When we hear the word “hormones,” our first thought is about sex hormones. However, the hormones discussed here are not sex hormones, they are hormones that control or affect our weight. An endocrine hormone is actually any chemical messenger that travels from where it is produced through the bloodstream to another part or parts of the body where it exerts its effect. Our hormones interact with each other to create a fast-acting chemical control system for our entire bodies. For weight control, hormones rule!
What happens when you eat a piece of bread? As you chew, an enzyme in your saliva begins breaking down the starch in the bread into single sugar units (monosaccharides). The digestive process continues in the stomach and small intestine and the monosaccharides that are released from the digesting starch are absorbed from the small intestine into the bloodstream. If the monosaccharide is glucose, it is ready to be used by body cells immediately. Monosaccharides other than glucose and also any protein we consume that is in excess of our protein needs for body building and repair are absorbed from the bloodstream into the liver. There they are converted into glucose to supply our cells with fuel. This glucose is released from the liver into the bloodstream, but the conversion process takes time so proteins and monosaccharides other than glucose (such as fructose) are not available to be used by our cells as quickly as glucose is.
The hormone INSULIN is needed for glucose to enter our cells and be used for energy. When the pancreas detects the glucose level in the bloodstream rising after you eat, it secretes insulin which allows glucose to enter the cells, and the level of glucose in the bloodstream returns to a pre-meal level. Glucose may be used by our cells for immediate needs or stored as glycogen (chains of glucose molecules) in the cells of the liver and muscles for future energy needs. The amount of glycogen we can store is limited, so within about two hours after a meal we will begin storing as fat any excess glucose over what we have used or saved for future use as glycogen. Glucose can be converted to triglycerides (the basic unit of fats) for storage by the liver. Insulin also allows glucose to enter into fat cells where it is converted to triglycerides and stored as fat. (1)
In an optimally healthy person, insulin secretion is correctly balanced with the amount of glucose entering the bloodstream from the small intestine and liver. In some people, however, the secretion of insulin is excessive. This results in an abnormally rapid drop in the blood glucose (also called blood sugar) level after a meal if the pancreas overshoots on insulin production. The result is too little glucose in the blood; this condition is called reactive hypoglycemia. It is hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) in response to a meal rather than as a result of a pancreatic tumor. Conventional medicine traditionally has not believed that reactive hypoglycemia is a significant problem. However, the person experiencing it may become weak, irritable, dizzy, or develop a headache. They will probably also become very hungry with an hour or two after a meal and crave sugar or starchy foods. Another dose of carbohydrates will start this cycle over again. Thus, appetite is out of balance with the body’s actual need for food, and the glucose that is being driven out of the bloodstream and into the cells by the excess insulin will be stored as fat.
A high level of insulin also activates an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase. This enzyme catalyzes the production of triglycerides from any fatty acids (digested fat units in the form that is absorbed by the intestine) eaten in a meal. Thus, excess insulin promotes storage of any fat we eat by our fat cells rather than using it for fuel after our meal. In a person with normal insulin levels, any recently eaten fats could have been used for energy during the two hours after a meal. If insulin levels are high, dietary fat is more likely to be stored in the fat cells. (2)
In addition, high insulin levels in the blood inhibit the activity of the enzyme triglyceride lipase which breaks down stored fat for use as energy. Thus, IF YOU HAVE CHRONICALLY HIGH INSULIN, YOU CANNOT BURN YOUR OWN BODY FAT! (3) This is why if you have frequent allergic reactions (making your insulin level chronically high) you may be unable to lose weight or even maintain without gaining. See “Why Are We Overweight” for more about the hormonal cascade that links allergic reactions and inability to burn fat.
If a person continually over-produces insulin, a state of insulin resistance may result in which insulin becomes less effective at getting glucose into the cells to be used for energy or stored. Since blood sugar levels do not drop as readily after a meal in a person with insulin resistance, the pancreas keeps secreting more insulin which becomes less and less effective in doing its job. Insulin resistance is a pre-diabetic state. It can result in weight gain and other symptoms which characterize metabolic syndrome such as high blood pressure and abnormal blood fat levels. Paradoxically, fasting or skipping meals can also cause insulin resistance, possibly by increasing cortisol levels. (4)
Those with more body fat tend to have higher cortisol levels and are more likely to be insulin resistant. A rough test for insulin resistance can be preformed with a tape measure. A waist measurement of more than 35 inches for women or more than 40 inches for men indicates that it is likely that the person is insulin resistant. (5)
Other hormones also affect the insulin-glucose balancing system. One such hormone is CORTISOL, which is produced by the adrenal glands. Some cortisol is present in our blood at all times; the levels follow a daily cycle, peaking between 6 and 8 a.m. and being lowest in the evening. The adrenal glands produce a spurt of cortisol when we encounter stress and must respond quickly to a crisis. This is known as the “fight or flight” response, and cortisol levels return to normal when the crisis has passed. However, chronic stress can result in chronically high cortisol levels. Chronically high cortisol can cause chronically high insulin levels (hyperinsulinism), which leads to weight gain. Cortisol can also deplete the level of the brain neurotransmitter serotonin which can result in difficulty in sleeping, depression, and anxiety. (6) This is how stress disrupts our sleep and makes us miserable and fat! I hope understanding it makes you feel better about it. It should because there are things you can do to minimize the effects of stress.
