Maintaining a healthy weight can be one of the most challenging aspects of wellness.
There’s no shortage of theories and weight loss gimmicks out there. However, one thing is clear — if your hormones are out of whack weight loss will be a struggle.
But there are a lot of hormones running around in your body — which ones make a difference when it comes to weight?
What Do Hormones Have To Do With Weight Loss?
When most people think about weight loss, their first instinct is to go to the old “calories in-calories out” theory.
While the amount of food you eat will certainly play a role in your weight loss journey — it isn’t nearly the most important aspect to keep in mind. In fact, putting calories first is a sure-fire way to sabotage your weight loss goals.
The reason for this is simple — if your hormones aren’t on board first you can try and try, but the weight isn’t going to come off.
Your hormonal system plays a crucial role in the maintenance of your weight. From inducing cravings to holding on to fat stores — at the end of the day your hormones call the shots.
So what hormones do you need to be aware of, and how do you manage them?
Let’s dig into the keto hormones to know for weight loss.
6 Key Weight Loss Hormones And How To Balance Them
When it comes to weight loss, blood sugar regulation is key. And when it comes to blood sugar regulation, the hormone insulin is vital.
The amount of sugar (or glucose) in your blood is tightly regulated by your body due to the potentially harmful activity of excess sugar molecules. And the most efficient way to clear your blood of glucose is to shuttle it into your cells for use as energy or to be stored as fat.
Insulin is the hormone responsible for regulating the amount of glucose in your blood at any given time.
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Although it plays an integral role in getting energy into your cells to be burned for fuel, it’s also known as the “fat storage hormone” due to its role in assisting blood glucose to be stored as fat.
In addition, insulin has what is known as an “antilipolytic” effect — meaning that it inhibits your body from using fat for fuel[*].
Although your body is continually pulling fuel for a variety of sources it primarily takes two modes — burning fuel in the blood or burning fuel from fat storage. Since insulin’s primary job is to keep the fuel in your blood stable, it would make sense that its presence would block your bodies ability to switch to fat-burning mode.
While it may sound like insulin is out to get you when it comes to fat loss — that’s not quite a fair assessment.
When an appropriate amount of glucose is consumed (in the form of carbohydrate), insulin does a beautiful job creating energy from it. The issue of fat-storage only arises when there is too much glucose in the blood — due to high levels of carbohydrate consumption[*][*].
With this in mind, there are a few ways to control insulin:
Cut back on carbs The most obvious way to keep insulin low is to keep your carbohydrate intake low. Since the primary trigger for insulin release is glucose in the blood, the lower your blood glucose the, lower your insulin response[*].
Exercise When you workout something magical happens. As your body gets the message that you’re burning up fuel, it creates more “doors” on your cell membranes that allow for more glucose into your cells. The more doors you have, the more efficiently glucose can be transported in, and the less insulin you need to facilitate the process[*].
Consume healthy fats When you consume fat, it has little to no effect on your insulin levels. Research even shows that omega-3 fatty acids may increase your sensitivity to insulin, allowing your blood glucose to clear more efficiently[*].
Now that you’re familiar with insulin, it’s time to meet its counterpart — glucagon. Insulin and glucagon play opposite sides of the same coin. While insulin is released in the presence of blood glucose, glucagon is released when blood glucose gets too low.
Its primary action ( similar to insulin) is to keep blood sugar steady. However, where insulin brings high blood sugar down –glucagon brings low blood sugar up[*].
It does this in two ways[*]:
- By triggering your liver to release stored glucose.
- By triggering your fat cells to release stored fat.
Yes, glucagon is a friend of fat-loss.
While keeping your carbs low (and therefore your insulin low) will help with glucagon levels, there are a few other ways to help boost this hormone.
Eat protein Both whey protein and yogurt products have been found to increase the amount of glucagon circulating in your blood. It’s believed that the proteins in these foods help to stimulate the release of glucagon, having the added effect of satiety.
Fight inflammation It should come as no surprise that obesity is often associated with reduced levels of glucagon. However, it’s not the excess fat cells themselves that are responsible for this association — but the inflammation that often comes along with obesity.
One study even found that treatment to reduce inflammation has a significant effect on your cells ability to produce glucagon, while inflammation itself inhibits its release[*].
While insulin and glucagon play an integral role in the release and storage of fat, leptin comes in from a different angle. Primarily, leptin is concerned with the overall amount of energy (as stored fuel) in your body.
When you’re eating a meal and your fat cells sense that you’ve consumed enough fuel they’ll release leptin as a signal to your brain that you should stop eating. For this reason, leptin is often referred to as the “satiety hormone.”
Your brain also gets the message when you have low leptin — which results in cravings for food due to low-fat stores[*].
There’s a metabolic disorder called “leptin resistance,” which can happen when someone has enough fat stores, but their fat cells aren’t able to communicate properly with their brain.
Their cells are producing enough leptin to message their brain — but their brains can’t see the messages. This leads their brain to continue sending hunger signals, which often leads to overeating and eventually, obesity[*].
As you can see, keeping leptin in check is crucial for weight loss. Although they haven’t nailed down the exact cause of leptin resistance, there are a couple of things you can do to help promote healthy leptin levels.
Exercise Working out is an essential component of any weight loss regimen, but not just for the calorie burn alone. Moderate exercise has been shown to improve leptin levels and sensitivity[*][*].
Sleep You may have heard that sleep is an important component of weight loss. Among many other rejuvenating qualities of sleep — it also helps your body use leptin properly.
Research shows that the duration of your sleep has a significant impact on your appetite, and the regulation of hormones. Leptin, in particular, is dependent on sufficient sleep cycles[*].
With leptin being your “satiety hormone,” you may be wondering who your “hunger hormone” is?
