I found hormones fascinating when I studied them as a part of my biology degree. They were one of my favourite modules, even though I didn’t realise then what an impact they have on impact on our lives. Something that I have a heightened awareness for now that I’ve been married to a type 1 diabetic for more than 20 years.
Put simply, hormones are the body’s little messengers, which get produced in one part of the body, such as the thyroid, adrenal or pituitary gland, pass into the bloodstream or other body fluid and go to distant organs and tissues where they act to modify structures and functions. For example:
- Oestrogen: A female sex hormone produced by the ovaries, the adrenal gland, and (in small quantities) by body fat. Oestrogen helps to retain calcium in bones, regulates the balance of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the bloodstream, and aids the maintenance of blood-sugar levels, memory functions, and emotional balance, just to mention a few.
- Cortisol: produced by the adrenal gland can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help reduce inflammation, and assist with memory formulation. It also has a controlling effect on salt and water balance and helps control blood pressure.
It is really empowering to understand your hormones. I’m not going to go into depth here. I just want to highlight a few key hormones involved in weight gain and loss. These are:
Insulin is made in pancreas. Its job is to deliver glucose from your blood into your muscles, so it can be used as energy. Any excess glucose goes into your fat to be stored for later. This is a very normal process.
When we are nourishing our bodies optimally insulin will convert excess glucose, convert it into storage in fat, and then a couple hours later take it back out and use it again. So, to recap, insulin’s job is to clear the glucose from your blood and give it to your muscles and then to your fat. For naturally thin people, this happens regularly. Whatever you eat gets stored, and then a bit later it gets pulled out and gets used up, so there’s no additional fat being added for the medium or long term.
The problem with insulin, and the reason why we need to know a lot about it, is that when there is insulin in our blood, we cannot burn fat. When we remember that Insulin’s job is to clear the blood of glucose and move it to our muscles and fat, it makes sense that our body can’t simultaneously be doing the reverse and breaking down the fat, because it doesn’t need to – because if we have insulin in our blood then we must have insulin available for energy already. Why would our body go to the freezer to get energy reserves when there is some in the fridge?
Weight gain occurs when our bodies don’t go back and use up the fat in between meals. This happens when our body is releasing a lot of insulin. If we are overweight, then the chances are that we are eating in such a way that we cause our body to be releasing too much insulin too often. We have too much insulin in our blood when:
- We eat too frequently – when we are snacking, nibbling and eating between meals we always have insulin in our blood. We don’t give our bodies the opportunity to use our fat reserves
- We have very high concentrations of glucose in our blood and need to release a tonne of insulin to clear it out. This happens when we eat sugar and refined carbohydrates which are concentrated forms of glucose that our body has not yet evolved to deal with effectively.
There are three ways to reduce the amount and frequency of insulin in your blood. The first is to eat less. It takes less time to digest a small meal than it does a large one. By eating small meals, you give yourself some time in between the meals to get hungry and allow all the glucose in your blood to be used up, so that your body starts to access your fat reserves for energy.
The second is to eat less frequently. By increasing the duration of time between meals we do the same thing, we allow ourselves to get hungry because all the glucose in our blood has been used up and your body can start to access your fat reserves for energy – if – we don’t respond to that hunger for eating. I want you to notice when you feel hungry – and consider whether you want to respond to that hunger for eating or allow your body time to access your own fat reserves. By the way, the more you give your body a chance to access your own fat reserves by not responding to hunger, the better it gets at doing it. Once it has been doing it for a while it starts to do it even before it sends out the hunger signals, suddenly you will notice you stop feeling hungry.
So then, the third way is to stop eating sugar and refined carbohydrates and to not eat an excessive amount of protein. Sugar and refined carbohydrates create a massive glucose spike which triggers a massive insulin spike. With a flood of insulin in your blood you are not going to be able to access your fat reserves for energy. Note that there are plenty of carbohydrates that don’t produce the same insulin spike, such as whole grains and vegetables for example.
The other two hormones that I want to talk about briefly are leptin and ghrelin. Leptin and ghrelin are the key hormones in regulating appetite. When we get hungrier, we tend to eat more. When we eat more, obviously, we maintain or increase our body weight.
Leptin is secreted primarily in fat cells, as well as the stomach, heart, placenta, and skeletal muscle. Leptin decreases hunger.
Ghrelin is secreted primarily in the lining of the stomach. Ghrelin increases hunger. Both hormones respond to how well-fed you are; leptin usually also correlates to fat mass — the more fat you have, the more leptin you produce.
Unfortunately, both hormones and their signals get messed up with obesity. The more over weight you are, the more likely you are to be leptin resistant. So, you have plenty of fat and are making plenty of leptin, but the brain doesn’t listen to it. It no longer reduces your appetite or increases your metabolism. In fact, when your brain doesn’t recognize the leptin it makes you hungrier, thereby creating a viscous cycle.
I encourage you to learn more about hormone health as you progress on your journey off stopping overeating.
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If you would like to learn more about how you can help your hormones regulate your weight, book a free consultation with me on my calendar.