Article: Are You Exercising and You Still Can't Shift the Weight? Could It Be Your Hormones?

Are you exercising and you still can’t shift the weight? Could it be your hormones?

By Ann Vlass N.D; B.Sc (Hons)

Naturopathic Doctor and Medical scientist Ann Vlass sheds light on how hormonal problems can block weight loss during exercise. 

We also know that exercise is great for our health, and great for weight loss, but why do some of us exercise and have trouble shifting weight!

The purpose of this discussion today is to point out why some people are eating well and exercising, but simply cannot shift weight. 

Imagine. You’ve been working out 30 minutes at the gym once weekly with a personal trainer, taking one aerobic classes weekly for 50 minutes, and jogging for 20 minutes twice weekly. This exercise regime has been going on for 3 months. You’ve lost no weight on the scales! How is this possible? You’re still noticing roundness to your tummy... and yet you’re exercising. Why is this happening? 

Here are some possible reasons.

Listed below is an important group of glucose regulating hormones that are needed to work in ‘unison’ – these are insulin, DHEA, thyroid hormones, cortisol oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. 


Insulin, which is released from the pancreas, plays a major role in weight gain and keeping that stubborn weight on through its regulating of glucose in the bloodstream. If insulin is not working properly we develop what is known as insulin resistance. The insulin is being produced, but the body does not recognise this. Consequently, insulin levels rise to try and compensate for the response lag, causing further stress on the pancreas, and more insulin resistance. High glycaemic carbohydrates, increased stress, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, dieting, medications such as the oral contraceptive pill, low oestrogen, reduced exercise, insomnia, hypothyroid, excessive progesterone and DHEA, and imbalanced testosterone all cause blood sugars to rise very rapidly, therefore causing the pancreas to release insulin very rapidly. The insulin will store these carbohydrates and decreases fat burning. 

Oestrogen and Progesterone:

Another important hormone relationship is oestrogen to progesterone. Oestrogen when high or progesterone when low can cause ‘oestrogen dominance’. This imbalance between these two hormones can cause blood sugar problems also affect body weight. Balanced oestradiol levels lower body fat by reducing the ‘fat blocking’ enzyme lipoprotein lipase while balanced progesterone increases the storage of body fat by increasing the activity of this enzyme. 

Oestrogen plays a major role in regulating fat deposition and energy metabolism. It causes fat to accumulate, especially around the hips, thighs and abdomen, and has a role in increasing our appetite. Excess oestrogen imbalances are seen to instigate complex biochemical and hormonal disturbances. 

Low levels of oestrogen can also cause problems. Oestrogen levels drop for a number of reasons; most commonly this is associated with women as they enter the peri-menopause years but I have seen women in their 20’s show low levels of circulating oestrogens due to stress, so it can happen anytime. Oestrogen produced by the ovaries (Oestradiol) is stored in fat, so in an effort to boost the lagging oestrogen, the body responds by holding on to fat cells, making it harder to budge that extra fat and much easier to keep the pounds on. 


As oestrogen levels drop, your level of androgens (male hormones) increases in relation to the oestrogen. The unopposed androgens produce more male characteristics -- in this case, the shift in body fat from your hips, thighs and buttocks to your midsection ("apple" shape). This may be associated with the hormone imbalance known as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). This complex metabolic syndrome, usually associated with high testosterone and DHEA is a risk factor for insulin resistance and diabetes. Studies have shown that women with PCOS are better at storing fat and burn calories slowly.

Thyroid hormones:

Your thyroid gland is the body’s metabolism regulator, and is necessary for regulating energy and heat production, vitamin utilisation, digestive function, metabolism of proteins/carbohydrates and fats, cellular energy functioning, hormone excretion to name a few which are very important for weight loss and maintenance. Although, low thyroid conditions are associated with difficulty in shifting weight, some people with hypothyroid symptoms do not have weight issues.


Cortisol competes with progesterone for common receptors in women. When this stress hormone is high, it makes your thyroid hormone become more bound and consequently less active which can increase weight. Reduced thyroid hormones lower metabolic functions and increase fatigue levels. Insulin is more sensitive, and high energy foods and drinks are often taken. The adrenal glands stay stimulated and eventually weaken leading to ‘burn out’. This produces a biochemical shift, where both cortisol and DHEA drop, and adrenal fatigue sets in. This condition (often diagnosed by naturopaths but not recognised by medical doctors) is also associated with weight gain, salt cravings, blood sugar fluctuations, chronically tired, stress, unresponsive hypothyroidism, slow recovery from illness, lack of stamina etc. Caregivers, people who have experienced a death, divorce or other severe stress full events are at risk of adrenal fatigue. Over exercise can also be a risk factor. 

Women with low oestradiol, which is a stress on the body and instigator of weight gain, can produce an increase in cortisol because oestradiol decreases the communication between cells by specific neurotransmitters. Some of these neurotransmitters are involved in the stress response cascade. Cortisol also stimulates enzymes in fat cells which increases abdominal fat storage.  


DHEA is made primarily by the adrenal glands. Its production declines with age, and as one of its roles is in promoting weight loss, the drop in DHEA over the years can be very noticeable to many people. Stress, menopause and smoking can also deplete its levels. It also has a role in improving insulin sensitivity, helping the body deal with stress, and reducing formation of fatty deposits and cholesterol.


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