7 Hormones to Keep in Mind For Weight Loss

Julia Malacoff
by Julia Malacoff
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7 Hormones to Keep in Mind For Weight Loss

When it comes to hormones and weight loss, it’s a bit like the chicken and the egg dilemma. Did hormonal imbalance cause weight gain? Or did diet and lifestyle choices cause weight gain, which triggered the hormonal imbalance? Often, it’s the latter, says Sarah Rueven, MS, RD. Either way, hormones are a crucial part of the equation when it comes to successful weight loss — they play a role in many bodily functions ranging from appetite regulation to fat storage.

“By having a better understanding of the various hormones in your body, you can make informed decisions about behaviors and patterns that could be contributing to challenges in your weight-loss journey,” notes Dr. Gretchen San Miguel, chief medical officer for Medi-Weightloss.

Luckily, the recommendations for sustainable weight loss and hormonal balance are relatively similar. “If you are looking to lose weight, it’s important to know the same foods that help you maintain a healthy weight also help balance the hormones associated with fat storage, increased appetite and weight gain,” says Rueven.

Here are some of the key hormones that play a role in weight regulation and how you can get them to work with you:

CORTISOL

Although it’s thought of as a stress hormone because it’s secreted to help us decide whether to fight or flight, cortisol also promotes insulin secretion. “This makes us store fat on our bodies, particularly around our waists, one of the more dangerous areas for our health,” says Susan Carnell, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “It can also increase our appetite,” she notes, which can lead to overeating and weight gain.

Hormone hack: Managing stress and how you cope with it is key to losing weight, says Carnell. Find what works for you, whether that’s making a cup of tea when you reach your mental boiling point, going for a daily walk, soaking in a hot bath or enjoying some time in nature. If you tend to stress eat, it helps to keep your go-to foods out of the house, Carnell adds.

GHRELIN

Ghrelin is produced by the stomach and often referred to as the hunger hormone. It’s highest when your stomach is empty and decreases after you eat. “It does many useful things in the body, like getting the stomach ready to process food,” Carnell explains. “We also know if ghrelin increases, people are spurred to seek out food, and that stress can produce an increase in ghrelin.”

The combination of stress and increased ghrelin can be especially hard later in the day, according to a small recent study by Carnell and other researchers. “The evening may be a biological ‘high-risk period’ for overeating, particularly when paired with the experience of stress and if you’re prone to binge eating,” she says.

“Elevated levels of ghrelin in the bloodstream can lead to weight gain. It is important to note that ghrelin levels may also rise if someone is fasting or on a strict restrictive diet,” adds Matt Dengler, MS, RDN.

Hormone hack: Again, managing stress is key, as is making sleep a priority since deprivation can increase ghrelin levels. Additionally, Dr. Scott Isaacs, medical director of Atlanta Endocrine Associates, recommends eating high-fiber, high-protein foods, which keep you fuller longer.

INSULIN

Insulin’s job is to drive glucose (sugar) into our cells. While cortisol can cause problems with insulin, so can our dietary habits. “When we habitually eat foods high in sugar, our bodies need to constantly produce insulin so the glucose can be utilized by our cells,” San Miguel explains. “At the same time, an elevated insulin level sends the signal to our body that there is excessive sugar, and it needs to start converting it to fat and storing it for later. This excess fatty tissue not only increases your waistline, but also causes cells to lose sensitivity to insulin, thus signaling the body to produce more insulin, causing even more weight gain.”

This leads to a vicious cycle, known as insulin resistance, where the body no longer responds normally to insulin. Insulin resistance affects 1 in 3 Americans, and is a precursor to Type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance can make it a lot harder to lose weight, since the body doesn’t respond normally to carbohydrates.

Hormone hack: Many people mistakenly think they need to ditch carbs completely to lose weight if they have problems with insulin. What’s most important, though, is to choose the right types of carbohydrates in appropriate portion sizes. Whole-food sources like sweet potatoes, whole grains and brown rice can help balance blood sugar levels since these “unrefined carbs retain their fiber content, and fiber helps to blunt the body’s response to blood sugar,” Rueven explains.

