How Hormones Sabotage Your Weight Loss

September 10, 2012 3 Comments by Scott Isaacs, M.D.

While hormonal disorders need to be addressed, says Isaacs, the good news is that they usually don’t require extensive medical care. “For the vast majority of people, treatments do not involve taking medication, but rather making lifestyle changes, including diet, exercise, quality sleep, stress management, and prioritization of these goals,” he says. Here we’ll walk you through seven hormones that could be stalling your slim-down strategy along with tips for how to get your body back in balance.

We’re not just talking menopause. Sleep deprivation, stress, and a bad diet can cause imbalances in the chemicals that regulate appetite, metabolism, and fat storage.

Excess Estrogen

When the amount of estrogen in the body outweighs levels of its hormonal counterpart, progesterone, both sexes are at greater risk for obesity. An overabundance of the female sex hormone—in women or men—can result from exposure to xenostrogens, compounds that dress themselves up like estrogen once they enter the body. These estrogen imposters are found in foods grown with pesticides or herbicides, meat and dairy products produced using growth hormones, plastics that contain phalates, and skincare products containing parabens. Excessive alcohol consumption, a high-fat diet, and constipation can also cause estrogen to stockpile in the body. Still, the number one trigger for estrogen imbalance is obesity.

The heavier you are, the more estrogen your fat cells produce, says Natasha Turner, a naturopathic doctor and author of The Hormone Diet. “It’s like throwing gas on a brush fire,” she says. What’s worse: Estrogen imbalance can put you at risk of hormone-dependent cancers, like breast cancer and uterine cancer, says Isaacs.

Clues that your estrogen and progesterone levels are off balance come from your body fat positioning. Premenopausal women will carry more weight around their hips and thighs, experience PMS, and have difficulty losing weight. Men and postmenopausal women will notice an increase in belly fat, and for men the weight gain is in the breast area, explains Turner.

Get Back in Balance
To combat excess estrogen, Turner suggests increasing your daily fiber intake to 30 to 40 g, because fiber binds to estrogen and helps carry it out of the body. Add ground flaxseed or chia seeds to salads or meals, or mix a high-fiber supplement (one that contains 8 to 9 g) into a protein shake, she suggests. Reduce intake of estrogen in your diet by cutting back on soy products and opting for organic meat, dairy, and produce to reduce your consumption of pesticides, herbicides, and hormone by-products, Turner advises.

Chronically High Cortisol

Stress hormones aren’t all bad. Your body appreciates a boost in adrenaline and cortisol in short-term, high-stress situations, like having your wallet swiped or crossing paths with a skunk. But chronically elevated cortisol levels, the result of long-term stress over your job, finances, or health, can put a damper on your weight loss goals.

“Cortisol is really destructive. It suppresses almost all hormones that help you burn fat,” says Turner. It lowers levels of metabolism-boosting thyroid hormones, promotes the loss of muscle tissue, increases appetite-stimulating hormones, and makes you crave comfort food, she explains.

In fact, a telltale sign of chronically high cortisol levels is stubborn belly fat, says Turner, pointing to a Yale University study published in Psychosomatic Medicine. When researchers asked both lean and overweight women who stored fat either around their waists or on their hips to perform a series of stress-inducing tasks, women with more abdominal fat, even if they were otherwise slender, secreted higher levels of cortisol.

In addition to pudge in the abdominal area, signs of cortisol imbalance include difficulty falling asleep, waking between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., digestive problems, sugar or salt cravings, muscle tension, headaches, anxiety, and depression, says Turner.

Chronically high cortisol levels are sometimes a sign of a hormonal disorder, like Cushing’s syndrome, that causes tumors in the adrenal or pituitary glands to produce excess quantities of the stress hormone, notes Isaacs, adding that your doctor can do a blood test to pinpoint the cause of cortisol accumulation in your body.

Get Back in Balance
In addition to managing the stress in your life, Turner recommends a focus on quality sleep. Aim for 7.5 to 9 hours of slumber each night, sleep in pitch black, and without warm clothing or heavy blankets, she advises. “Letting your body cool down as you sleep optimizes fat burn and enhances the recuperative benefits of sleep,” she says. For example, sleep increases growth hormone, which burns fat while it rebuilds bone, muscle, and skin cells during slumber, and keeps the hunger and satiety hormones, ghrelin and leptin, in balance.

Turner also recommends adding a weekly yoga session to your workout routine, which will help relieve stress and lower cortisol levels. In a study conducted by the Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and the Yoga Research Society, 16 adults took a 50-minute yoga class daily for 7 days. Students’ cortisol levels were measured before and after each class, and all experienced significant decreases in the stress hormone after their practice.

Insulin Resistance

High blood sugar isn’t just a problem for diabetics; it could also explain why your body’s clinging to stubborn fat. “Insulin resistance alone doesn’t mean you have diabetes, but it does mean your body just has a lot more insulin than it needs,” says Isaacs.