Cortisol causes weight gain around the mid-section of the body which results in an apple-shaped body. Some people are genetically pre-disposed to high cortisol levels which may explain why apple-shaped bodies tend to run in families.
Because insulin production increases cortisol production and cortisol production increases insulin production, bringing insulin levels under control can moderate cortisol production. Stress reduction and relaxation techniques are discussed in some diet books as a way to help lose weight. (7) Supplements may also be helpful, especially for those who are genetically predisposed to excess cortisol production. (8) (See Food Allergy and Gluten-Free Weight Loss or the How-To e-Pak for Food Allergy and Gluten-Free Weight Loss for more about these supplements). Phytonutrients in foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds can also help moderate cortisol production. (9) See the superfoods list near the end of the inflammation page of this website for foods that will help.
Body fat is not inert. It plays a role in the hormonal regulation of weight (10) through the action of the hormones LEPTIN and ADIPONECTIN. Although insulin levels determine whether we burn or store fat, leptin is probably the master hormone for long-term weight control. Leptin resistance (a state of having plenty of leptin but the body does not respond to its signal) may be the reason that maintaining weight loss is sometimes so difficult. Very low carbohydrate diets and the yo-yo dieting that tends to occur with attempts to lose weight by counting calories have both been found to increase leptin resistance. (11)
In an optimally healthy person, the body’s fat regulates itself. When weight is gained, the fat produces leptin which suppresses appetite and increases resting metabolic rate, thus causing automatic weight loss. (12) When President Obama said in a television news interview that his weight had only fluctuated within a 5-pound range for years, this indicated that he has a properly functioning leptin control system.
Overweight people have abundant leptin being produced by their body fat, but because excess body fat causes inflammation, their bodies do not respond to leptin as the president’s body does. According to Dr. Galland, this insensitivity of the body’s cells to the signals of the leptin, or leptin resistance, is caused by inflammation and excessive levels of cortisol and other anti-inflammatory substances our bodies make in response to inflammation. (13) This is why the anti-inflammatory foods which are the core of Dr. Galland’s diet in The Fat Resistance Diet decrease leptin resistance and promote weight loss. See the inflammation page of this website for more about leptin and a list of anti-inflammatory foods.
Along with other factors, inflammation is affected by pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory PROSTAGLANDINS. The balance of pro-inflammatory to anti-inflammatory prostaglandins which we produce is determined by the types of fats we eat as well as by our state of insulin control. By consuming omega-3 fatty acids in the form our body uses best (such as EPA and DHA which are found in fish oil (14)) and moderate amounts of healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, as well as by controlling insulin surges, this balance can be shifted to tone down chronic inflammation. Other foods, such as those listed near the end of the inflammation page of this website, also have anti-inflammatory effects. Including these foods in your diet regularly and generously can help reverse leptin resistance. In addition, your level of inflammation will be automatically be reduced as you lose weight, because your fat cells will become smaller and less leaky. (See the inflammation page of this website for more about this). When you reach a healthy weight, you may find that you have a self-regulating leptin system such as President Obama has.
ADIPONECTIN is another hormone produced by our body fat. It reduces inflammation, increases insulin sensitivity, prevents high blood pressure, and helps us burn fat for energy. However, unlike leptin, as the body fat amount increases, the amount of adiponectin produced decreases. (15) There is an easy and tasty way to boost its level though – by eating foods high in acanthocyanins. These are pigments found in deep red, blue, and purple foods such as dark cherries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and pomegranates. (16) As you lose weight and your percentage of body fat decreases, your adiponectin level will rise, helping you to lose more weight and maintain the loss more easily than before. Eventually this should result in a self-regulating healthy weight.
