The Why Behind Weight Gain & Your Hormones

Stress.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have it in their lives.

It dominates our Western world.

It fuels the workforce.

It moves us forward.

And it’s destroying our bodies, especially our hormones.

But before you can delve into the solutions for working through the stress in your world, many women need to understand the basics behind just how sneaky stress can be when affecting our bodies.

So, let’s dive in…

BEFORE HORMONES BEGIN TO DROP

Our Cycles

In our normal womanly monthly cycle, we rely on two hormones – estrogen and progesterone.

It’s important to know that the menstrual cycle occurs in three phases: follicular, ovulatory and luteal. The first half of the cycle is known as the follicular phase and the second half of the cycle is known as the luteal phase. Midway through the cycle between days 12 and 16 ovulation occurs, known as the ovulatory phase.

A menstrual cycle is determined by the number of days from the first day of one period to the first day of the next. On a basic level, day one of the menstrual cycle is the first of full bleeding day of the period. A typical cycle is averages 28 days for most women, but your cycle can range anywhere from 24 to 35 days.

On Day 1 of the menstrual cycle, estrogen and progesterone levels start off low. Low levels of progesterone and estrogen send a signal to the pituitary gland to produce Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH). FSH begins the process of maturing a follicle (a small sac in the ovary that contains an egg)

The follicle produces more estrogen to prepare the uterus for pregnancy. At ovulation, typically around Day 14, increased estrogen levels trigger a sharp rise in the Luteinizing Hormone (LH) from the pituitary gland, causing release of the egg from the follicle.

The ruptured follicle (corpus luteum) now secretes progesterone and estrogen to continue to prepare the uterus for pregnancy. If the egg is not fertilized, estrogen and progesterone levels drop and, on Day 28, the menses begin.

Check out the image below to track the menstrual cycle.

If everything in your bodily systems is in check, you shouldn’t struggle from debilitating menstrual periods, PMS, or any of the horrible symptoms that are often attributed to these two hormones.

If things get out of whack with other systems, however, the reproductive system is put on hold in favor of survival.

Estrogen & Progesterone Beyond Reproduction

Most people don’t realize that Estrogen & Progesterone function well beyond our reproductive system.

Progesterone is a powerful anti-anxiety hormone, a diuretic, and an antidepressant.  And even more shocking, progesterone must be present for the body to access fat when we need increased energy; if the levels are out of whack, decreasing, or nonexistent, the body turns to glucose stored in the muscles, which may eventually break down your muscle mass.

The adrenal glands – the same glands that produce our stress hormones – are also responsible for estrogen and progesterone production.

Stress, Adrenaline, & Cortisol

When we become stressed, the adrenals release two hormones – adrenalin and cortisol.

Adrenaline signals to our body that our life is being threatened – traditionally, lions, tigers, and bears – oh, my! – except now, in today’s world, it may be more like finances, work trouble, relationships, and “Oh my gosh, why did she just SAY that to me?”

We allow our body to fall into its traditional response – fight-or-flight – causing blood flow to stop its normal support of the digestive and reproductive system and redirect to our extremities for a full-on battle of survival.

The brain sends a message to the body to protect ourselves, and here comes the cortisol!

Cortisol begins its parade of “stop everything to survive” and shuts down bodily systems in favor of saving our lives.

All of a sudden, our brain think there is no food left in the world and we are in a famine situation.  ‘Uh, oh!  Better start breaking down muscle to get the glucose needed and store any fat that comes in!’

The “Fight-or-Flight” response causes a bodily shutdown of other hormones as well – like progesterone – because we can’t bring a baby into a world where we are in danger and there is no food!

So that increases our body fat and leads to fluid retention, making us puffy and bloated, in addition to brain fog, exhaustion, and fatigue.

Estrogen Dominance

Because the progesterone vanishes, the absence of its fat-burning, stress-busting power allows for estrogen to overload our body, causing a dominance of this hormone.

Add to that the increasing number of estrogen-like substances found in our environment in things like herbicides, pesticides, plastics, and even our skincare products, and we have a real problem on our hands.

In short amounts, the body is able to handle this overload, but long-term, chronic stress causes the body to compensate or become clogged.

Our liver normally detoxes the body of the estrogen, breaking it down and excreting the recycled form back into the blood, but a dominance of estrogen just allows partially broken-down estrogen to spill back into our system leading to real risks, like breast cancer.

