The first thing to understand is that one of the mechanisms of hormones (particularly oestrogen) is to increase weight. It’s a genetic and evolutionary quirk to enhance fertility because fat cells assist during pregnancy and allow adequate nutrition in times of famine and scarcity.
“Among several hormones, estrogens promote, maintain, and control the typical distribution of body fat and adipose tissue metabolism through still unknown mechanisms.”
Genetically, our metabolism is programmed for scarcity and having to work hard to find our food. The simple process of finding and preparing food prevented us from getting fat, so evolution stepped in and assisted women. This can be seen as girls move into puberty and develop breasts and wider hips.
In the olden days, men were more attracted to curvy women and also considered those with ‘childbearing’ hips as attractive partners. Fast forward to the modern era when women no longer need to work so hard for food – progress has truly altered our diets from what nature intended. As a result, both weight gain and weight management have become a constant battle for the modern woman.
Common hormonal triggers that lead to weight gain
- Environmental hormone mimics
- Reduced capacity to metabolise and excrete hormones
- The interaction between stress and thyroid function
- Hormones and gallbladder function
- Prescribed synthetic hormones such as contraceptives and HRT
- Blood sugar levels and insulin resistance
- Sleep and hormonal balance
- Medical interventions such as hysterectomy and tubal ligation
- Antibiotics and GM foods
- Sedentary lifestyle
Stress, adrenal & thyroid function
Stress is a common malady for modern-day women who need to work full time, run a household, manage children and everything else that comes with our fast-paced society. Stress is a natural mechanism designed for short periods; however, long-term stress leads to adrenal exhaustion. When the adrenals are trying to cope with stress, thyroid function is automatically reduced to balance out the effects of adrenaline and cortisol. Prolonged exposure to stress compromises thyroid function which in turn leads to a sluggish metabolism and weight gain.
Gall bladder issues
Women have double the incidence of gall bladder issues than men. It is not well understood why but is proposed that the mechanism is linked with oestrogen tightening the sphincter of Oddi in the gall bladder. When this occurs bile does not flow correctly, creating stones and gall bladder malfunction.
The gall bladder's primary function is to metabolise dietary fats. When fats are poorly metabolised they can lead to weight gain.
Interestingly there are many studies linking the contraceptive pill to an increased risk of gall bladder disease. Oestrogen changes the composition of bile and increases the amount of cholesterol in bile. High levels of cholesterol in the bile are prone to precipitate out and form gallstones.
The use of synthetic hormones is prevalent in increasing growth rates and fattening livestock for human consumption. It is also well known that synthetic hormones contribute to weight gain. However, it's not simply a hormonal action – there is also the action upon fat metabolism via the gall bladder and the disruption of the entire endocrine function.
Synthetic hormones signal the body to reduce its own supply of natural healthy hormones. This false signalling at the wrong times of the month further disrupts endocrine system balance resulting in a sluggish metabolism and hard-to-move fat stores.
The biggest factor in weight gain comes from two sources. First, it’s how well you metabolise the hormones. Second, it’s the amount of fluid retained. Synthetic hormones are known to cause fluid retention, which is temporary and resolves itself once going off the hormones. However, the larger endocrine imbalance remains long after and requires intervention with natural medicines to correct the issue.
One controversial topic is the effect of synthetic hormones on the waterways. There are an estimated 50 million women worldwide taking hormonal contraceptives (one of the major causes of the hormonal epidemic) and because hormones are difficult to breakdown, much of this can find its way into the waterways. Eventually, these hormones find their way back into drinking water and can influence not only women but men and children as well.
Blood sugar & insulin resistance
Excessive consumption of refined sugars leads to imbalances in blood sugar levels and insulin resistance (difficulty in metabolising sugars). The sugar and carbohydrates are then stored as fat rather than being used for energy consumption. This is a very common phenomenon among women who suffer from Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) – they find it extremely hard to lose weight despite dieting and exercise. The insulin resistance needs to be corrected first before weight can shift. For women without PCOS, insulin resistance arising from excessive refined sugar consumption will have the same impact on weight loss.
The circadian rhythm which controls the sleep cycle is closely connected with the endocrine system. In fact, the hypothalamus itself controls the circadian rhythm. The same endocrine gland in the brain that is involved with hormone control also regulates appetite, among other things.
Studies have shown that people who get less than seven hours of sleep at night are more likely to be obese or overweight. Furthermore, they have imbalanced blood sugar levels and are more prone to insulin resistance and thyroid issues. From clinical observations, shift workers and women who do not sleep well almost always have a hormonal imbalance.
Surgeries are sometimes necessary; however, this does not change the fact that weight gain is often an unexpected side effect not explained before the procedure. A study published in the Journal of Women's Health in 2009 found that 36% of women gain 2.5 kilograms while 23% gained 5 kilograms the year after an operation. The same phenomenon is also reported by vets following sterilisation of animals.
The seemingly innocuous tubal ligation has also been linked to weight gain. This is often referred to as post tubal ligation syndrome. The disruption in the endocrine system as a result of the chemical mediators produced in the fallopian tubes leads to a wide range of conditions, one of which can be weight gain. While this may not happen to all women, it is something interesting to note.
Antibiotics & GM foods
An increasingly interesting area of research is the human microbiome. In simple terms, this involves the symbiotic relationship of our body to bacteria and foreign organisms. The microbiota in the gut has a large role to play in appetite, metabolism and digestion of certain foods. One study showed that when mice were inoculated with bacteria from obese mice, they developed obesity. In the same way, when obese mice were inoculated with bacteria from thin mice, they began to lose weight regardless of the diets they received.
Genetically modified foods have the same antibacterial influence on our gut ecology as antibiotics. Animals fed exclusively with GM foods demonstrated weight gain, developed allergies and systemic inflammation, and eventually died prematurely.
Still wondering why keeping your weight down becomes more difficult as you age? Hormonal imbalance may be the reason so it's time to check those hormones to get to the bottom of things!