Hormones are very important for our health, and I don’t think many people know enough about their effects on the body and what we can do to control them. There are SO many hormones, but I am only going to talk about three that I believe have the biggest impact on body composition; insulin, cortisol and leptin.
Although you cannot outsmart science and must be in a calorie deficit to lose weight, learning how to control your hormones can make the process more enjoyable and successful. Furthermore, better knowledge and control of your hormones can help you manage cravings, keep your metabolism from slowing down (which leads to stalled weight loss), and help energy levels from dropping.
The reason I chose to talk about these three hormones is because they are the hormones that you have the most control over, and that if you actually learn to listen to your body you can use these signs to take action and influence the levels of these hormones.
In laymen’s terms insulin has to do with carbs and how our body handles them, cortisol is influenced by stress, and leptin is involved with hunger and storing fat.
But here is a little more information on each, and how to control them….
Insulin is a storage hormone – it stores sugar (carbs), vitamins, and fats for later use. Anytime there is a rise in blood sugar due to either eating or stress you release insulin and your blood caries glucose and insulin to every cell in the body and your cells absorb the glucose – into either muscle or fat tissue, depending on your needs. For instance, if you do a heavy strength workout and deplete the glycogen stores in your muscles the carbs you eat after (to a certain degree) will go into your muscle tissue to replace those carbs and repair the muscle tissue (along with the help of protein). However, if you have not really worked your body/ burned many calories and you consume more than your body needs then the food you eat, not just carbs, will be stored in fat as energy for later. This is why I am an advocate for strength training to aid in fat loss, because the more muscle you have the more calories they consume per hour. Furthermore, the more calories you can eat while still losing weight.
However – this does not mean you can eat whatever you want just because you lift weights, because there will eventually come a point when your muscles are full – and those excess calories will not be able to be stored in them and will therefore be stored for later.
Insulin also has to do with appetite – more specifically, hunger cues. Since your body releases insulin after you eat and when there is plenty of fuel in your bloodstream you should feel full. But, because of the lifestyle trend of the overconsumption of food and booze paired with increasing stress levels most people no longer are aware of when they are actually hungry and have no idea what is happening in their body.
This leads us to insulin resistance which is when your cells no longer respond properly to insulin and becomes less efficient at absorbing the food you eat into the cells for use… Which means that when you eat you experience an exaggerated response to any rise in blood sugar, therefore you still feel hungry after eating and usually eat more because you think your body needs nutrients, when in reality your hormones are out of sorts.
It is important to note that insulin resistance is a result of chronically eating an excess of food/ carbs, or chronically over stressing… I am not giving you another “excuse” as to why you aren’t losing weight – I am trying to educate you as to how to use your hormones to help the process.
Did you know that one way to manage your insulin levels, even in diabetics, is to exercise? Whether your insulin resistance is due to over eating or over stressing exercise will benefit you. This is because if it is due to food, exercise helps your body learn to better utilize those carbs, and if it is due to stress, exercise is a great stress reliever!
Now you know! And now you have another reason to get moving!
Another way to keep insulin levels under control is to eat more fruit, veggies and protein – these foods have less of an insulin response and also help to keep insulin levels from spiking too high when you do indulge in foods with higher amounts of sugars.
So, overall – eat healthy and exercise and your body will be able to communicate better with you and let you know when you are actually hungry.
Cortisol is our “stress hormone.” Cortisol is secreted in the body whenever you experience any sort of stress, and activates your fight or flight mechanism. It elevates your heart rate and breathing rate and gets you ready for action. The stress response in your body can be affected by real life stressful situations, like if you are in danger, or a big deadline, but overexercising while under nourishing can also cause stress on your body. This is why it is so important to learn how to manage your stress and also how to let your body recover properly.
In small doses, cortisol can be very helpful for you body, and it is actually necessary for life and fat burning. However, when you are are experiencing a mass amount of stress over a prolonged period of time, the body releases more and more cortisol, and these extremely high doses of cortisol actually have adverse affects. Too much cortisol in your body is taxing and can lead to your metabolism slowing down, fat gain, increased cravings and hunger and worsening insulin resistance.
Furthermore, by eating healthy and exercising (as well as proper recovery) you can help to control your stress response and therefore keep your body from overworking itself.
However, if you have a hard time with stress relief here are a few tips:
- Leave work at work
- Take up a hobby
- Find an outlet
- Yell into your pillow for 10 minutes once a week
- Take up a sport
- Start a journal
- Spend more time with loved ones; cuddling has been proven to decrease stress, and this was with either a human or a pet, so get cuddling!
In the end, whatever helps you to decrease your stress levels will help you regulate your cortisol levels and will therefore improve your health and body composition.
Leptin is known as our hunger hormone. It is produced by fat cells and is in charge of signalling the brain when you are either satiated or starving and from there it regulates how many calories your body burns. When we have enough fat stored leptin is supposed to signal our brain that we have enough so that our metabolism (the rate at which our body burns calories) can run at a normal rate and therefore you are not hungry.
Here’s a breakdown:
- You eat.
- Fat gets stored (not saying you gained fat, just the energy is stored, relax)
- Leptin levels in the blood rise and send signals to brain
- Brain says you don’t need to eat calories and can burn more calories
- You don’t eat.
- Body fat levels go down
- Leptin levels go down
- Brain says you are hungry, so it tells the body to slow the metabolism aka burn less calories – and to eat
There is also leptin resistance, which is when your brain no longer receives the signals that you are full, and is typically seen in people with a lot of body fat. This may seem confusing because you would think people with more fat would have more signals saying they are full – but because of the excess amount the signal isn’t working and therefore it thinks the body is starving which leads to the brain signalling you to eat more and reduce energy expenditure.
Fortunately, there are several ways to reverse your leptin resistance, including:
- avoiding processed foods
- eating more soluble fiber
- sleeping better
- eating more protein
Hormones aren’t just important for weight loss
Although most of this blog talks about controlling your hormones for weight loss, regulating your hormones is also important for your everyday health and happiness. The reason I talk so much about it’s part in weight loss is because, as a fitness professional, that is what I get asked about the most. However, even if you are a healthy weight, if your hormones are out of whack this can lead to multiple health problems/ diseases, stress, mood swings, decrease in quality of life and weight gain.
So please, don’t underestimate the importance of hormones.
Overall key points in controlling your hormones:
- Exercise regularly
- Eat plenty of veggies/ fiber rich foods and protein
- Learn how to best manage your stress
- Get enough sleep
- Don’t stress the little things and enjoy more!
Just remember, hormones are in your body to help you and are very important, so we need to be aware of how we make them work more efficiently to reach our goals and sustain a healthy land happy life.