Whether or not you have insulin resistance, it’s a good idea to eat balanced meals to manage blood sugar and insulin response. “Pairing carbohydrates with protein and fat helps blunt the body’s response to blood sugar,” says Rueven.

Lastly, studies show regular exercise can help improve insulin sensitivity, so maintaining a workout routine is smart.

LEPTIN

Produced by fat cells, leptin signals to the brain how much fat is in the body, Isaacs explains. When leptin levels are low, you tend to feel hungry; when leptin levels are high, you tend to feel full.

But it’s more complicated than that, Isaacs adds. “As you start to develop obesity, you start to become resistant to leptin,” he explains. “So you may have high levels of leptin, but the brain isn’t registering that.” This can put you at risk for heart problems and diabetes, adds Carnell.

Hormone hack: Some research suggests physical activity can help manage leptin levels. Although any exercise may help, resistance training appears to be more efficient at reducing leptin levels, according to a recent review of studies on overweight and obese middle-aged adults published in PLOS One. As a bonus, being more active can also help you lose weight.

Sleep is also key. “Leptin is made in your sleep. That’s one reason people with sleep deprivation are hungrier,” Isaacs explains. Research has demonstrated both acute and chronic sleep deprivation decrease leptin levels, so make good sleep habits — like putting away phones 30 minutes before bed and keeping the room a cool 65ºF (18ºC) — a priority.

NEUROPEPTIDE Y

Neuropeptide Y (NPY) is a neurotransmitter released by the hypothalamus. “It stimulates

food intake, decreases energy expenditure and may lead to weight gain,” says Dengler. Usually, when our blood sugar is low because we haven’t eaten in a while, NPY is released, which stimulates our appetite.

But when someone doesn’t eat frequently enough, or is chronically dieting, blood sugar can drop low, which triggers NPY, explains Erin Kenney, MS, RD. “When this happens on a regular basis, NPY also starts to promote fat storage or weight gain.”

Hormone hack: Avoid fasting or going too long between meals if you’re having problems with hunger during weight loss. “Having protein-rich snacks between meals is a great way to balance blood sugar,” Kenney says, so you avoid getting ravenous and making poor food decisions. “Low protein diets may also stimulate NPY production,” Rueven notes, so getting enough protein in general can help optimize NPY levels.

ESTROGEN

For women, estrogen levels that are either too high or too low can impact weight and body fat. Having too-high levels of estrogen before menopause, also known as estrogen dominance, is associated with weight gain and increased fat storage, research finds. “High levels of estrogen can also cause insulin resistance, leading to weight gain,” notes Dengler. For example, women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are more likely to experience imbalances of both estrogen and testosterone, and have insulin resistance.

On the flip side, as women reach menopause, estrogen levels in the body begin to decline and fat storage is shifted from the thighs and hips to the abdomen, says Rueven. “Fat around the abdomen is known as visceral fat and it puts you at risk for insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and even certain types of cancer.”

Hormone hack: For premenopausal women, load up on fiber-rich foods and cruciferous veggies. “Fiber reduces estrogen absorption in the GI tract and shuttles excess estrogen out of the body via bowel movements,” Rueven explains. “And cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kale contain a substance called indole-3-carbinol, which promotes estrogen balance by helping the body get rid of excess estrogen.”

Post-menopausal women can promote balance by focusing on whole foods in their natural form like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds and lean protein, Rueven notes. “Regular exercise can also help with estrogen balance.”

TESTOSTERONE

“Low testosterone in men can impact overall weight and has been linked to weight gain,” says Dengler. Low testosterone levels reduce muscle mass and calorie expenditure, so testosterone deficiency, sometimes called “low T,” can lead to weight gain over time and make weight loss harder.

Hormone hack: Men can combat the loss of testosterone with exercise, Dengler says. “Studies show resistance training such as weightlifting is the best type of exercise for maintaining healthy testosterone levels.” But it’s important to note that for lasting impact on testosterone, exercise needs to be a regular habitResearch shows high-intensity interval training is also a good option.