The Danger of Excess Cortisol

  • Changes in cortisol levels due to chronic stress also affects other body symptoms.
  • Sleep patterns become affected.
  • Our mood sinks without self-care rituals.
  • Our self-perception suffers due to our body’s responses to the stress.
  • Body chemistry changes due to the constant barrage of cortisol in our system.
  • And we begin to lose ourselves, causing our metabolism to suffer as a result.
  • Many of us are already suffering from metabolic syndrome before we even realize there is a deep-seeded problem.
  • Now, let’s add age to this equation.

AS HORMONES BEGIN TO DROP (PERIMENOPAUSE)

As your hormone levels slowly begin to decrease in your mid-to-late 40s, you are left with even more issues.

Normal Cortisol Levels…

  • reduces inflammation
  • delivers cortisone to at-risk areas
  • helps burn fat
  • maintains healthy blood sugar levels
  • protects you from danger with a fight-or-flight response

Chronic, Long-Term Excessive Cortisol Levels…

  • put your body in constant survival mode
  • cause the body to shut down digestive and reproductive systems for protection
  • allow inflammation because production is directed to our extremities
  • put us in constant attack mode to escape from or attack danger
  • make our bodies think we are in a famine-state
  • trigger the body to attack our muscles to produce glucose as fuel to fight (because food is scarce)
  • create high blood sugar in our system with no real use for it
  • cause the body to produce insulin to clean up the mess, so blood sugar converts to glycogen to store in muscles and excess sugar converts to fat

THE AFTERMATH OF LONG-TERM SURVIVAL MODE

Unconscious Binging

Now, let’s say you’ve had a horrible day, and all you want to do is get home to a bowl of chocolate ice cream and a glass of wine.  And, ahhhh…how comforting that food is to your wounded emotions and tired body.  So that turns into a pint and a half-bottle, but oh no!

Next thing you know, your dog is licking out an empty gallon of ice cream and you are wondering how the bottle of wine disappeared.

Sleep Disruption

And are you able to sleep after this?  Nope.  Because now you’ve overloaded your body with even more sugar that it is able to handle, not even considering the quick bagel you had for lunch (carbs convert to sugar), the orange you ate as a healthy snack (full of fructose, a fruit sugar), and the fact that you were too tired to go to the gym (no outlet for stress or aid with muscles.)

Weight Gain

And it only gets worse.  Due to long-term stress and breaking down of your muscles to attain the fuel needed for a fight, there is less muscle mass available to which to return the excess glucose.

So where does it end up?

Belly fat.

This deposits around your middle to protect your vital organs during this time of dire straits.  And you look in the mirror and think, ‘Yikes!  I’ve got to get this under control!’ causing more worry, more stress, more cortisol, more issues…

And what do you do?  Eat less because we’ve been taught that dieting is the only way to lose weight.

But guess what that tells your body?

Food is even more scarce than we thought!

Danger, danger!

This leads to a perpetual cycle of stress, weight gain, fat deposits, and overeating because our bodies don’t know that food is readily available.

And it’s even more serious than that!

At-Risk Immune System

When cortisol is unable to perform its other function of breaking down proteins to form amino acids that assist the body in repairing tissues, our immune system becomes at risk.

Type-2 Diabetes Risk

Excess fat in our bodies compounded with excess sugar flowing through our bodies with less muscle available for storage puts us at severe risk for Type-2 Diabetes.

Adrenal Fatigue

Consistent abuse of our stress hormones leads to adrenal fatigue, causing our bodies to feel burnt out, tired, fatigued, stiff, and affecting our mental state and mood until we may have descended into the depths of depression.

DANGER? WHAT DANGER?

You may be sitting and thinking… ‘Sure, Mariza, but I’m in no real danger.’

Danger = Anything that causes YOU stress

…a commercial that reminded you of your credit card debt…

…sticky fingerprints that remind you that your kids no longer live at home…

…a billboard that tells you that you haven’t properly planned for retirement…

… or…well, you get it.

The more you allow yourself to worry and stress, the worse off you will be.

AND THEN IT’S TIME TO PREPARE FOR MENOPAUSE

Menopause doesn’t officially begin until you haven’t had a menstrual cycle for at least one year.  Ovarian production of hormones ceases entirely, but the adrenal glands continue to produce them for the body.

Chronic stress, however, will have already affected the adrenal glands’ ability to produce appropriate amounts of progesterone, which can lead to the horrible effects of menopause from which many women suffer.

With today’s woman juggling a multitude of tasks and responsibilities, most likely suffering from Rushing Women’s Syndrome, chronic stress is something that she has simply dealt with for decades.

Its effect has already caused things like PMS, weight gain, exhaustion, sleep issues, and a litany of other issues that have simply been chalked up as “facts of life” because we just do not take the time to get to the root of the problem.

