I think I’ve lost count of the number of things that are to “blame” for obesity. First, it was fat, then it was carbs, then specifically sugar, then wheat, then sugar again…I mean, I had an easier time keeping track of what was happening on Lost than I do this shit.
Recently, the latest obesity scapegoat has been hormones. “Oh, I counted my calories for one week and can’t lose fat, it must be my hormones, errrrmaahgad.”
Look, our bodies are incredibly complex systems. While the best way to lose fat is a consistent calorie deficit coupled with a regular strength training program, it’s not always that simple. Hormones and fat loss do go hand in hand.
Our physiology is quite remarkable. Your body will adapt to almost anything you throw at it, yet at the same time is equally as capable of fighting against you.
See, our bodies love homeostasis; meaning that it’s going to do whatever it can to remain the same. At least initially, anyway. The systems our bodies have in place to maintain homeostasis are meant to keep us alive. So when you start fucking with this homeostatis – a fat loss program – your body what’s to start fucking with you back.
Our hormones are part of these systems. The body secretes over 50 different hormones that each play a specific role. And some of these roles have to do with our metabolism, fat loss, and muscle building.
And because hormones are the popular new kid on the block, when it comes to placing blame for fat loss struggles, I think it’s important to understand exactly what these hormone do, and how they can affect the efficiency of your fat loss, but not prevent it all together.
Today we’re going to talk about eight specific hormones, the role each one plays in the fat loss process, and how to optimize them to ensure you’re body is burning fat as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Hormones and Fat Loss
When you talk about hormones and fat loss, insulin is almost always in the discussion. While insulin often gets a bad rap – thanks to the low-carb zealots – it’s actually a hormone essential to our survival.
Insulin functions as the energy storage hormone. It helps shuttle nutrients to where the body needs them most. It tells the body to either store the energy as glycogen for immediate use, or as fat, for later use.
Where insulin works against fat loss is when we become insulin resistant from having chronically elevated levels of it in our system. This comes from a high level of carbohydrate intake and overconsumption of food. When insulin levels are high, your body is in fat-storing mode, and unable to burn fat effectively. But notice I said high levels of carbohydrate intake AND overconsumption of food.
But notice I said high levels of carbohydrate intake AND overconsumption of food. Meaning that you’re eating more than you need, and your body has nowhere to send the extra energy.
Optimization: Insulin is essential for proper nutrient utilization, so we need to make it work in our favor and increase our sensitivity to it. When we do that, our body becomes better at sending energy to our muscle cells to be burned rather that to our fat cells to be stored.
It should be noted however that caloric intake is still the number one driver of whether or not you lose weight…not whether or not you’re insulin resistant.
Reducing (not eliminating) your intake of carbohydrates, as well as not over-eating, will make your body more sensitive to insulin. One way to do this is by utilizing an insulin reset, where you all but eliminate carbs for a short period of time (less than a month) to allow your insulin levels to stabilize; then, slowly add in carbs to your diet. Generally, the leaner you are, the greater your insulin sensitivity as well.
Generally, the leaner you are, the greater your insulin sensitivity is as well.
Also known as the hunger hormone, ghrelin is responsible for the physiological feelings of being hungry. It’s produced in the stomach, and increases when your stomach is empty, and decreases when your stomach is full.
The less food you eat – like when you’re trying to lose fat – the more ghrelin your body produces as a response. It doesn’t know (or care) that you’re trying to lose fat; your body is hungry so it wants food.
Optimization: Sorry to say it, but you can never eliminate the feelings of hunger while dieting, only minimize it as much as possible. And for each person that’s going to be different. Some people almost never feel hungry, while others always do.
One thing you can do is eat foods that take longer to digest, such as proteins and high fiber veggies. Getting adequate sleep helps as well. Not getting enough sleep increases the body’s release of ghrelin. This is often why you feel hungrier after a poor night’s sleep.
After insulin, leptin is probably the second biggest player when it comes to hormones and fat loss. Some experts even believe that it might be more important.
Leptin is produced in the fat cells and works by sending signals to your brain when you have enough fat stored, and you don’t need to eat any more food. The more fat you have, the more leptin you produce.
So you’d think then that the more overweight someone is, the easier it would be to eat less food right, since the body is producing more leptin? But, like many things in the body, it’s not that simple.
