Overall look at hormones
Most women know instinctively that their hormones influence their weight. But here’s the thing… It’s not the hormones you think.
Yes, it is true that estrogen and progesterone—the hormones most intimately related to your menstrual cycle—are important… but what many women think is that estrogen and progesterone are the most important fat-burning and fat-storing hormones…
Insulin, cortisol, thyroid, and your adrenals are all more important when it comes to fat loss.
In fact, estrogen and progesterone constitute the smallest part of what is known as the “Female Hormonal Triade”.
Here’s an easy way to understand it: (get a piece of paper out and draw this as you read it to get a visual)
1. At the base of the pyramid are insulin and cortisol.
2. These are the primary hormones that influence your ability to burn fat.
3. Just above them are thyroid and your adrenals.
4. Then, all the way at the top—at the very smallest part of the pyramid—are estrogen and progesterone.
Why are they all the way at the top? …Because they are not as important as the others, but they do influence each of the other hormones.
Your hormones all play together like a symphony.
When one part of the symphony overwhelms another part, it impacts the harmony of the whole thing. And, like in a symphony, the instruments (in this case hormones) can have different effects.
Sometimes they work one way, sometimes another, just like a violin can make you feel happy one moment and melancholy the next.
The best symphonies play in tune together. They are balanced, and that is exactly what you want with your hormones.
It’s like the Goldilocks effect…Not too little and not too much—but just right.
Of course, calories matter too. If they were pictured here, they would share the base of the pyramid with insulin and cortisol.
However, if you get your hormones right, often the calories take care of themselves.
You could have 400 calories of a prepacked toxic meal or you could have 600 calories of nutritious tasty food, but you’ll be fuller for hours and happy as well.
Learn more in my Healthy Hormone Program or connect with me so you can start the next year with a great plan to help your hormones work optimally giving you better energy, improved moods and fat loss.
INSULIN: THE FAT STORER
In the hierarchy of hormonal influencers for fat loss, insulin still reigns as king.
- This hormone, relative to the others, is most strongly influenced by carbohydrate intake and overconsumption of food, both of which cause a detrimental increase in blood sugar.
- For the average woman who tends to be sedentary and also over consumes, insulin will increase and remain high.
- Chronic high levels of insulin will eventually cause your body to become resistant to this hormone, meaning you will have difficulty burning fat.
- With the epidemic of type II diabetes and obesity, this means that most women are insulin resistant and thus unable to burn fat. Interestingly, estrogen makes you more insulin sensitive.
- As you age, estrogen naturally declines until you reach menopause, when it plummets and your whole female physiology changes.
Think about what that means when it comes to your cycle and time of life.
As these hormones fluctuate over the course of your menstrual cycle and as you move through various phases of life—from normal menstruation to compromised menstruation for some to pregnancy and eventually menopause—you will become more or less insulin sensitive as your levels of estrogen and progesterone rise and fall.
The Healthy Hormone program takes into account this fluctuation allowing you to maximize your results by taking advantage of these changes instead of falling victim to them.
CORTISOL: THE STRESS HORMONE
Cortisol, secreted from the adrenal glands, has a split personality in the body.
In other words, it is not all bad or all good.
- Acute stressors on the body tend to cause a short-term increase of this hormone. It gets the body primed to either fight or flee from the stress. This served us well in paleolithic times when we were not at the top of the food chain. A lion jumping out at us requires metabolic messengers that are quick acting to prime us to fight or flee for our lives.
- Cortisol, along with adrenaline, serves this purpose. Once we get out of danger, these hormones allow us to get stronger and better for the next time a predator thinks we are food.
- Unfortunately, these days our hectic lifestyles cause our adrenal glands to think there are dangerous creatures everywhere jumping out at us, thus cortisol levels tend to be either chronically elevated or very, very low, both of which can create a fatty, fatigued body.
- Interestingly, estrogen and progesterone both cause cortisol to be less detrimental.
When levels fall you become more sensitive to cortisol and its negative effects, which is one of the reasons why as women are more stress reactive, fly off the handle very quickly.
This also means that there are certain times in our life and in our cycle when we are super buffered against cortisol.
THYROID: THE METABOLIC MANAGER
Thyroid hormone, secreted from the thyroid gland, helps to manage the body’s metabolic processes, including your fat-burning potential. It is like the thermostat on your metabolism.
This hormone is also keenly sensitive to your daily lifestyle choices, including:
- sleep (how long and how deep)
- nutrition (types and amounts)
- stress (acute or chronic)
- exercise (longer moderate intensity or shorter high intensity.)
Unfortunately, your thyroid gland is primed to think food will be scarce like it tended to be long ago in prehistoric times.
This is why when you have chosen an “eat less and exercise more” program in the past your thyroid has caused your body to slow down its metabolism.
– If you’ve experienced rebound weight gain after dieting, this may very well be why.
When you eat less, your thyroid slows down to accommodate the reduction in calories. Then, when you go back to a regular diet, your metabolism is still operating in this downregulated state.
Think about that:
You’re eating the same calories you did before your diet, but now your metabolism is burning even fewer calories than it did before. That’s the perfect storm for fat gain, making fat loss next to impossible.
Estrogen and thyroid hormone have a special relationship.
Higher than normal levels of estrogen increase a thyroid binding hormone and high levels of this make thyroid less effective.
So while estrogen levels that are too low are not a good thing, estrogen levels that are too high can negatively impact thyroid hormone production as well.
But menopause can throw that out heaps – more on that soon.
