The diet and nutrition “experts” tell you that weight loss and weight gain are as simple as calories-in versus calories-out. If only it were that simple! However, as most women approaching menopause know, simply limiting calories is often not enough to maintain a healthy weight. Hormones and weight gain (or weight loss) have a very interesting relationship. And, if we can understand that relationship, we can begin to understand how balanced hormones can help.
So, what’s actually going on with your body’s hormone production and your weight? In this article, we’ll explore a few of the most common factors involved in weight loss plateaus, weight fluctuations throughout the month, hormone imbalances, low estrogen and weight gain — and generally how your hormones impact your weight throughout your cycle and throughout your life. After all, a woman who’s perimenopausal will have a different experience with hormonal weight gain and weight fluctuations than a woman in her 20s or one who’s post-menopausal.
Changes in Hormones and Weight Gain
Around menopause, many women complain that they start to gain weight even though they haven’t changed their diet or activity levels. According to Medical News Today, low estrogen is a common cause for weight gain for women approaching menopause. Essentially, as women enter perimenopause, their bodies produce less estradiol — a type of estrogen linked with metabolic regulation - which affects their ability to lose weight.
But, this isn’t the only hormone that can impact weight gain or make weight loss difficult. Let’s take a moment to explore several of the most common hormones that can affect women’s weight.
Which Hormones Cause Weight Gain?
First, most women experiencing weight changes around menopause will struggle with weight gain. However, hormone-related weight gain can occur at any time in your life if your hormones are out of balance. If your body produces too much or too little of one or more hormones, you may find that you store fat more easily and shed weight with more difficulty. Let’s take a look at the hormones most commonly associated with weight gain:
Cortisol, often known as the stress hormone, is secreted by the adrenal glands. This steroid hormone is produced in more abundance when you’re stressed or anxious, depressed or upset, and when you’re hurt physically. While cortisol is important to healing the body, it can make you feel hungrier than normal and increases the body’s tendency to store fat. This is why people often report weight gain in association with long-term stress.
Grehlin is known as the hunger hormone. It’s secreted by the brain, stomach, pancreas, and small intestine. If you’re sensitive to grehlin, you’ll feel hungry long after your body has taken in enough caloric energy. Not only that, but like cortisol, grehlin also increases fat storage. Staying on a restrictive diet too long can result in increased grehlin production as your body attempts to return to its previous weight setpoint.
Glucocorticoids are important for reducing inflammation in the body. However, elevated glucocorticoid levels can lead to increased blood sugar levels, which can lead to insulin resistance and even diabetes.
Insulin is produced by the pancreas and is essential in the process of removing and transporting glucose from blood for use by the body. It’s also associated with fat storage, though. Insulin doesn’t directly make you gain weight, but consuming too much sugar and forcing the body to overproduce insulin can lead to insulin resistance, which can affect how your body uses and stores the calories you consume.
Leptin is your body’s “fullness” hormone. When everything is working properly, your body will produce leptin to let you know that you’ve eaten enough food for your body’s energy requirements. Now, as you likely know, when you over-consume fatty and sugary foods, your body stores that extra energy as fat. This is dually problematic; not only will overconsumption result in weight gain, but leptin is produced by fat cells as well. This sounds like a good thing at first, but overproduction of leptin can result in lack of sensitivity to the hormone. Thus, just like with insulin resistance, when you become desensitized to leptin, your body has to produce a lot more of it to signal fullness. This can lead to more overeating as you still feel hungry when you’ve actually consumed plenty of food for your body’s needs.
A surplus of any or all of these hormones can lead to weight gain. But surplus isn’t always the issue. Hormone imbalances can also be the result of insufficient levels of some hormones, resulting in weight gain.
Hormone Imbalances and Menopausal Weight Gain
Let’s take a look at a few hormones associated with weight loss and how low levels of these hormones might impact weight gain during perimenopause and menopause. A lack of any or all of these could result in increased weight and other health issues. The hormones most commonly associated with weight loss include:
- Thyroid hormones (T3, T4, and calcitonin)
- Estrogen and progesterone
Thyroid hormones T3, T4, and calcitonin are the powerhouse team that work together to govern your metabolism. They have a lot to do with your resting heart rate, sleep cycles, and general metabolic functions. Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough of one or more of these hormones. With low thyroid hormone levels, the metabolism tends to slow down. Aside from hormone-related weight gain, some of hypothyroidism’s other symptoms include lethargy, constipation, and a decreased heart rate.
Estrogen and progesterone are female reproductive hormones that help regulate your fluid balance and your weight. You’ve likely noticed that you gain or lose a small amount of weight at different times in your cycle. This is because, at these times, your body is naturally producing more or less estrogen and progesterone. As you approach menopause, your body produces less of both of these hormones, resulting in more frequent weight fluctuations and/or long-term weight gain.
Testosterone is produced in small amounts by the ovaries. While women don’t usually produce as much testosterone as men, it is still an important regulatory hormone. By promoting muscle growth, testosterone helps increase your basal metabolic rate (BMR), the amount of energy (calories) that you burn in a day without any additional exercise. So, women with low testosterone levels will tend to have more trouble losing weight because their bodies aren’t burning as much energy throughout the day as they once did. Testosterone is also important for muscle development, bone density, and a healthy libido.
Understanding Hormones and Weight Gain: Low Estrogen and Weight Fluctuations
We mentioned in the section above that estrogen and progesterone can play a part in weight gain for women in the transition to menopause. This topic deserves a little more exploration, as it’s one of the main factors in hormone-related weight gain for women in perimenopause.
As women approach menopause, their bodies produce less estrogen and progesterone. As we briefly mentioned earlier, estradiol, a type of estrogen, is closely linked with metabolic regulation and weight maintenance. As estradiol production decreases, women tend to store more visceral (abdominal) fat than they do earlier in life. In combination with reduced levels of progesterone, low estradiol levels are the main culprit of women having more trouble losing or maintaining weight during and after menopause. For an in-depth explanation on how lower levels of these hormones can impact your weight, check our article on balancing hormones.
The Solution to Hormones and Weight Gain
Fortunately, you don’t have to just sit back and accept that imbalanced hormones and weight gain go hand-in-hand. With out-of-balance hormones, you can find yourself fighting constant hunger while your body uses the foods you consume ineffectively and stores fat at an increased rate. This can lead to insulin insensitivity and increased cortisol levels, further throwing your hormones out of balance and adding to the problem.
However, by supplementing your body’s levels of key hormones (such as estradiol, progesterone, and thyroid hormones), you can address low estrogen and weight gain by balancing your hormones. And, with balanced hormones, weight gain and weight fluctuations often resolve themselves. There are also natural ways to help boost your metabolism and balance your hormones through diet and exercise.