enthusiast. Fortunately there may be treatments that can alleviate those frustrations.
Thyroid hormones can become deregulated at any time during your life and can lead to a multitude of problems, including weight gain. The thyroid gland helps to adjust your metabolism and when it’s not working properly almost everything is affected. Low thyroid levels lead not only to weight gain and changes in body shape, but also to hair loss, constipation and depression. On the flip side, high thyroid levels can lead to weight loss, but also rapid heart rate, fever and confusion. Thyroid levels are easy to check through your doctor’s office and low thyroid levels can generally be treated with medication.
Cortisol is one of the “stress hormones.” It is associated with the fight or flight response and is commonly elevated in chronic stress situations. It increases appetite and thus causes weight gain, especially abdominal area since there are more cortisol receptors there. High cortisol levels are harder to treat, but reducing your stress levels and getting enough sleep will help.
Insulin helps the body to regulate nutrient storage and use. When you eat, your blood sugar goes up, stimulating the release of insulin. The insulin stimulates your body to store the extra energy (as fat), leading to weight gain. It also inhibits the breakdown of fat into energy for use, which can make it harder to lose those extra pounds and inches. Regulation of insulin is generally related to diet. Paying attention to the glycemic index of foods can help you to prevent swings in your blood sugar, which can reduce insulin spikes.
Serotonin is one of the neurotransmitters associated with mood. Low levels of serotonin can lead to depression and foul moods. It can also lead to cravings for carbs, as carbohydrates are needed to produce the serotonin. This is important to note, since low carbohydrate diets (like Atkins) can lead to low serotonin levels, which causes carb cravings and basically sabotages your diet. Be sure not to cut out the carbs completely. High serotonin on the other hand contributes to your sensation of satiety. When patients are first started on an SSRI (medications to treat depression by raising serotonin levels) they often lose weight. Unfortunately that weight is typically gained back by six months.
Leptin & Ghrelin
Leptin and ghrelin are two of the lesser-known hormones that influence our diet and weight. Ghrelin stimulates hunger, causing weight gain, and leptin opposes ghrelin. Sugar intake inhibits leptin production. That’s why eating sugary snacks/treats makes you crave them even more; the ghrelin action (stimulating hunger) is unopposed. You can help to mitigate this response by avoiding foods with a lot of sugar or making sure that you can limit their intake.
Estrogen & Testosterone
Changes in estrogen and testosterone as we age can make it difficult to lose weight, especially from stubborn body fat deposits. Men and women produce both estrogen and testosterone. Testosterone levels decline as we get older. In both sexes this leads to a loss of muscle mass. The muscle mass is what drives the demand for resting calories. So as we age we need less calories to maintain our weight, but we often don’t change our diet accordingly. Estrogen production from the sex organs also slows with age. Estrogen is also produced by fat cells. Our body notes the decrease in estrogen, so it increases fat storage in an attempt to produce more estrogen.
Generally, the best way to change your body shape is through diet and exercise. That being said it’s important to keep in mind that if you’re doing “all the right stuff” when it comes to lifestyle, it may be something more that’s making your “spare tire” so stubborn.