THE ADRENALS: THE METABOLIC FUEL PEDAL
Other hormones along with cortisol, get secreted by the adrenal glands (remember the walnuts) any time you are stressed.
- This happens especially when you exercise.
- The great thing about these special hormones is that they tell the body to get ready to start burning fat. But again, too much of a good thing is not healthy for the female metabolism, which likes balance (remember we now need to focus on moderation).
When it comes to the special hormones (catecholamines), you want them elevated during exercise, but turned off during rest. This is why rest-based living is going to be so important for you to master, 2 to 3 sessions a week in the gym is all you need.
You want your hormones to be encouraged to go into fat burning mode.
We need to be careful to not have too much stress. If you are feeling overwhelmed please talk to me.
ESTROGEN: FAT LOSS HORMONE, OR FAT GAIN HORMONE?
- Estrogen is a growth hormone.
- It’s primarily responsible for the growth of the breasts and the uterine lining, but it plays a role in growth throughout the female body and can even impact the growth of muscle, brain cells, and other areas.
- Estrogen is not just about reproduction; it’s also about healthy growth all over the female metabolism.
- Estrogen is an interesting hormone from the standpoint of weight loss and fat loss, because it causes weight loss globally but may cause fat gain locally on specific parts of the body.
These special fat cell regulators are concentrated in the lower body of women, especially in the hips, butt, and thighs.
These receptors are responsible for slowing the release of fat, so stimulating their activity can slow down fat loss.
This is one of the reasons estrogen causes women to have that beautiful hourglass shape. It keeps their waist smaller and their hips, bust, butt and thighs fuller.
At the same time, these receptors are also the reason many women lose weight faster from certain parts of the body than others.
If estrogen levels and other hormones are not attended to, women can develop other, less flattering, shapes, like the pear or apple shape.
Similarly, these receptors explain why shape change can be so difficult, and why many women go from a large pear or apple shape to a smaller but more pronounced pear or apple shape, when they follow traditional diets.
They think the answer is to restrict calories, but do nothing to impact hormones, and lack of real shape change is the reward.
Estrogen may have the opposite effect on visceral adipose tissue or VAT. This is the fat that lies deep inside your body. It’s not that stuff you can pinch an inch of.
It’s fat that surrounds your organs, especially your liver.
Estrogen helps you effectively burn this fat, because it controls the two major hormones that store it—insulin and cortisol.
That is why optimizing estrogen levels—not too much or too little—keeps you healthy and looking good. It’s also worth mentioning again that estrogen can negatively impact the action of thyroid.
That means if you have too much estrogen (dominating job, drinking out of plastic coffee cup lids, soy latte, lots of red meat) your whole metabolism could slow down, leading to many negative downstream consequences beyond weight gain, including hypothyroidism. In fact, estrogen dominance is an increasingly common problem, so many women I know are suffering from this.
But too little estrogen isn’t good either, and here’s why…
Estrogen makes the female metabolism more insulin-sensitive and less stress-reactive. You’ll recall that insulin and cortisol are at the very base of our hormonal hierarchy for fat loss.
If you are more insulin-sensitive and less stress-reactive, this is a very good thing for your body composition.
This is one of the key reasons young women who menstruate normally have an easier time burning fat and keeping it off than women in menopause or those who are metabolically challenged do.
When estrogen drops at the time of menopause, fat distribution changes, and women are more likely to gain weight, especially right around the middle.
If you are metabolically challenged and dealing with a condition like PCOS, your hormones may fluctuate all over the place, making it very difficult to maintain the balance needed to burn fat and keep it off.
PROGESTERONE: ESTROGEN’S UNRECOGNIZED STEPSISTER
Progesterone doesn’t get the attention it deserves. But estrogen and progesterone are like sisters. They need each other – like a see-saw. They balance each other out.
Unfortunately, many people think of progesterone as the unrecognized or even the “ugly” stepsister in this equation.
This is the wrong way to think about progesterone.
If estrogen sends the “growth signals” to the breast, uterine lining, and other areas, progesterone comes along and says, “okay, not too much growth.”
Remember, it’s all about balance here.
But progesterone has other effects as well, particularly on stress.
When progesterone is out of balance, the first thing we see is women becoming more reactive to stress (very impatient, teary).
Stress can cause drops in progesterone, which can cause a maladaptive stress response, creating a vicious cycle. When a woman is stressed out, this is usually how it is reflected in the metabolism.
Remember that stress leads to more cortisol, and chronically high cortisol levels have a serious impact on fat gain.
Progesterone can help blunt that effect if it is balanced. Unlike estrogen, progesterone has little to no direct effect on insulin. But it does influence it indirectly, because it opposes the action of estrogen.
As you know, estrogen makes you more insulin sensitive. Since progesterone opposes the action of estrogen, it can make you more insulin resistant if it is too high for too long (lots of carbs and sugars).
This is obviously not a good thing, because insulin resistance can lead to weight gain.
The important takeaway when it comes to progesterone is that it impacts fat loss or fat gain indirectly, due to how it influences cortisol and, more importantly, its balancing effects on estrogen.
Estrogen and progesterone ARE important.
But they ARE NOT your most important fat-burning hormones.
That said, they do influence your most important fat-burning hormones, and that means you can mitigate any negative effects they have on your fat-burning potential by learning to live, eat and exercise in a way that is in tune with your hormones.
I hope this makes some sense and I will talk about this throughout our Healthy Hormone program so as you understand where it fits in.
If you’d like to connect with me and work with me in 2021 please click here