Under ideal working conditions, the body releases insulin in proportion to the amount of carbohydrates you consume. Insulin processes the sugars from carbs and carries them to your cells, which use the carbs for energy or stores them for later. When insulin accumulates, largely due to a diet that includes too many processed carbohydrates, high-sugar foods, high fructose corn syrup, or artificial sweeteners, the body stores unused sugars as fat (especially in the abdominal area) instead of glycogen, the energy source used during exercise, explains Turner. What’s more, excess insulin can also block the use of stored fat as energy, she adds.

In fact, in a study published in Nature Clinical Practice Endocrinology & Metabolism, University of California researchers concluded that insulin revs up appetite by interfering with leptin, the hormone that signals satiety, and raising levels of dopamine, a hormone that tells the brain to seek rewards, often edible ones.

Signs that your pancreas is in insulin-production overdrive include excess belly fat, constant hunger and cravings, water retention, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, says Turner. You’ll also feel plain bad, she adds, explaining that heart palpitations, sweating, poor concentration, anxiety, fogginess, fatigue, and irritability—similar to what you’d experience after a high-carb “crash”—also go along with insulin resistance.

Get Back in Balance
While Isaacs notes no medication has been approved by the FDA to treat insulin resistance, diabetes medications can help, he says, and adds that they work no better than diet and exercise. “As a doctor, I find that many people start taking a pill and they forget about lifestyle.”

To keep your insulin levels in check, Turner says to eliminate processed carbohydrates, added sugars, and artificial sweeteners, such as high fructose corn syrup, from your diet; include protein at every meal; and limit fruit intake to one or two servings of low-glycemic fruits, like apples or berries, per day. She also suggests eating breakfast within an hour of rising and skipping cereals and bagels in favor of a protein shake or omelet. “They are better for controlling appetite and keeping insulin levels low throughout the day, as well as curbing late-day cravings,” she says.

Low Thyroid Hormone

With symptoms like unexplained weight gain, fatigue, and depression, many dieters are quick to blame their weight loss struggles on a lazy thyroid, the gland that releases the hormones that speed up or slow down your metabolism. Hypothyroidism is fairly common, with 10 to 20% of Americans affected, says Isaacs. “A lot of us have one or two symptoms, but that doesn’t mean you have thyroid dysfunction,” he says. Blood tests will accurately determine your thyroid health.

If not the result of a medical condition, thyroid hormone levels can be driven down by stress, pregnancy, and nutrient deficiencies, says Turner. Either way, a slow thyroid means a slow journey to your goal weight. “Thyroid hormone [throxine and triiodothyronine, or T4 and T3] is the chemical that is telling your body to burn energy,” she says. “If there’s not enough, you’re not burning enough calories, and everything slows down—brain function, digestion, fat burning, and so on.”

Get Back in Balance
While medication is necessary to treat hypothyroidism, Turner suggests avoiding activities that cause levels of thyroid hormone to drop, including severe calorie-cutting, excessive exercise, and skimping on sleep. Also try an iodine or l-tyrosine supplement and snack on Brazil nuts or other selenium-rich foods, she says.

Low Mood Hormones

Serotonin and dopamine are brain chemicals—but they still have a lot to do with what goes on in the gut. When the body is low on the “happy hormone” serotonin, a compound associated with mood and feelings of depression and anxiety, you’re likely to experience cravings for carbs, says Isaacs, explaining that the calmness that follows feeding a craving is the result of serotonin release in the brain.

Dopamine, which affects the brain’s pleasure and reward pathways, is also linked to food. If you’re addicted to something, whether it’s gambling, smoking, or sugar, you probably have low dopamine levels, says Turner, explaining that depression, anxiety, worry, and low self-esteem are also signs that you’re low on these brain chemicals.

Get Back in Balance
Try to do something each day that causes you to focus only on one thing, as multitasking and chronic stress are two of the biggest contributors to low serotonin, says Turner. One function of serotonin is to regulate attention, so when you’re involved in many activities at once, your brain more quickly depletes serotonin stores. Chronic stress, on the other hand, raises levels of cortisol, which robs you of serotonin. A fish oil supplement can help raise serotonin levels, she adds. Isaacs recommends avoiding processed carbohydrates and sugars that cause crashes throughout the day. Also limit your exposure to bright light at night and use plenty of light to wake yourself up in the morning, as serotonin is closely linked to the sleep-wake cycle, sun exposure, and seasonal affective disorder, says Isaacs.

To boost levels of dopamine, pinpoint nonfood pleasures in your life—naturally enjoyable and rewarding activities, like spending time with friends, volunteering, or hitting the gym. “If exercise is rewarding, like a group fitness class that spurs camaraderie, that’s where dopamine may play a role,” says Isaacs. Still, don’t worry if you’d rather go at your workout alone. Research suggests that solo activities, like running, swimming, and yoga, also boost levels of both brain chemicals.


Just like excess estrogen can pack on belly fat, too little of the hormone also can also cause ab flab. As estrogen levels drop off during the unavoidable biological process of menopause, many women experience a shift in fat from their hips to their waists, says Turner. Menopause also tends to trigger an increase in insulin and dips in levels of serotonin, further contributing to carb cravings and weight gain, she adds.

