Article: Are Your Hormones Making You Fat?

Are your hormones making you fat? 

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

Naturopathic Doctor and Medical scientist Ann Vlass explains how the old-fashioned approach to weight loss (consumption in vs. excretion out) does not work for ‘every-body’.

Australian obesity rates have reached alarming proportions - we are a staggering 60% overweight and obese, making us the fattest nation on earth. And, yet we are inundated with more diets and information about health and weight loss than ever before! So why are we not dropping off the pounds? Well one part of this puzzle may be found by taking a closer look at our hormones!

Our hormones are chemical messengers that communicate to cells in our body. They can affect all aspects of our health including moods, sexuality, health, and even our body weight and distribution. They are active in very small amounts (parts per billion), so the slightest imbalance, triggered by factors such as chronic stress, environmental pollutants, poor sleep, or poor eating habits, can create a complex biochemical hormonal shift - making it almost impossible to lose weight!  

Here are a few hormones responsible for weight gain.

As sex hormones (such as DHEA) decline with age, many of us know very well, a stubborn type of fat tends to creep up for the first time and distributes in places we never thought possible- mainly the tummy! This visceral (stomach) fat contains lots of steroid hormone receptors so declining sex hormone levels often manifest as an expanding ‘waistline. This decline seesaws with a rise in cortisol (our stress hormone) especially if stress and inflammation are mixed into the problem. If you store fat around your mid-section (also termed ‘muffin top’), have swollen shoulders, a swollen face and thick neck and ‘hump’, then this can signal a cortisol disturbance. I usually prescribe appropriate nutritional and herbal support to optimise reproductive hormonal levels, boost a flagging metabolism, reduce inflammation, and promote muscle mass. 

Are your legs and ankles swollen? Are your calves disproportionately heavy? Do you suffer from fatigue, puffiness, and bloating, low moods? You may have an underactive thyroid gland function. Unfortunately, many patients, through limited medical testing, are told they have ‘normal’ thyroid function, when in fact; they may have a significantly under functioning thyroid Potential causative factors are chronic stress, iodine, selenium and zinc deficiency, chronic inflammation, oxidative stress, and environmental toxicity. 

So, if you are thinking that you are too young to worry about this “old person’s problem”, then you may be in for a surprise! Lack of sleep may be making you fat! And how many young adults stay out all night? Losing deep REM sleep decreases human growth hormone levels and thus reduces your ability to lose fat and maintain healthy muscle mass, which slows down your metabolism and further spirals the weight loss dream into the abyss.

Studies have also shown that sleep deprivation (less than 6.5 hours each night for eight consecutive nights) causes less insulin sensitivity. If you store fat around the hips, thighs and face, and have lots of cellulite, and crave lots of sweets, this suggests the hormone insulin is struggling. Insulin is pro inflammatory, and triggers fat storage in your fat cells, and when it hangs around in the bloodstream, it becomes impossible to burn fat as fuel.  

High testosterone (and high insulin) can be responsible for the ‘apple shape’ that many women have. This may be associated with the hormone imbalance known as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) which is characterised also by irregular menstrual cycles, excess body hair, skin tags, and oily /acne skin. Apart from obesity, PCOS is a risk factor for other major diseases such as insulin resistance and diabetes. Studies have shown that women with PCOS are better at storing fat and burn calories slowly. My treatment often involves combined dietary, herbal and nutritional therapies to lower blood sugar levels and treat insulin resistance.

Another important hormone relationship is oestrogen to progesterone. Oestrogen when high or progesterone when low can cause ‘oestrogen dominance’. 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 in Endometriosis, Fibroids, PCOS and Cysts all of which can instigate complex biochemical and hormonal disturbances. Unfortunately it's not hard to become overloaded with oestrogens as our environment & food supply contain many mimickers (mainly from pesticides and plastic). 

... So this is why ‘quick fix’ approaches to weigh loss do not work, and why diet and exercise alone are not enough! I believe the only way to solve hormonal weight gain is through hormonal investigation with a holistic naturopathic and patient-centred approach.


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