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Hormones and Weight Loss: Understanding the Connection

Dec 12, 2023
Hormones and Weight Loss: Understanding the Connection

Hormones are chemical messengers. Glands like the pituitary or thyroid gland secrete them. Most hormones are secreted into your bloodstream, where they circulate until they reach their target organ or tissue. Hormones can have far-reaching effects on your body. Hormones and weight loss are closely linked.

Hormones can have synergistic effects, or they can oppose another hormone’s action. Your body maintains tight control over hormone release and metabolism using feedback loops. This is because hormones play such an important role in weight management.1

Hormones are vital for controlling important bodily functions, including metabolism, fat distribution, appetite regulation, and overall well-being. When there is an imbalance in hormones, it can significantly impact your weight-loss efforts.

Sex Hormones and Weight Loss

The sex hormones estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone play a crucial role in weight management.

Testosterone

Testosterone is produced in the testes and ovaries. Men have much higher testosterone levels than women, but testosterone plays an important role in maintaining body composition in both men and women. Testosterone production declines by about 1% each year after age 30.2

This decline does not affect everyone the same. Some men notice that as testosterone levels decline, their body composition changes. Their muscle mass decreases, and their fat mass increases.

Since muscle burns more calories than fat, when you lose muscle mass, your body needs fewer calories each day to sustain its functions. This makes it challenging to maintain your weight if you consume the same number of calories as when you were younger.

Testosterone helps maintain and support:3

  • Body and facial hair
  • Bone density, thickness, and strength
  • Fat distribution
  • Libido
  • Muscle mass
  • Muscle strength
  • Red blood cell production

Estrogen and Progesterone

The testes and ovaries also produce estrogen. Estrogen levels are higher in women than in men. In men, the testes produce about 20% of estrogen, and the rest occurs through a process called aromatization. In fat tissue and the brain, testosterone is converted to estrogen.

Progesterone prepares the uterus for pregnancy and supports the pregnancy if a fertilized egg implants in the uterus’s wall.

Estrogen promotes energy storage as fat, mainly in the lower body and under the skin. It decreases hunger and increases salt and water retention.4

Progesterone increases hunger and energy usage. As long as estrogen and progesterone levels remain balanced, their effects on energy storage cancel each other.5

Estrogen production also declines with age. Unlike testosterone, which has a steady decline throughout adulthood, estrogen levels decline precipitously after menopause. Decreases in estrogen with menopause are associated with increased abdominal fat, increased body fat, and decreased muscle mass.

Other experts suggest that estrogen may inhibit hunger signals. So, when estrogen levels decline, women experience more intense hunger, which can lead to weight gain.6

A decrease in muscle mass post-menopause can be balanced by an increase in fat mass, which means body weight remains the same. However, the decline in muscle mass means that fewer calories are needed to sustain bodily functions. If you eat the same number of calories, you will steadily gain weight.

Stress hormones and weight loss are related.

Cortisol: The Stress Hormones and Weight Loss

Cortisol, commonly known as the stress hormone, can also hinder your weight loss efforts. When the body experiences chronic stress, cortisol levels become excessively elevated. This can lead to weight gain, increased energy stored as fat, and cravings for sweet, fatty, and salty foods.

Chronic stress can disrupt hormone balance and make weight loss more challenging. Managing stress through techniques like improving sleep quality, practicing meditation, and engaging in regular exercise can help regulate cortisol levels and support healthy weight management.

Hormones That Regulate Metabolism

Thyroid hormones play a crucial role in maintaining a healthy weight by regulating metabolism.

When the thyroid gland cannot produce enough thyroid hormones, metabolism slows, making weight loss more difficult. This condition is known as hypothyroidism.

Excess thyroid hormone, a condition called hyperthyroidism, increases metabolism and can increase hunger.

Leptin produced by fat cells can influence thyroid hormone production. Increased leptin levels increase thyroid hormone production and speed up metabolism.

Hormones That Modulate Appetite

Leptin and ghrelin are two hormones with opposite effects that help regulate your appetite.

The stomach and, to a lesser extent, the small intestine, pancreas, and brain all produce ghrelin. Ghrelin makes you hungry when you think about food. Sight, smell, and taste can all cause an increase in stomach motility (hunger pangs) and the release of ghrelin.

Ghrelin levels increase when your stomach is empty and decrease when it is full. The composition of your food can affect how quickly ghrelin levels decrease. Proteins are more effective than carbohydrates or lipids in suppressing ghrelin release.7

Ghrelin and its effects on your appetite and body weight are not entirely understood.

