If they are unbalanced, they can, even if you eat less and exercise more. We show you how to get back on track.
Sugar’s first action is to increase blood levels of the hormone insulin, whose role is to gather glucose from the bloodstream and open the cells so it can enter, which is a good thing as this provides the body with energy. However, insulin stores excess glucose as fat, and concurrently blocks access to the fat cells as a source of energy. It’s a double whammy that makes fat loss very difficult.
Continuing to eat sugary foods leads to insulin resistance, where the body sees the insulin but due to the high circulating levels of glucose decides to switch off some of the receptors, so sugar present in the system is no longer taken into the cells. Interpreting this as insufficient sugar in the bloodstream, the body up-regulates the pancreas to make more insulin to try to capture circulating glucose and deposit it into the cells. So it becomes a vicious cycle: the more insulin produced, the more fat is stored, and the less access the body has to that fat as an energy source. The nasty thing about this excess fat storage is that a complicated chemical process deposits it around the middle, which is called central adiposity.
Eating more protein can make insulin more sensitive; whey protein is particularly useful. Monounsaturated fats, and fibrous, low-carbohydrate fruit and vegetables like apples, pears, leafy greens, brassicas, and capsicums also help. Cinnamon contains a methylhydroxychalcone polymer, which mimics the activity of insulin, helping the body recognise sugar is outside the cells and enabling it to enter. Brew cinnamon sticks into a tea, add stevia, and sip it across the day.
Insulin also increases this hormone, which is a factor in weight gain because it creates overwhelming sugar cravings. Leptin resistance can develop much like insulin resistance, prompting the body to store more fat. Plus, fat cells also secrete leptin, which tells the hypothalamus to keep filling fat cells. So even if you’ve lost weight and your fat cells have deflated, leptin is telling the body those fat cells need to be filled. Trying to lose weight against high leptin levels requires a will of steel, for you need to maintain your desired weight for three years after achieving it. Fat cells spontaneously die at a rate of 10 percent per year, and once there’s a 30 percent loss, cravings reduce. But even then you need to nix sugary, fatty foods as they desensitise the brain to the effects of leptin, causing cravings to start again. It’s a long haul!
Leptin is a gatekeeper for ghrelin, often dubbed the hunger-promoting hormone. Leptin stops ghrelin from making us constantly crave food. Ghrelin levels rise in response to high sugar and fat intake, stress, sleep loss, and when you try to starve yourself – so the latter will never be a good option for weight loss.
As for shedding fat that has settled around the middle, higher oestrogen levels prevent its breakdown, according to a study published in the American Journal of Physiology Endocrinology and Metabolism. Taking oral contraceptives or HRT means added oestrogen in the bloodstream and a higher risk of central adiposity: I’ve noticed in practice weight gain from these medications averages between two and five kilos.
High oestrogen also increases body fat around the hips and thighs, whereas progesterone is largely protective against weight gain here. Women who suffer from PMS, uterine fibroids, fibrocystic breast disorders, abnormal Pap smears, ovarian cysts, stress, anxiety or depression may have higher oestrogen levels compared to progesterone. This needs to be addressed early to prevent problems at menopause, such as an increased risk of breast and other hormone-driven cancers.
Female hormones need to be measured through a blood test from a GP. Diet and herbs can help modulate them, e.g. adequate fibre helps lower insulin, which will balance oestrogen, as will lignans present in freshly ground flaxseeds and soy foods – ideally fermented, and brassica vegetables encourage oestrogen detoxification. It’s essential to see a qualified herbalist to balance oestrogen and progesterone.
Declining testosterone in both men and women is another factor. Treatment involves rebuilding muscle mass and having sufficient sleep: six hours will not cut it. Tribulus terrestris works for both sexes, in a one gram dose three times a day. I find maca effective as it’s a natural aromatase inhibitor that stops sugar affecting oestrogen and testosterone and transforming it into potent, cancer-forming hormones.
Because low thyroid activity is associated with weight gain – even with good diet and exercise – thyroid hormones must be regulated. Selenium, vitamins A, C and E, zinc and magnesium are important, as is the herb withania, as it balances cortisol levels.
Stress affects the thyroid through the action of cortisol. Exercising in the mornings is crucial to use up that cortisol. Cortisol that remains elevated throughout the day blunts the insulin response, causing the breakdown of muscle fibres and immune suppression. It also affects memory, weakens bone mineral density, possibly contributes to cancer, causes body fat to be gained – particularly around the middle – and adversely affects blood sugar and insulin levels. When levels are low in the morning and high at night, sleep is affected, which will cause ghrelin levels to rise.
Cortisol can be measured in a blood test, but it’s important to test morning cortisol levels. A better option is an across-the-day spit test, as this highlights fluctuations. So if you believe your hormones may be out of balance, organise a blood test through your GP, or consult a naturopath, who can conduct various tests to determine the reason behind any weight gain and work to remedy them.