When it comes to losing weight or pushing past a plateau, the main rule is still the same: Working at a calorie deficit is the most robust and proven strategy. But for many who are staying on track and still not seeing the results they want, hormones could be a factor.
“The bottom line is that calories in have to be less than calories out,” says Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Tennessee. “But how your hormones are operating can make a drastic difference in terms of how many calories you’re absorbing and how effectively you’re burning them.”
Whether you’re young, old, in middle age, male or female, there are four main hormones that most directly affect your weight: insulin, ghrelin, leptin and cortisol.
Ghrelin, known as the “hunger hormone,” is like your own personal Cookie Monster, says Dr. Gillespie, while leptin is the flipside; it controls when you feel full.
Cortisol, the “stress hormone,” fluctuates throughout the day to control perceived threats and works in tandem with insulin, the hormone most responsible for how your body stores fat.
When these four aren’t working in harmony, it can sabotage your weight-loss efforts, says Dr. Gillespie.
“Many people, struggling with weight, think their thyroid must be off,” she notes. “While that can be a possibility, it’s far more likely that hormones are the real reason.” With that in mind, here are four ways to optimize how your hormones are working:
Getting quality, restorative sleep for 7–9 hours per night is key for a constellation of reasons, including hormone health.
“Lack of sleep throws your leptin and ghrelin out of whack,” says Dr. Gillespie. “You eat more, usually of foods that are not the best choices, and it takes you longer to feel full.”
A Harvard study on the effect of blue light and sleep showed even short-term sleep deprivation can increase blood sugar levels enough to put participants in a prediabetic state. Researchers also notice that with less sleep, levels of leptin go down.
Sugar not only has major effects on your mood and energy, but it can also disrupt insulin, according to Dr. Gillespie.
Processed, refined sugars — found in numerous foods, not just the “sugary ones” — raise your blood sugar quickly, causing an insulin response that tends to lead to fat storage.
Complex carbohydrates, fiber, protein and healthy fats increase blood sugar as well but do so at a more gradual rate, so your pancreas is able to release insulin more effectively. There’s also a difference between added sugars and natural sugars.
Exercise can positively influence insulin balance and cortisol regulation and also has a significant effect on other important hormones like dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and estrogen, according to Hahns Petty, an exercise physiologist at Piedmont Healthcare in Georgia.
As these become better regulated, they can impact mood, social behavior and appetite, which all have an effect on eating and calorie intake.
Petty recommends a combination of cardio and strength training, with some intensity thrown in at least a few times per week, since that tends to release those key hormones most effectively.
Although research into this technique is still fairly new, recent studies have been compelling, says Dr. Gillespie. Working with the circadian rhythms of your body and using restricted eating timeframes is showing promise as a technique anyone can use to optimize hormone regulation.
“When you eat, in addition to what you eat, tends to affect how your metabolism operates and the way in which these important hormones are released,” she says. Best of all, there’s no “one way” to use intermittent fasting.
Most people find it easiest to eat within an 8–10 hour time block during the day, and then “fast” for the rest of the 14–16 hours, including when they’re asleep, says nutritionist and personal trainer Jamie Logie, author of “Taking Back Your Health.”
“People are seeing improved hormone levels with this strategy, and other benefits as well, such as better glucose tolerance, decreased body fat, increased muscle mass and more energy,” says Logie.
Of course, all of these tactics — sleep more, stay active, reduce sugar and tweak eating timeframes — have benefits beyond better hormone regulation and weight loss. They can optimize every system in your body, says Dr. Gillespie.
These are the core strategies for lowering inflammation, improving brain health and preventing chronic diseases. The fact that they could aid with weight loss is just one more plus.
“Once you get habits like these in place, you’ll see a ripple effect in terms of your health,” Dr. Gillespie notes. “Everyone wants to feel better and live healthier. And these are the habits that will help you get there.”