Originally published June 2018, updated with additional information

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About the Author

Julia Malacoff
Julia Malacoff

Julia (@jmalacoff) is a seasoned writer and editor who focuses on fitness, nutrition, and health. She’s also a certified personal trainer and Precision Nutrition Level 1 coach. Based in Amsterdam, she bikes every day and travels around the world in search of tough sweat sessions and the best vegetarian fare.

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22 responses to “7 Hormones to Keep in Mind For Weight Loss”

  1. Avatar RiyaC says:

    Hey Brittany,

    thank you for sharing this. As far as it’s been going, I’ve been trying to lose some weights now for about 3-4 months but there weren’t much success at it.

    Considering the pointers that you mentioned about hormones, I’ve never really thought of that which is a good thing. People are starting to say I’m hitting plateau? because I’m exerting? Which I highly doubt so.

    Then again, I did some research and found this article about doing just 4 minutes of workout each day, and thought it’ll help with the plateau thing.

    But now you mentioned about hormones and how it does affects our weight loss process, I’ll definitely look in depth about it and find out more.

    At the same time, was wondering if you have any program or articles I could read on more on effective weight loss?

    Thank you so much.

    Riya.

  2. Thanks for sharing this valuable post. I liked your post. It is very important to know about the hormones that are one the liable reasons of various changes in our body. So if we can identify the hormones that can help us to lose weight then it is very beneficial. Your post helps us to identify.

  3. Avatar none says:

    I’m confused. paragraph 5 says we want our leptin to be high to feel full.
    paragraph 7 says exercise, resistance training in particular, lowers leptin levels?
    so, the exercise isn’t helpful?
    please clarify thank you 🙂

    • Avatar Julie says:

      Looking the paper that is linked in the article, exercise seems to reduce the excess leptin levels that lead to leptin resistance. I assume that’s what they mean by ‘reduces leptin levels’ – it could have been worded better.

  4. Avatar Crystal Golias says:

    Thyroid hormone also affects your ability to lose or maintain your weight. If you are hypothyroid like i am, and not on enough or the right kind of hormone replacement, you will not be able to lose weight and may even gain. Low thyroid hormone slows your metabolism and digestion.

    • Avatar Michael Hartmann says:

      Absolutely true. Thyroid is also responsible for these hormones However, I have to say that weight loss is totally possible with twice or three times the work of people with no thyroid issues.
      I’ve been in the 140 to 155 lb range for 5 years now. The trick is to get your body into weight loss mode and keep it there. You’ll find you wont gain weight with moderate food intake and regular exercise. However, the thyroid seems to rebel at times and cycle downward again. Usually when I quit weighing myself and feel the slowdown I may gain 5 lbs in a week with a normal calorie intake and moderate cardio. If I get over 155 I develop tons of health issues. Note: I’m 5 ft 8 and 155 is considered thin but even at that it’s devisitating. This triggers a Obsessive regime of low calorie (1000 or less) and a 3000 calorie burn a day to start my metabolism again. This takes 1 to 2 weeks to kick in before the weight peels off quickly. However, you literally have to weigh yourself 4 times a week to see the trends.
      Hypothyroidism stinks and the doctors do not know enough about it. They simply dose synthroid which seems to only look good on blood tests.

    • Avatar Debi says:

      I have hypothyroid and older, and that makes it double your chances of losing weight. They still have not gotten my meds right. I have lost half of my hair volume so far. But I did start the Keto diet a month ago and have already lost 10 lbs. I will be curious as to my blood results for hypothyroid coming up. Will continue this diet or way of life. I feel so much better!

      • Avatar MoxieLouise1 says:

        I’m in the same boat as you. How long did it take you to get into ketosis? I’ve been doing this a month and can only see maybe a 2 or 3 pound loss. I’ve given up sugar and bread so I’d like to see more results than 2 pounds a month! I have terrible joints and fibromyalgia; I know I’d feel better if I even lost 50 pounds. I quit smoking about a year and a half ago…sometimes I think I shouldn’t have ;). I lost 50 pounds when I was 53; got down to a size 6…but I’m definitely NOT the same person I was then.