Adipose (fat) cells are responsible for producing leptin. When fat stores increase and leptin is produced, it tells your body you are full. When you lose body fat, your leptin levels fall. Your body may respond by increasing hunger. Unlike some hormones, leptin acts over longer periods. Its levels do not fluctuate from meal to meal.

A woman staring at sugary pastries.

Hormones That Regulate Blood Sugar

Epinephrine, cortisol, and growth hormone all help maintain your blood sugar levels, especially in times of stress. Glucagon and insulin hormones regulate your blood sugar levels.

Beta cells in the pancreas produce insulin. A healthy pancreas secretes insulin into the bloodstream when blood sugar (glucose) levels rise. Insulin ushers glucose into muscle and liver cells, where it is stored as glycogen, and into body cells, where it can be used for energy.

When glycogen stores are full, excess energy is stored as fat. As your pancreas continues to release insulin and excess calories are stored as fat, your body can become less sensitive to insulin. This condition is called insulin resistance. It makes it harder for your body to move glucose from your bloodstream into muscle and liver cells. Chronically high insulin levels cause your body to hold on to energy and lead to weight gain.8

Alpha cells in the pancreas secrete glucagon. Glucagon has the opposite effect of insulin. It helps keep your blood sugar from dropping too low. It signals your liver to break down glycogen and release glucose into your bloodstream. It can also convert amino acids, pyruvate, and lactate into glucose.

GLP-1 receptor agonists, such as liraglutide, semaglutide, and tirzepatide, increase glucagon activity, which can increase fat breakdown, slow stomach emptying, and reduce hunger. These medications can lead to significant weight loss by increasing GLP-1 hormone levels.9,10 Scientists better understood the importance of gut hormones and their impact on weight management.

Hormones and Weight Loss: Understanding the Connection

Lifestyle Factors for Hormonal Balance and Weight Loss

Strategies to maintain healthy hormone levels include:

  • Get high-quality sleep: Aim for at least 7 to 8 hours of high-quality sleep each night to maximize weight loss potential. Lack of sleep can cause an increase in ghrelin hormone and a decrease in leptin. This combination can lead to increased hunger.11
  • Strength-training: Whether you choose bodyweight exercises or weightlifting, building more muscle can increase your baseline calorie burn and improve your insulin sensitivity.
  • Eat mindfully: Everyone has those moments when they finish a plate of food and have no idea what they just ate or if they were hungry while they were eating. It’s easy to overeat when you are distracted or when your environment makes it easy to choose high-calorie, highly processed foods for snacking.
  • Manage stress: Chronic stress increases cortisol levels, and your body responds by hanging on to calories in case it needs them to fight or flee from a threat. When your body has to prioritize cortisol production, testosterone and estrogen levels may decline. Incorporate periods of relaxation and stress management techniques into your daily routine.
  • Avoid endocrine disruptors: Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with healthy hormone production. Examples of endocrine disruptors include bisphenol A, dioxins, and phthalates.
  • Consume a wellbalanced diet: A well-balanced diet rich in unprocessed foods, lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables is crucial for optimal health and hormone production.
  • Prioritize exercise: Engaging in regular physical activity can reduce stress, increase muscle mass and cardiovascular fitness, and help you manage your weight.

Hormones and Weight Loss: Conclusion

Achieving your weight loss goals requires a comprehensive approach that combines various strategies tailored to your individual needs. Hormone therapy, lipotropic and B12 injections, dietary changes, weight loss medications, and lifestyle changes are all possible components of a holistic weight management plan.

If you think your weight gain is related to a hormone imbalance, consult with an endocrinologist. Hormones and weight loss concerns are common conditions that endocrinologists treat. Thyroid hormone imbalance, chronically elevated cortisol, hormonal changes due to menopause, and insulin resistance are just some of the many ways hormones and weight loss are related.

Get started today with one of our Weight Loss Treatment Plans.

Disclaimer
While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.

Hormones and Weight Loss: Understanding the Connection

Leann Poston, M.D.

Dr. Leann Poston is a licensed physician in the state of Ohio who holds an M.B.A. and an M. Ed. She is a full-time medical communications writer and educator who writes and researches for Invigor Medical. Dr. Poston lives in the Midwest with her family. She enjoys traveling and hiking. She is an avid technology aficionado and loves trying new things.

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