This has been very frustrating. I have not changed my diet. It’s still low sugar, nutrient-dense, no junk food. I’m still chasing after kids, although I do “formal” exercise (zumba videos, if you’re curious) only sometimes. Yet…weight gain?
This led to some research into hormones and weight loss. Specifically, how hormonal imbalances can prevent you from losing weight. I think this is a really important topic to discuss, because there are a lot of people out there who are struggling with their weight and don’t know what to do. People who are eating miniscule amounts and trying every diet and constant exercise, just to try to lose some weight! And it isn’t working.
Sadly, there are also people out there who believe that weight loss is simple, and that if people would just “lay off the donuts” and “hop on the treadmill” they would lose the weight. They believe it is a linear relationship between how much you eat and how much you move, and that anyone who is heavy is lazy. Or worse. Someone else’s weight, or the reason they are heavy, is none of your business. Don’t make comments about others’ weight or make assumptions about why they are heavy. They are aware of how much they weigh. They are likely frustrated by it. Don’t make it worse.
That last part could be an entirely separate post, as it bothers me that it happens, but it isn’t really the focus of this post. No, this post is about what to do about hormonal issues….
Hormonal Imbalances Impact Weight
Yes. It’s true. If your hormones are not in balance, it will affect whether or not you lose (or gain) weight. If you cannot lose (or gain) weight no matter what you seem to do, it is very likely because there is an underlying hormonal imbalance.
There are so many different possible issues that I can’t talk about all of them here. But I will touch on the most common ones, then discuss a little more about the ones I personally face.
Hypothyroid is relatively common, occurring in about 10% of women (and some men). It often shows up after pregnancy and seems to be genetic in some cases.
Hypothyroid means that your thyroid gland, located in your neck, is not producing enough of the hormones needed to keep your metabolism running. Symptoms include weight gain, fatigue, sore throat, cold hands and feet, low appetite, brittle nails or hair (including lots of hair falling out postpartum), constipation, acne, and more.
Hypothyroidism can be corrected, over time, with a healthy diet rich in iodine, copper, vitamin D, B vitamins and, in some cases, a thyroid hormone pill. There are synthetic versions, and bioidentical versions (which are healthier). Fermented foods and low-carb diets help some people. Often, as the thyroid hormones return to normal, the weight drops off without much effort (but not always).
This hormone is responsible for our “fight or flight” reaction when we are stressed. That’s a great thing — sometimes. What’s not so great is when cortisol is being pumped out all the time, due to chronic stress. It raises your heart rate, your blood pressure, your weight, and can even lead to heart disease or diabetes, long-term! It can also lead to adrenal fatigue (your adrenal glands, overworked by producing so much cortisol, stop producing it). If you have dealt with chronic stress, this may well be an issue.
Symptoms include fatigue, insomnia (both inability to fall asleep/mind in overdrive, and waking in the middle of the night and unable to fall back asleep), irritability, short temper, weight gain, sugar/carb cravings, and more. This can be corrected with a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, prayer/meditation, magnesium lotion, deep breathing, liver pills, and more. (This is one of my issues, so I’ll discuss my experience in a bit.)
This might be one of the most common reasons women don’t lose the baby weight. There’s a bit of a good news/bad news thing going on here, too.
The Good News: It’s actually normal. Your body suppresses progesterone production (which prepares your body for pregnancy and helps to keep you pregnant) while you are breastfeeding, so that you will not get pregnant again while you have a baby that depends on you for all its nourishment. Prolactin, the hormone responsible for milk production, suppresses the progesterone. Cortisol actually suppresses it too (makes sense…it’s not a great idea to get pregnant during extreme stress, right?).
The Bad News: There’s nothing you can do about it, as long as you are breastfeeding. At least not as long as you are breastfeeding exclusively or more than 8 times in any 24-hour period. Low progesterone causes weight gain. And that makes sense, too, because your body is trying to pack on the fat, especially around your hips and thighs, so that it will have enough to make milk for your baby. When your prolactin levels fall — which they do under two conditions — your progesterone will rise, your fertility will return, and you should have an easier time losing weight. This, too, is one of my issues.
As I said, there are plenty more. These are just the most common ones. Now I’d like to share with you my own experience.
What Happened to Me
I’d like to point out that I am not a doctor and I am not providing medical advice. I’m explaining to you what happened to me and why, based on my own research. I’m hoping this anecdote will be helpful to you as a jumping off point to do your own research, if you are having similar issues.
This story starts before I got pregnant with my fourth. I was severely deficient in magnesium, but I did not know it at the time. I was beginning to suspect it, and wanted to supplement for a few months before I got pregnant again. Except then I got pregnant anyway. I had lost most of the baby weight, but not the last 10 lbs.
As soon as I found out I was pregnant (high progesterone in pregnancy), I began to lose weight. Well — I didn’t gain any weight for a full 20 weeks, then gained less than 20 lbs. Everything was slowly moving forward to the growing baby and the fat was leaving. I loved it. I was supplementing magnesium, sleeping well, eating well, and I was sure I would easily lose weight once the baby was born. Clearly, magnesium was the key.
Then the baby was born. I lost most of the weight in the first month or so, but after two months, started to gain it back. And then some. I’m at my highest non-pregnant adult weight (heck…higher than I was at 9 months pregnant with one baby!). My husband swears I don’t look like it…probably because the weight is largely in my lower abdomen, thighs, and hips. Those are the fat deposit areas for baby and milk making….