The bottom-line good news about body fat and hormones is that as you lose weight, insulin resistance lessens, blood glucose levels are easier to keep stable, and weight loss becomes easier due to improved hormonal factors. In fact, Dr. Galland finds that many of his patients who achieve normal weight on the very healthy diets he prescribes to reduce inflammation maintain a permanent self-regulating normal weight due to the re-establishment of normal hormonal control of their weight. (17)
A final chemical messenger that can affect your ability to lose weight is active in the brain rather than actually affecting fat storage directly and is the neurotransmitter SEROTONIN. The amino acid tryptophan and carbohydrates are both necessary for the production of serotonin. In The Feel Good Diet, Dr. Cheryle Hart tells about patients who have been on strict low-carbohydrate diets and come to her with depression and even symptoms of mental imbalance such as compulsive behavior. They also struggle to stay on a diet. This is because without sufficient carbohydrates in their diets their brains have been depleted of serotonin. While balancing their insulin and blood sugar levels with a link-and-balance eating plan, she allows more carbohydrate to fuel the production of serotonin and “controlled splurges” on their favorite high-carbohydrate foods. With higher serotonin levels and improved mental health, they do not feel deprived or depressed and are able to stay on the weight loss program she prescribes. (18)
TO LOSE WEIGHT, YOU MUST TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR HORMONES
Don’t despair if the first part of this webpage sounds like a series of vicious cycles reminding you of the old song, “There’s a Hole in my Bucket.” There is a way to escape problems with your weight-controlling hormones. The most basic way to break the hormonal cycles that lead to overweight and inflammation is to moderate insulin levels. All of the chemical messengers mentioned above are involved in weight control, and they can all be controlled by the same healthy eating plan – by taking charge of what you eat, when you eat, and how you combine foods.
You do not have to be hungry, deprived, or give up your favorite foods. The solution to your problems is to balance the types of foods you combine and to eat most of your carbohydrates in the forms they were in a hundred years ago rather than the way they are now. (19) Years ago, grains were stone ground; therefore bread and other foods made from the resulting flour were digested slowly. As the glucose from this bread entered the bloodstream, it provided sustained energy, rather than jolting the pancreas at every meal the way today’s over-processed, fluffy, chemically stabilized white bread does. The bread of a hundred years ago would not cause insulin resistance. Sugar was an infrequent luxury food, and thus was not harmful because it was not a large part of the daily diet as it is now. In addition to being better for us, bread and desserts prepared the “old way” with less-refined sweeteners and flour taste better and are more satisfying than modern processed foods. See Food Allergy and Gluten-Free Weight Loss for recipes for low to moderate GI breads and desserts.
THE GLYCEMIC INDEX, HORMONE CONTROL AND WEIGHT LOSS
How then can we control our insulin levels? By determining that we will eat wisely and in harmony with what our bodies actually need rather than by following conventional nutritional doctrine. A most important tool for making wise decisions about what to eat is the glycemic index (GI). The glycemic index (which is discussed more on the glycemic index page of this website) is a system of scoring foods based on how they affect the blood sugar levels of real people. The GI score of a food reflects what actually happens to our blood sugar level when we eat that food. Testing to determine the glycemic index of a food requires human volunteers; calorie determinations are made by a machine, a calorimeter.
The glycemic index has been clinically proven to be useful in its application to diabetes, weight loss, appetite control, and coronary health. (20) It is used in Australia, Canada, the UK, France, Italy, Sweden, and other countries. The United States remains officially opposed to the glycemic index. (21)
To control spikes in blood sugar and weight-depositing spikes in insulin or chronically high insulin levels, it is best to choose most of your carbohydrates from those that are low on the glycemic index with a GI score of 55 or less. Foods with an intermediate score of 56 to 69 can be eaten in moderation. (22) For best blood sugar and insulin control, high GI foods with scores of 70 or above should be eaten only occasionally. However, there are ways to enjoy favorite high-GI foods more often by making them with a healthier recipe that results in a moderate or even low GI score.
All carbohydrate-dense foods should be eaten at the same time as a balancing serving of a protein food. The very sensible, balanced diet in The Insulin Resistance Diet by Dr. Cheryle Hart, MD and Mary Kay Grossman, RD links each carbohydrate unit containing 15 grams of carbohydrate with a protein unit containing 7 grams of protein. (23) The various Zone diets, which are more restrictive, allow 9 grams of carbohydrate for each 7 grams of protein. (24) The amount of protein required to balance carbohydrate can vary from person to person. However, carbohydrate IS important for weight loss. Dr. Hart reports that diets insufficient in carbohydrate inhibit the brain’s production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, and the effect of this on one’s mental state makes it difficult to stay on a weight loss program. (25)
Hunger and fasting (as in skipping breakfast) are taboo on a healthy eating plan designed to control your blood sugar and insulin levels. They raise insulin levels which says to your body, “Blood sugar is low and falling. We’re living in a land of famine. Hold on to that fat!” The stress of hunger and low blood sugar causes the secretion of cortisol and adrenaline (epinephrine) by the adrenal glands, which causes the breakdown of glycogen into glucose. This causes the blood sugar to rise and stimulates the release of more insulin. High insulin inhibits the burning of fat. If you fail to eat before your glycogen stores are depleted, muscle will be used for fuel rather than fat. Less muscle mass lowers your metabolic rate, making it harder to lose weight. The moral of this is that hunger, along with being unpleasant, really does not help you become healthier or reduce body fat while retaining muscle. Any weight loss achieved with excessive or prolonged hunger is an unhealthy reduction in pounds only and often reflects loss in muscle mass. When you are hungry, a small snack of a few nuts or a little protein and carbohydrate combined will stop this hormonal cascade and allow you to burn fat more efficiently than if you did not have the snack. This is one of the reasons why calorie-counting diets which forbid snacks between meals work poorly.