Similar to insulin, you can become leptin resistant. This happens when you have too much fat that the leptin signals stop getting sent to your brain. When this happens, the body thinks it’s starving, activates feelings of hunger and increases your appetite.
The other issue with leptin is that the more fat we lose, the less leptin we produce. This again increases our appetite and feelings of hunger.
Optimization: It’s not all gloom and doom with leptin. To avoid leptin resistance, don’t allow yourself to add too much body fat. If you’re someone who is trying to lose body fat, and you have been in a caloric deficit for over two months, it may be beneficial to add in refeeds to your diet 1-2 times per month.
Refeeds are periodic diet breaks, where you bring your caloric intake back to maintenance by increasing your calorie intake, mostly through carbohydrates. This short-term increase in calories signals the body to start producing more leptin again. The more fat you have however, the less often you need to do this.
Cortisol is a double-edged sword. It can help the body burn fat when it’s released in small doses. However, chronically elevated levels of cortisol can prevent fat burning.
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone, and is released in times of elevated stress levels. These include things like dieting, exercise, sleep deprivation, your job, relationship, etc. Not all of these things are necessarily bad. Cortisol signals the body to prepare for these things by moving energy where the body needs it.
Chronically elevated levels of cortisol however, are not good for the body. Not only does it prevent fat burning (specifically belly fat), it makes it easier for the body to break down muscle tissue.
Elevated levels of cortisol are also associated with elevated levels of ghrelin, which is why your appetite increases in times of high stress.
Optimization: Cortisol is manageable by managing the stress in your life. Do things that relax you like reading, meditate, walking; get more sleep, exercise, sex (my favorite), and cutting back on alcohol, can all help manage cortisol.
Your thyroid, specifically T3 and T4 hormones, help regulate your metabolic processes. Like most of your other hormones, your thyroid is affected by how much you eat, sleep, exercise, and your stress levels.
Chronic dieting and caloric restriction reduces thyroid levels, which is why your metabolism slows down as you diet.
Optimization: Like with leptin, taking periodic diet breaks can help temporarily increase your metabolic processes and regulate your thyroid. Supplementing with iodine, zinc, and selenium can also help because these nutrients are essesntial for proper thyroid function.
Growth Hormone (GH)
Growth hormone is one of the most powerful hormones in the body. Its two main responsibilities are to help you build muscle and burn fat. It also helps repair damaged cells, which is why it’s often referred to as the anti-aging hormone.
Optimization: Most GH is produced while you sleep so getting a good nights rest is critical. Short, intense exercise also aids in GH production. Managing stress is important too because chronically high levels of cortisol in the body will blunt GH production.
Adrenalin works closely with growth hormone and testosterone when it comes to helping the body burn fat. During periods of intense exercise, the adrenal glands secret adrenalin and signal these hormones to start burning fat.
Optimization: Adrenalin is mainly produced through intense exercise. Like growth hormone, high levels of cortisol will hinder the effects of adrenalin.
I’ve written about the profound effects testosterone can have on the body before, so I won’t get into it much here.
While testosterone is mainly thought of as a male hormone, it does play a significant role for both sexes when it comes to body composition and processes.
Testosterone affects sex drive, muscle growth, bone health, and body fat levels. The more testosterone you have, the leaner you tend to be. This is because it works to stop the body from creating fat cells. The less testosterone you have, the more at risk you are for obesity.
Optimization: Having the right amount of testosterone is important. Getting adequate sleep, enough intense exercise, and sex, all work to help maintain good levels of testosterone. A diet full of healthy fats can also help.
In case you couldn’t tell, when it comes to hormones and fat loss, everything works together. Each of the hormones we talked about here, and many others, all work together in an intricate system of checks and balances. If one is out of wack, that’s likely to throw off others as well.
But the good news is – again, in case you didn’t notice – that optimizing one of these hormones will help optimize all of them, through many of the same methods: regular intense exercise, sleep, not eating too much…
Lastly, it’s important to note that while all of these hormones play a role in fat loss, none of them negate a calorie deficit; meaning that if you’re eating fewer calories than you burn, you will lose fat. Your hormones can help determine how efficiently or inefficiently that happens.
(A version of this article originally appeared on AskMen)