        • Avatar Cynthia Livesay says:

          Tell me about it!!! I lost 30 lbs 4 years ago on my own doing nothing but cardio (5x/week for an hour each time) & cutting out alcohol & processed sugar over a 6-9 month period of time; I was 52 & premenopausal. I will be 56 in November and am menopausal (been off birth control for a year), not having massive hot flashes or anything, but have been working out with a personal trainer who is costing me a mint & torturing me in the process….I have NEVER pushed myself as hard physically as I am doing with her 2x/week & I haven’t lost an ounce & I am not gaining muscle weight!!! I am so frustrated & demoralized!!! Of the 30 lbs I lost, I have gained 20 back & that’s why I am trying to lose weight now & it is friggin impossible!! Personal trainer says to have my hormones checked because it sounds like a severe hormonal imbalance to her. Any words of wisdom?? Anybody?? 🙁

          • Avatar Marsha says:

            Focus more on your calories in/ calories out. You need to be in a caloric deficit to see any weight loss.

          • Avatar Cynthia Livesay says:

            Really?? Seriously…..no kidding….thank you anyway. I wear a FitBit Versa, Log EVERYTHING I eat into My Fitness Pal, and have a BodyCardio scale that tells me what color I should wear on any given day & regularly monitor my blood pressure. I am more than well aware that losing weight is a very simple equation “burn more than you consume”; I am doing that too & still not losing weight.

          • Avatar Marsha says:

            What are your workouts like? And how many days per week are they?

          • Avatar Kitty Rexrode says:

            Hey! I’m right behind you in age and I do understand what you’re saying! I’m not fortunate enough to have a Personal Trainer in our rural area but I do push hard with in a variety of weight lifting/cardio/resistance band/body weight exercises online. Did you by any chance take measurements when you lost?? I’ve read and I know the scale doesn’t tell all but I still weigh in, but some times I feel like weight is shifting around–clothes still fit but not exactly the same! make sense to any body out there?? I’ve tried shakes/collagen/vinegar you name it and currently hormonal testing and on a thyroid vitamin (natural remedy) BUT man I put a lot of effort in and do NOT look like the people shown after 40 exercise! I lost 30lbs in 2007 after pregnancy and I don’t ever want to go back to feeling that bad again
            I agree with Marsha below—-100 calorie natural fruit isn’t the same as Fiber-one 100 snack for any age actually

          • Avatar Lilly says:

            Cynthia, I can absolutely relate. Being the same age as you I was high with Estrogen for years (can’t lose weight), now at 55 I could tell my body was changing, less breasts, more belly, ugh, so retested and NO estrogen (can’t lose weight) Everything in balance is the key, including thyroid, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, cortisol, etc! Also, having left a job all my life that was very physical I went to a personal trainer. I pushed myself to the MAX, then not only did I have increased inflammation and cortisol but I was too worn out to do anything the rest of the day so actually gained weight. Try to find a trainer who is your age and understands, 20 somethings will NEVER understand. Working out should energize you not wear you out. Good Luck to us both!

    • Avatar Marie-Helene Martin says:

      T.S Wiley is a good reference for hormones balance. If you need a different approach.

  5. Avatar Shawn S says:

    Is there a hormone study and therapy for lowering ghrelin? A supplement that would lower the level of this hormone? Sleeping more would be great but that’s not always an option or luxury we can always do. And same for increasing the leptin. It seems if we could balance these two hormones that would be the key to eating disorders that so many of us suffer from. I would be extremely interested in this study. Thank you.

  6. Avatar Dawn DeSesa Healy says:

    Are there suppliments available for purchase for
    these hormones?

  7. Avatar Fred Jaeger says:

    No mention of Insulin? Isn’t insulin the primary fat-storage hormone?

  8. Avatar JohnLogan62 says:

    It is yin and yang not ying and yang. Does no one proofread this stuff?

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