The way of eating described here – balancing carbohydrate with protein and never allowing hunger to continue for long – is probably a much easier and more pleasant way to lose weight than what you have done in the past. Maybe, in the calorie math mentality, your current habit is no breakfast, no snacks, and lots of exercise leading to minimal weight loss. Why not give this healthy eating plan a try? The specifics about how to implement it are found in Food Allergy and Gluten-Free Weight Loss and in the How-To e-Pak for Food Allergy and Gluten-Free Weight Loss.
1. Hart, Cheryle R., MD and Mary Kay Grossman, RD, The Insulin Resistance Diet, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001, 2007), 5; also www.montignac.com/en/la_methode_scientifique.php .
3. Hart, Cheryle R., MD and Mary Kay Grossman, RD, The Insulin Resistance Diet, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001, 2007), 5; and www.montignac.com/en/la_methode_scientifique.php .
4. Hart, Cheryle R., MD and Mary Kay Grossman, RD, The Insulin Resistance Diet, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001, 2007), 19.
5. Ibid., 15.
6. Ibid., 23.
7. Ibid., 222-227.
8. Ibid., 228-229.
9. Galland, Leo, MD, The Fat Resistance Diet, (New York: Broadway Books, 2005), 8 and Hart, Cheryle R., MD and Mary Kay Grossman, RD, The Insulin Resistance Diet, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001, 2007), 229.
10. Galland, Leo, MD, The Fat Resistance Diet, (New York: Broadway Books, 2005), 5, 26, 29.
11. Ibid., 71.
12. “Leptin,” Vitamin Research News, 24:2 (February 2010), 1-5.
13. Galland, Leo, MD, The Fat Resistance Diet, (New York: Broadway Books, 2005), 27.
14. Do not consume any food or supplement that you are allergic to, even fish oil. An allergy to the fish it is derived from can make fish oil pro-inflammatory for you. However, fish oil comes from a variety of species, so hopefully you can find a hypoallergenic source that you can tolerate. If you tolerate shellfish, krill oil, which comes from small marine crustaceans, is also a high EPA and DHA supplement.
15. Galland, Leo, MD, The Fat Resistance Diet, (New York: Broadway Books, 2005), 29.
16. Ibid., 8.
17. Ibid., 5.
18. Hart, Cheryle R., MD and Mary Kay Grossman, RD, The Feel-Good Diet, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007), 6-7.
19. The major contributors to the rising level of obesity and diabetes in the United States are industrialized food production and processing (Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, (New York: The Penguin Press, 2008), 85-87, 91-92) and the standard high-carbohydrate, low-calorie weight loss diet (http://www.montignac.com/en/la_methode_scientifique_echec_regimes_hypo.php).
20. Brand-Miller, Jennie, PhD, Thomas Wolever, MD, Kay Foster-Powell. MND, and Stephen Colaguiri, MD., The New Glucose Revolution, (New York: Marlowe and Company, 2003), 31, also www.montignac.com/en/la_methode_scientifique.php and http://www.montignac.com/en/la_methode.php.
21. Brand-Miller, Jennie, PhD, Thomas Wolever, MD, Kay Foster-Powell. MND, and Stephen Colaguiri, MD., The New Glucose Revolution, (New York: Marlowe and Company, 2003), 30.
22. Interestingly, white sugar falls in the intermediate range with a GI of 68. This is because each sucrose molecule is made of two monosaccharides, one glucose and one fructose. The fructose must be processed into glucose by the liver, thus slowing the release of glucose from that half of the sucrose molecule into the bloodstream.
23. Hart, Cheryle R., MD and Mary Kay Grossman, RD, The Insulin Resistance Diet, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001, 2007), 64.
24. Sears, Barry, PhD, Mastering the Zone, (New York, Regan Books, 1997), 30-35, 331.
25. Hart, Cheryle R., MD and Mary Kay Grossman, RD, The Insulin Resistance Diet, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001, 2007), 92.