Anyway, it’s frustrating. When you are pregnant-breastfeeding-pregnant-breastfeeding (etc.) for a long time, as I have been, then your progesterone level falls. You should have enough to last for the first 4 – 6 months, until the baby no longer relies on you for all its nourishment. And then the baby should start eating food, you breastfeed less often, your prolactin levels fall (they fall the longer you breastfeed and if you breastfeed fewer than 8 times in a 24-hour period), and after a while, you wean. After weaning, your prolactin levels drop way down, your progesterone levels rise, your body recovers and normal fertility resumes. Until/if you get pregnant again, anyway.
My babies are very close together. They are 18 months, 25 months, and 19 months apart. I had 4 – 5 cycles in between babies 1 and 2 (she started solids young), 6 in between babies 2 and 3, and just 2 in between babies 3 and 4. I hadn’t even gotten back to a normal pattern before I got pregnant with baby #4! (I didn’t think I could get pregnant yet.)
This means my progesterone levels have been falling lower and lower with every pregnancy and postpartum period. In fact, now, my baby is just about 10 months old. I have had my period three times. Once when he was almost 6 months, once when he was 7.5 months, and once when he was 9.5 months (so it’s clear I have no normal cycle whatsoever, and my luteal phase the last time — first PP ovulation — was just 7 days). He is still exclusively breastfed — he is not interested in food. He nurses 12 – 18 times in any 24-hour period of time, meaning my prolactin levels are high, and my progesterone is very low.
I also have all the symptoms of high cortisol. I have faced quite a lot of stress over the last three years. I began to work on reducing my stress once I realized this. Interestingly, within a few days, my acne flared quite a lot, and the baby even got a tiny bit! I also gained a bit more weight. But then after a couple weeks, my skin became clearer than it had been in awhile, and my weight stabilized, then went down slightly. I believe some of the excess cortisol was breaking down and that was showing up in my skin and weight.
My plan now is to continue stress reduction and management to lower cortisol further. Plus, I am focusing heavily on nutrition (as always), taking liver pills, using magnesium lotion, taking gelatin daily, and more. I have some ideas on how to help prevent/change this based on my experience.
How to Stop the Hormonal Weight Gain
This is based on my limited experience and research and is not the be-all, end-all information. Please talk to your doctor, get any necessary tests, and do your own research before deciding what to do.
Magnesium is truly an under-appreciated nutrient and one that’s often seriously lacking in our modern diets. It’s also easily used up by stress, both physical and mental (which we are under quite a lot more than we used to be). Magnesium deficiency can lead to weight gain, insomnia, vitamin D deficiency (it’s required to absorb/use vit D), headaches, irritability, fatigue, and more. I prefer to use magnesium lotion before bed, which is well absorbed and can help these symptoms. As it helps raise vit D levels over time (if you are also taking vit D), which is a pre-hormone, this can lead to hormonal balance. Magnesium is not well absorbed during pregnancy so you will need a lot more of it if you are pregnant.
Get Vitamin D
The best source of vitamin D is the sun followed up by rich food sources like cod liver oil. It is naturally occurring in cod liver oil and balanced with vitamin A (also needed), EPA, DHA, etc. Acne and low immune systems are related to vitamin A and D deficiencies. Cod liver oil also lowers cortisol levels in the body and is great for the baby’s developing brain. You can read more about the benefits of cod liver oil here. If you aren’t a fan of the taste, there is Vitamin D Cream made with cod liver oil and soon, we’ll have capsules too!
B vitamins are really important to help energy and a whole bunch of other functions. Liver pills are a natural source of B vitamins, plus iron (heme iron, which is more easily absorbed than plant-based non-heme iron), vitamin A, and more. They promote energy and well-being. In fact, if I take too many, my appetite drops and I have trouble sleeping. I usually take 4 per day, but that’s after experimenting to see what felt best (I tried anywhere from 2 – 10 for a while).
How you space your babies is definitely a personal decision. But, if you are struggling with your health, it might be a good idea to space them a bit further apart, 3 – 5 years in between. I have never spaced mine further than 2 years apart and in a way I am paying for it now. I am not sorry I had my babies when I did, but I do hope to wait a bit longer before having more. Ideally, you would wean a baby about 6 months before attempting to get pregnant again, or at least cut back to only a couple nursing sessions a day, in order to let your progesterone levels rebound. Some women are more sensitive to prolactin than others and might need to completely wean; others only need to nurse “less.” It’s up to you to determine what is best for you, but it’s something to consider.
When you do have a baby, encapsulate the placenta and take those pills. I did this after my last baby, but did not really take any of the pills. They’ve been hanging out in my fridge for 10 months. The thing is, the placenta is really high in hormones — including progesterone. These hormone levels drop off sharply when the placenta detaches and is birthed. Consuming the placenta in capsules or a tincture helps to step down your hormones slowly, and can help boost milk production, reduce postpartum depression (or even eliminate it), and can help lose the baby weight. I’m starting to take mine, just 1 capsule per day (I don’t need “super” hormone doses now; the stepping down ship has long since sailed!) to see if it helps me rebalance gently.
In the future, I will encapsulate immediately and consider this a serious part of the recovery process.
You Can Overcome This
You can overcome a hormonal imbalance, improve your health, and lose weight.
If you have overcome hormonal weight gain, what worked for you? Share with us in the comments!