The Wrong Kind of Help

When she seeks professional help, most doctors are quick to jump to HRT – Hormone Replacement Therapy – which increases her risk for breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and blood clots, to name a few.

Studies have been proving for decades that a woman’s emotional health directly correlates to the amount of symptoms that she experiences during perimenopause and menopause, but many Western doctors are too quick to throw a prescription at something rather than dig a bit deeper.

And we are just as guilty of simply taking their recommendations as a “quick fix” rather than realizing the potential dangers it could have in the long run.

TREATING THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM

Luckily, many practitioners and experts are starting to realize the real source of these deep, debilitating effects of menopause that are rooted in the lifestyles we have kept for years, our psychological state, how we view ourselves, and other influences that affect our mind and bodies.

The need for individualized assessments and the development of a personalized plan for improvement of both bodily systems and mental state, paying careful attention to both the conscious workings of the mind and subconscious scars and desires, becomes paramount in assisting women in reclaiming the lives that they have lost. Luckily, there is are a lot of options for getting your body back on track.  And a big part of those solutions start with self care.

As you know I am a major supporter of self care and really listening to your body.  That was the first step for me when I was overcoming hormone imbalances.

Here are a couple of my favorite blog resources for you to check out to get you started on your journey back to feeling at home in your body again:

Top 3 ways to naturally increase low progesterone
Top 5 essential oils for hormonal balance
What to eat to balance hormones

You watch what you eat.

You exercise regularly.

You sleep each night.

You guzzle your water all day long.

But somehow your weight seems to be creeping up despite your best efforts.

15-20 years ago, this wasn’t a problem.  You could eat whatever you wanted without a care in the world!But now…you gain five pounds just looking a cupcake!

It’s not news that your hormones are changing, wreaking all kinds of havoc on your body.  You already knew that.

But thanks to your declining estrogen levels, your body is now depositing its fat stores in a different pattern than it did previously, and maybe your overall body shape is changing.

Don’t be alarmed!

I come bearing good news!

But first, there are a few things you need to understand about your biology, so hang tight.

ESTROGEN

Did you know that you have estrogen receptors all over your body?

In addition to regulating your menstrual cycle and fertility, estrogen has many other roles in the body.  It affects not only your reproductive system, but also your cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, immune, and central nervous systems.  There are even estrogen receptors in the hypothalamus of the brain, which serves as a master switch to control food intake, energy expenditure, and body fat distribution.

When estrogen levels decline as we approach menopause, the extra weight we gain due to the natural aging process gets distributed a little differently than the weight we may have gained in our younger years. Fat deposits tend to settle more around our mid-section, whereas, when we were younger, our fat may have been distributed more evenly throughout the body.

Unfortunately, this pattern is not beneficial to your health.

INSULIN

We hear about insulin frequently in the news, but usually related to diabetes.  And chances are that you’re not a diabetic, right?

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas.  When you eat, the glucose (sugar) in your food triggers your pancreas to release insulin.  Insulin is responsible for carrying the glucose from your blood stream into all the cells of your body that need it for energy.

Your cells are like little motors that require fuel in order to work.  Glucose is their fuel.

But, if you have more glucose circulating in your blood stream than your cells need at any given time, your body will convert it to glycogen, which gets stored in your liver or stored as fat.

INSULIN RESISTANCE

Now, you may have heard the term “insulin resistance” floating around.  Insulin resistance has become somewhat of a crisis in our country due to the prevalence of unhealthy lifestyles (i.e. poor diet and lack of exercise).

Whereas people with diabetes have insulin resistance or their pancreas is unable to produce its own insulin, it is also possible for a non-diabetic to have insulin resistance.

So, what exactly is insulin resistance?

It is when the cells of the body lose their sensitivity to insulin.

Insulin is like a key that needs to fit into the cell’s lock.  Instead of allowing glucose in, the receptors do not recognize it and become resistant to it.

When your cells lack the fuel that they need to function properly, the body responds by decreasing both your metabolism and your energy level in order to self-preserve.

Think starvation mode.

Your body now hangs on to your fat stores for dear life because it assumes that it will need it to provide life-sustaining fuel for your cells.  This is why it is so difficult for someone with insulin resistance to lose weight.

Decreasing your calorie intake will not be enough to drop those pounds unless you find a way to make your cells respond to insulin again.

The good news is that this is absolutely possible, and I’ll tell you how in a just a moment.  But first…

WHAT DOES ESTROGEN HAVE TO DO WITH INSULIN?

Science has shown that estrogen plays a big role in our metabolism.  When estrogen levels decrease, our metabolism slows down, and our energy levels decrease.

But you already know that because you feel it!