But it’s not just estrogen that takes a nosedive once you hit your 40s and 50s. Menopause lowers levels of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a hormone that, among its many anti-aging benefits, improves sleep quality and counteracts the negative effects of cortisol. A low testosterone level that comes with menopause causes a decline in muscle mass and the body’s fat-burning ability. Finally, when your level of progesterone, a hormone that aids sleep and stimulates metabolism, drops off, estrogen dominance (see Excess Estrogen, above) can occur.

Get Back in Balance
While menopause is a natural and healthy process—even the hot flashes, mood swings, and fatigue that many women experience are relatively normal—hormone replacement therapy goes against the natural progression of aging, says Isaacs. “Giving the estrogen levels of a 20-year-old to someone who is 50 is not natural,” he says. Instead, Isaacs recommends low-dose hormone replacement as a short-term solution to menopause symptoms, but urges women to search for alternative methods, like lifestyle changes, for dealing with menopause symptoms.

In a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, University of California at San Francisco researchers assigned menopausal women with a body mass index of at least 25 to a weight loss program that included 200 minutes of exercising per week and reducing caloric intake to 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day. At the conclusion of the 6-month study, 46% of women who provided data about their hot flash symptoms before and after the study reported that they were less bothered by hot flashes following weight loss.

Low Testosterone

While women have menopause to look forward to, men fear dips in testosterone, the master muscle-building hormone. Low testosterone can cause bones to weaken and muscles to lose their mass along with their calorie-torching capability. Declining testosterone can also lead to more belly fat and weight gain in the breast area, says Turner.

Although it’s been deemed “andropause” or “male menopause,” testosterone imbalance isn’t always the result of getting older, notes Isaacs. “Men who are obese have a high risk of having low testosterone, regardless of age,” he says.

Get Back in Balance
Your goal is to enhance testosterone and get rid of excess estrogen, says Tuner, who advises increasing the amount of protein in your diet and expanding the strength-training portion of your workout in order to preserve muscle. She also suggests participating in competitive sports.

by Hollis Templeton

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For more information, please read my book Hormonal Balance: How to Lose Weight by Understanding Your Hormones and Metabolism or visit my Facebook page.



  1. Daria Floyd says:
    Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 10:06am

    I had a Lap-Band placed November 2005. I was 220 pounds. I lost down to 175 pounds. I am currently 180 pounds. My weight is 180 pounds, I should say. I am 5’1″ tall. I have tried multiple diet plans. I have a gym membership and actually attend 2-3 days a week. I need help.

  2. Scott Isaacs, MD says:
    Monday, January 7, 2013 at 5:36pm

    Daria, I hope my books can help you. I wish you the best.

  3. Richard Brunton says:
    Tuesday, January 28, 2014 at 1:56am

    Dear Dr. Isaacs
    ,After reading the the story on Shane Blasko in the – section, I decided to write a note to the Atlanta Center for Endocrinology just a couple of days ago in hopes that it might be past on to you. I’m now hoping since I am sending this directly to you, perhaps you might be able to give me some advice. Some of this will be a rehash of information I put in my earlier note. I am a 73 year old male (actually almost 74). I am a snow-bird and spend roughly 7 months in NY and 5 months in Palm Coast, FL. I have been a borderline diabetic for 2 to 3 years and with my last A!C reading of 7.1, my NY GP wants to put me on a diabetes drug and from everything I’ve heard drugs do nothing but manage your diabetes until they get worse and then they change or increase the drugs and eventually get put on insulin. Some of the earlier drugs, from what I have heard have actually led to the death of many people and are now off the market and others have led to one form of cancer or another. I really don’t want to go down that path and from what I have read, diabetes can be reversed and you have put together a program, including diet, exercise and hormone balancing that will accomplish that positive medical result. To give you a short background on my medical history, I have high blood pressure and high cholesterol, both of which are being controlled by medication. I have fought a weight problem for a good long time and have had success with losing weight with programs such as weight watchers and nutri-system and following a glycemic index. I have had fit club memberships but I am now just a little limited by 8 knee surgeries including bi-lateral knee replacements twice. I am 5’11” and weigh 235-240. I have AFIB and in 2010 had a very mild heart attack – no blockage in any of the main arteries but rather in one of the tributaries. I am under the care of a cardiologist in NY for both the AFIB and heart disease but now he wants me put on a blood thinner because of the protocol of having two factors such as AFIB and diabetes. If I can somehow address the diabetes, lose some weigh, I can forgo the blood thinner.

    I am currently on the following medications – metoprolol ER succinate, hydrochlorothiazide,atorvastatin,losartanand omeprazole.

    Is there any possibility that the Decision Free Plan can be administered remotely by a doctor and possibly a nutritionist here in Palm Coast, FL. Do you have any colleagues or know any endocrinologists in the Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Palm Coast,Daytona Beach areas that you might point me in the direction of. I am clearly desperate to make some positive steps in the direction of getting my health under control but I truly do need a supervised program such as that run by you in Atlanta. Please help.
    Short term weight loss programs are not the answer. As is mentioned in the information I have read about your program, balancing hormones is a key element to making the changes permanent.

    I apologize for this long note but I do hope you can find the time to answer me and hopefully be able to help me in some manner.

    Most sincerely,

    Richard Brunton
    Palm Coast, FL

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