That would be ghrelin.
Ghrelin is released in response to an empty stomach to let your body know that it’s time to eat again. It initiates the signals that get you out of your seat and into the kitchen for some food[*].
As you can imagine, the proper functioning of this hormone is crucial in weight loss. If your body makes too much ghrelin at the wrong time, it will likely lead to weight gain.
After a meal, your ghrelin should be considerably low. Your stomach is full, and therefore there’s no need to eat more food.
However, studies show that in overweight people ghrelin levels after a meal don’t diminish as they should. This keeps the hunger signaling going — often leading to overconsumption[*].
Researchers still need to investigate further whether the ghrelin and obesity connection is due to a dysfunction in the hormone, or if obesity itself leads to ghrelin dysfunction. Regardless, there are certain foods that seem to affect ghrelin activity.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) Consumption of HFCS increases circulating ghrelin concentration. While any fuel source (HFCS included) should decrease ghrelin signaling, HFCS seems to have a stimulating effect on this hormone. That means instead of signaling your body to stop eating, consuming HFCS will make you want to eat even more[*].
Protein Consuming protein may have a ghrelin-lowering effect. One study found that after a high protein breakfast, as compared to a high carbohydrate breakfast, circulating levels of ghrelin were significantly reduced[*].
While most people consider cortisol a “stress hormone,” it actually has a lot to do with energy balance and body composition.
When you’re under stress, your body releases cortisol from your adrenal glands to assist you in whatever stressful event you’ve found yourself in. In a “fight or flight” scenario cortisol is your best friend. It helps you make use of your energy stores, gets your heart pumping, and gives you a quick energy boost[*]
However, under chronic stress, cortisol can start to have harmful effects on your system.
One of the common side effects of chronically high cortisol is weight gain around the middle. Although researchers don’t know the exact mechanism by which cortisol crates fat accumulation, it may in part be due to its appetite-stimulating effect[*][*].
To balance your cortisol, you must balance your stress response. This doesn’t just mean avoiding stressful situations (which is hardly possible for most people) but also taking care to manage the inevitable stressors that show up. Here are some ways to build up your stress tolerance.
Meditate Perhaps one of the most well-researched ways to manage stress is through meditation. While there are many types of meditation, mindfulness meditation has taken the lead when it comes to managing stress. One study showed that after 30 volunteer subjects took a mindfulness meditation program, their cortisol levels dropped significantly[*].
There’s also research to support mindfulness meditation in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder, which is associated with high levels of cortisol[*][*].
Get proper sleep Getting a good night’s rest can make a huge difference in the way you deal with stress. It not only gives you more energy to deal with what may come your way, but it’s also been shown to help regulate your stress hormone levels[*].
Estrogen is a crucial sex hormone, especially for women.
While its primary function is to regulate reproductive functions in the female body, it also plays a role in fat distribution.
Body fat, reproduction, and women’s health are all intimately related. In fact, when women lose too much weight, they may experience a drop in estrogen and a subsequent pause in their menstrual cycle[*].
However, it should be noted that reducing estrogen is not the key to weight loss. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Many women going through menopause (marked by reduced levels of estrogen) experience an increase in weight gain –especially around the middle[*].
The key to weight loss when it comes to estrogen is kind of like the Goldilocks principle — not too much, not too little, but just enough.
While there are times in the life cycle that estrogen will naturally rise and fall, for an overall healthy balance, there are a few lifestyle factors to consider.
Exercise Too much exercise can cause dips in estrogen that lead to amenorrhea (absence of menstrual cycle). However, moderate exercise has been shown to lower elevated estrogen levels which may have a positive impact on women at risk for breast cancer[*].
Avoid plastic Plastic containers are often made with chemicals that have estrogen-like activity in your body. The awareness around this issue is rising, but many products still contain these chemicals despite manufacturers best efforts. If possible, it’s always best to avoid plastic if you want to keep your estrogen in check[*].
Consume cruciferous vegetables Cruciferous vegetables offer a couple of benefits to estrogen balance:
- They tend to be high in fiber, which can help to reduce levels of estrogen in your blood[*].
- They contain a detoxification compound (indole-3-carbinol), which has been shown to help metabolize estrogen[*].
The Ketogenic Diet and Weight Loss Hormones
Weight loss and hormones is clearly a complicated and tricky subject. Luckily, there are several lifestyle factors that you can take into consideration to help keep your hormones balanced and optimized for fat burning.
But where does the keto diet fit in?
Since a keto diet is naturally low-carb, it takes some of the pressure off your glucose monitoring hormones. For instance, insulin is going to have a tough time finding fuel to store away in your fat cells when you’re not consuming carbs.
On the other hand, the absence of insulin and glucose gives glucagon a chance to release fat from your fat cells — aiding in fat burning[*].
Keeping your diet clean and void of foods like high fructose corn syrup is one of the key ways to manage the hunger hormone ghrelin.
Following a ketogenic diet, you don’t have to worry about hunger-stimulating foods like candy bars, soda, and other highly processed packaged goods.
You will, however, get a good amount of protein in — which is shown to balance out ghrelin and keep you feeling satisfied longer[*].
And a well-balanced keto diet will be full of fiber-rich cruciferous veggies. These do wonders for your estrogen levels (ladies), and are among some of the lowest-carb vegetables out there[*].
Not getting enough sleep, having too little or too much estrogen, and unstable blood sugar levels are all factors that can make you store fat.
And what do these all have in common? Hormones.
At the end of the day, hormone balance calls the shots when it comes to weight loss.
While keeping an eye on food and calories is crucial, your hormone system responds to much more than food. You need to balance your lifestyle for proper sleep, movement, and stress management if you want to see real results.