When our metabolism slows down and produces less expendable energy, we must decrease ourcaloric intakeor we will gain weight.  Unfortunately, this is a natural consequence of aging.

However, as we approach menopause, our body distributes fat a little differently – around our mid-section and around our organs.

This fat secretes chemicals called adipokines which, in turn, increases our resistance to insulin.

WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE ME?

Your estrogen levels have declined.

Despite your best efforts, you’ve put on some weight that just won’t budge.

You probably have some level of insulin resistance, but you won’t necessarily feel it.  Many people with insulin resistance do not have symptoms, unaware of what is taking place inside their bodies.

The problem now is that it’s even harder to lose weight.

Why?

Because your cells are not getting the fuel that they need, and even though you’ve reduced your caloric intake, your body puts a death grip on every last calorie and fat cell.

WHAT CAN I DO?

Finally, some good news!

You can make some adjustments to help to restore your insulin sensitivity, even in the absence of estrogen!

Now you know I’m going to say something about diet and exercise.  That’s pretty much a given.

But there are two more things I want you to consider – sleep and magnesium.

Let me break it down for you:

EXERCISE

I know, I know…

The answer to every health complaint is always more exercise!

It is.

Our bodies weren’t meant to be sedentary.

Now I’m not saying you have to go out and run a marathon…but you do need to get your heart rate up a few times a week, and you definitely need to pump a little iron.

Study upon study has shown us that regular aerobic exercise helps our cells become more sensitive to insulin, meaning more insulin receptors work to allow the glucose into our cells.[1]  In addition, performing resistance exercises increases our lean muscle mass, which is more metabolically active than fat.

Step One –

– Exercise at least 4 days per week for 30-45 minutes. 
– Get your heart rate up. 
– Lift some weights or try some other form of resistance exercise twice a week. 

DIET

I cannot urge you enough to break up with sugar.

Please…if you haven’t already…give up the normal American diet full of processed foods with empty calories and harmful chemicals – refined carbohydrates (a.k.a. sugar) and more sugar.

What happens when we consume all that sugar?

An insulin-resistant pancreas cannot manage the extra sugar and it ends up circulating in the bloodstream.  This chronic hypersecretion of insulin leads directly to heart disease.  Yikes!

How do we fix this?  Check out my blog 5 Steps to Break Up with Sugarfor some hints.

The National Institutes of Health recommend following the DASH eating plan.[2]  This eating plan focuses on increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables, healthy whole grains, beans, nuts and heart-healthy animal proteins.

Step Two –

– Switch to a diet of fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains, and lean meats. 
– Limit your consumption of sugary and processed foods. 
– If you need some recipe ideas, you’re in luck!  Be sure to get your hands on my best-selling book, The DASH Diet CookbookLINK HERE

MAGNESIUM

Though not frequently discussed, Magnesium is a mineral that is crucial to a few hundred chemical processes that take place in our bodies.

Magnesium is a vital co-factor for enzymes that are responsible for glucose metabolism, and a deficiency in this mineral is reported to contribute to insulin resistance and many diabetics fall into this category.[3]

There is a long list of reasons why you may be deficient in magnesium, but it is estimated that more than half of the adult population is deficient in magnesium.[4]  Things like stress, certain medications, and caffeine are just a few things that can lead to a magnesium deficiency.

And if you’re eating a poor diet, you’re not consuming the vitamins and minerals necessary to facilitate healthy metabolism.

Most adults would benefit from a daily supplement, and you should definitely talk to your healthcare practitioner about what formulation to use, as there are several, and some work better than others.

Step Three –

– Consume foods rich in magnesium like nuts, seeds, legumes, leafy greens, and whole grains. 
– Consider taking a daily magnesium supplement.  Be sure to consult with a trusted healthcare provider to see what would work the best for you. 

SLEEP

Yes, sleep.

I know you think you get enough, but chances are, you don’t.

Adequate sleep is crucial to your health, to weight loss, and to correcting insulin resistance.  All of these complex hormone processes are regulated by our circadian rhythm.

When you don’t get adequate sleep, your brain perceives more stress, and we have already talked on the blog about what stress does to your body.

Step Four –

– Allow your body to rest and reset each day…or, at least, most days.
– Establish a sleep routine in the evenings to allow your body to unwind and relax.
– Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night.  Yes – 7-8 hours.

THE LONG HAUL

It may take some time to make all these adjustments, so be patient with yourself.  Your estrogen doesn’t just disappear overnight.  Our bodies change over time, so it’s going to take a while to retrain your body.  Understanding how your body works is an important first step to finding a solution.

Need a personal consultation?  Contact me here!

Learn My Top 5 Oils for Creating Hormonal Synergy:

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