Diet is a 4-Letter Word

The psychology of eating

7 Signs Your Hormones Are Out of Balance

It all comes down to D.O.L.L.A.R.S.

Most people who walk into my office are at the end of their rope. No one who comes through that door, initially, is there because they want to “be healthy.” While that might be the ultimate goal, they don’t come to see me until they have tried and failed every diet out there. Until they’ve all but given up on ever losing the baby/honeymoon/holiday/special occasion weight gain. They’re frustrated, insecure, feeling betrayed by their bodies. And, though they typically don’t realize it, they’re in a state of hormonal imbalance.

How do you know if your hormones are out of balance? There are a variety of signs and symptoms, but see if any of the following ring true for you:

D.: Disconnect

After years of struggling with her weight, my client Jennifer felt a strong inner sense of disconnect—from herself, from her body, from her food, and most importantly, from her ideal weight. She felt like nothing she did worked because even if she lost a few pounds on a diet initially, she’d always gain the weight back and then some. Every diet she tried ultimately failed. She began to have “out of body” experiences when she was eating. She’d see her hand picking up the food and putting it in her mouth, but it was like someone else was eating. This was especially true whenever she binged on sugar. She felt like someone else was in control of her eating and her life. This sense of disconnect is all too common among women who are experiencing hormonal imbalance.

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O.: Overwhelmed

Chronically feeling like a failure can lead to a sense of overwhelm, where everything—not just weight loss—seems impossible. When I first met Jennifer, she had just gone back to college at age 36. She struggled with her classes, her study habits, and time management. She found it even more difficult to carve time out to prepare healthy meals and relied on fast food. She justified it to herself saying that it was better than not eating anything. But mainly she was frustrated; she figured since she was going to gain weight anyway, she might as well eat whatever she wanted. A sense of overwhelm is usually a sign that both your reproductive and stress hormones are out of balance. Given that 28% of American women (32 million) report high levels of stress, and half of women (56 million) report their stress has increased over the past 5 years, Houston, we have a problem.

L.: Lack of self-trust

But not all of my clients are overweight. Another client, Rebecca, didn’t have a weight problem when first came to see me. Although she wanted to lose the last 10 pounds of baby weight she’d put on several years prior, she was already at a healthy weight. Rebecca’s problem was lack of self-trust around food. Her marriage in chaos, Rebecca developed a pattern of binge eating on salty snacks and then punishing herself with grueling 4-hour exercise sessions the day after the binge. Frustrated with her constant cravings, she decided not to keep her favorite treats in the house. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop her from going to the store, buying them and then downing a whole bag of pretzels on the way home.

L.: Low self-esteem

Rebecca’s other problem was that no matter how she looked, she was never satisfied with what she saw in the mirror. Like over 90% of women, Rebecca suffered from dissatisfaction with her weight and appearance—and, in truth, herself. While there are many contributing factors to low self-esteem, low self-esteem and chronic depression are not uncommon among women with low estrogen levels. When I met Rebecca, she was in perimenopause, dealing with hormonal fluctuations that often accompany that time of a woman’s life. As we worked on her diet, her self-esteem improved and her perimenopausal symptoms went away.

A.: Always Tired

One of the most common complaints I hear from women who walk through my door is chronic fatigue. Although my client Allison was 30 pounds overweight when she walked into my office, her primary complaint was fatigue. Post-menopause, Allison believed weight gain was inevitable (she had read somewhere that women put on 30-40 pounds during menopause; not true!). What she wouldn’t settle for was feeling exhausted, no matter how much she slept. Allison was tired of dragging herself out of bed every morning, going through the motions of her day, wondering when she could get back in bed again. When downing Red Bulls stopped working, Allison starting looking for answers in her diet. That’s when she came to me.

R.: Reactive Eating

Although Rebecca, Allison, and Jennifer presented with different symptoms (uncontrollable food cravings, chronic fatigue, and overweight, respectively), they shared one thing in common: reactive eating. As Rebecca put it, “Food is my best friend and my worst enemy.” A recent national survey found that half of Americans report more stressed than they felt five years ago and 43% use food to cope. Emotional eating is one of the hallmarks of hormonal imbalance and nearly every woman I see experiences it at some level.  

S.: Sluggish Metabolism

The final common hallmark of hormonal imbalance is a sluggish metabolism. Like Jennifer, many of the women who come to see me have tried every diet out there and nothing works. What Jennifer didn’t understand is that her chronic dieting had ground her metabolism to a screeching halt. In other words, all her efforts to lose weight were making it even harder for her to lose weight. When your body senses that it is not getting enough calories to meet its needs, it will slow down your metabolism (more on this later). Again, it’s a hormonal thing. So when Jennifer told me that she felt like her body was fighting against her every time she went on a diet, she was right. Since she tended to use extreme reduced calorie diets (e.g., less than 1000 calories a day), her digestive, stress, and reproductive hormones fought her every step of the way. Her metabolism slowed way down to compensate for her caloric deficit, and as a result, the scale wasn’t budging.

Next time we’ll talk about what to do about these signs.

Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.

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