Within the last decade, we have learned a lot about hormones and how a hormonal imbalance can contribute to obesity. Hormones are chemical messengers made by endocrine glands (glandular organs) in our body that regulate various processes from how we sleep, grow, reproduce, and metabolize food, to name a few. The most commonly known glandular organs are the adrenal glands, pancreas, pituitary, and thyroid gland.
However, we are beginning to understand that adipose tissue is also part of the endocrine system—a network of chemical messengers that create feedback loops that control various bodily functions. Although hormones flow freely throughout the body, they only impact specific cells designed to receive these transmitted messages.
Throughout the day, our levels of any particular hormone change based on various stimulatory inputs. These inputs can be internal, such as sensing our glucose level by the pancreas and making insulin in response, or external stimuli such as how our body senses hunger and satiety or how our adrenal glands produce adrenaline when we are scared or anxious.
There are cases when an individual’s endocrine system is not functioning correctly, causing a hormonal imbalance. A hormonal imbalance can contribute to obesity, whether there is a hyper or hypo-active production, and can cause medical problems. For example, we see this in patients who have a hypo-active thyroid (hypothyroidism), making it a challenge to lose weight. The thyroid hormone is mainly responsible for increasing our metabolism and having a low thyroid level results in a slower, more sluggish metabolism. Patients will experience clinical symptoms of this disorder by feeling cold, tired, and often having weight gain.
Other examples of hormonal disorders that the general population is familiar with include diabetes. In this condition, the pancreas does not produce insulin (Type I Diabetes), or in obese patients, the insulin that the pancreas makes does not work properly, resulting in Type II Diabetes. Either way, insulin is not working to lower a patient’s blood sugar (glucose level), resulting in altered metabolism and development of other medical conditions.
The bottom line is that, ultimately, hormonal imbalance can contribute to obesity and when there is an imbalance in our endocrine/hormonal system, patients can experience various symptoms. These include weight-related problems, changes in mood such as increased anxiety or depression, poor skin or hair conditions, weakness or fatigue, or a change in appetite, among other symptoms. The symptoms will depend on the specific hormonal gland affected.
When talking specifically about weight regulating hormones, we know that there are several that have a direct impact on our weight.
The hormones leptin, ghrelin, and insulin influence our appetite, metabolism, and body fat distribution. Often, obese people have certain hormone levels that encourage abnormal metabolism and the accumulation of body fat. Similarly, we know that there are specific hormones that directly control our metabolism, such as the growth or thyroid hormones, which, when off-balance, can result in weight gain or even weight loss.
In the field of obesity medicine, researchers are becoming more aware of other hormones, some probably yet to be discovered, either made by or acted upon by adipose tissue. It is believed that these hormones directly regulate our body weight and fat distribution.
Luckily, society is beginning to recognize obesity as a metabolic disease caused by the imbalance of these hormones. We understand that obesity is more than a social issue of overeating and inactivity, but more of a medical disease that must be addressed.
The link between hormones and weight-related medical conditions, can be a confusing one. Often, hormonal imbalances are a result of these hereditary medical conditions. Yet, at times, hormonal imbalances can be a result of outside environmental influences and personal behavioral choices.
The causes of these imbalances vary from environmental/lifestyle to genetic/hereditary and from severe to minor. The causes can include:
In summary, a hormonal imbalance can contribute to obesity. When our hormonal system is off-balance, this can lead to weight gain or inability to lose weight. Maintaining a healthy weight is complex that requires many different hormones and organs working together to maintain the proper balance in the body. This goes well beyond the conscious control of eating less and exercising more.