Are Your Hormones Making You Gain Weight? This Is How to Find Out
Are you gaining weight but you don't know why? If you haven't started midnight snacking or gone from being in the gym daily to forgoing it for Love Island, then your unexpected (and quite frankly, unfair) weight gain could be hormonal.
Hormonal weight gain is completely and utterly frustrating, and often your GP won’t have an answer (it’s difficult to get hormone testing on the NHS unless you have serious symptoms). So we called on two hormone experts: Dr. Sohère Roked and Dr. Fareeha Amber Sadiq, Clinical Director at The Marion Gluck Clinic, to explain how hormones can cause weight gain, what signs to look out for and how you can prevent them from breaking up you and your favourite pair of jeans. Keep scrolling for everything you needed to know about hormonal weight gain.
Which hormones cause weight gain?
Our hormone profiles (or levels) change throughout our lifetime, and these changes can cause symptoms in some people. "At the time of the peri-menopause and/or menopause, women find that they are more likely to put on weight or experience bloating," explains Dr. Sadiq.
It's not just these broader changes, hormones fluctuate throughout the month, and if you're unlucky, they can affect your weight. "In the second half of the cycle, you can get big drops in the hormone progesterone, which can cause fluid retention and therefore weight fluctuations," says Dr. Roked.
The following hormones were highlighted by both doctors as having a bearing on our weight. Dr. Sadiq takes us through them:
- Oestrogen: Dominance [of this hormone] can lead to women putting on more weight around their midriff and hip region.
- Cortisol: This hormone is associated with increased appetite, cravings for sugar, and weight gain around the abdominal region. Interestingly, how people cope with stress and how they perceive stressful situations may also impact the reactivity of the adrenal-cortical system to stress and resulting fat distribution.
- Insulin: As we know, this controls our blood sugar. If we eat too much sugar, this can quickly convert into body fat. Excessive sugar intake through processed and unhealthy foods, alcohol and even eating too much fruit can lead to problems with insulin. We call this insulin resistance, where insulin is unable to work effectively to regulate glucose levels in the blood; this leads to sugar spikes and weight gain.
- Leptin: A clever hormone, leptin tells us that we should stop eating and that we are full. It also helps to regulate energy balance. Produced by the body’s fat cells, it targets the hypothalamus gland in the brain. But if there is excessive consumption of unhealthy foods that contain sugar (yes, that culprit again!), this can lead to the brain becoming less sensitive to Leptin, which in turn means that the feeling of satiety is not experienced, leading to potential weight gain.
What are the telltale signs of hormonal weight gain?
Luckily there are telltale signs that your weight gain could be hormonal but you need to be honest with yourself.
There are a two important questions for women to ask themselves, says Dr. Sadiq.
Has your lifestyle and/or diet changed?
Are on any medication which may lead to weight changes?
"It is important for women to have their thyroid checked, as having an underactive thyroid can lead to increases in weight," adds Dr. Sadiq.
If alongside your weight gain you've noticed:
- low mood,
- increased hair growth,
- low energy
- irregular periods
Then Dr. Roked says this may warrant investigation.
It's also worth noting that where you gain the weight could be a telltale sign that it's hormone-related. "Central abdominal fat around the middle and the back can quite often be due to hormones," says Dr. Roked.
How can you be sure your weight gain is hormonal?
"It can be hard to get your GP to do a blood hormone test without strong symptoms," Dr. Roked tells us. "In my clinic, I can test for raised cortisol by doing a 24-hour saliva test where you spit in a tube four times.
"I measure insulin on a blood test. Measuring changes between a fasting level and four hours after eating.
"I do a detailed thyroid analysis of TSH (the signal from the brain), the two hormones T4 and T3, and thyroid autoantibodies to check for autoimmune disease and reverse T3.
"Female hormones can be checked on saliva over a monthly cycle or a blood test on day 21. Testosterone levels are also important to check, as optimum levels can help fat burning."
Are there any lifestyle tweaks that can help?
In a word: yes! If you can't afford to visit a hormone specialist or want to try to improve any potential hormone-induced symptoms, then there are a few things both doctors recommend you try.
"Lifestyle, genetics, stress and age can all trigger hormonal issues," says Dr. Sadiq. "It is helpful for women to understand their family histories and look at their lives, to identify what factors they can modify to help keep themselves in balance.
"We are living busier lives and, with this in mind, there are some really useful steps that women can take to help themselves."
Dr. Sadiq recommends you focus on the basic foundations for healthy living and establish healthy habits. These include sleep, rest, exercise, nutrition, mindful eating and reducing stressors and caffeine intake.
"By focusing on these important aspects of health, women can take active and practical steps and be empowered to reduce the impact of hormonal imbalances. Relaxation strategies such as mindfulness can be helpful in reducing stress levels. I recommend the app Headspace to my patients to help them improve their sleep and stress levels, as it's effective and really easy to use.
"There is research that sleep restriction results in metabolic and endocrine alterations. This includes decreased glucose tolerance, decreased insulin sensitivity, decreased levels of leptin and increased levels of cortisol. This can lead to increased appetite and weight gain."
Diet should also be a focus. Dr. Sadiq suggests a few simple tweaks that can have a profound and positive effect on your hormones. "Eat more green veggies, when eating carbohydrates looks for ones that have a low glycemic index, cut sugar consumption, drink enough water and avoid processed foods."
Dr. Roked says that "exercising and building muscle will help balance hormones." So factor some weight training into your week.
"A herbal supplement like agnus cactus can help hormone balance. It's best taken in the second half of your cycle. If you have irregular periods or PMT, it could be worth considering," she adds.