Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Mary E. Pritchard Ph.D.

Hormones and Hunger

Why hormone imbalances may be to blame for your unquenchable hunger

“I tried Weight Watchers in middle school. That didn’t work, so I tried starving myself. I’ve tried different over-the-counter diet pills, Slimfast, going to the gym, [and] Weight Watchers again.”

– Jennifer, 36-year-old college student

How many of you have a life story that reads like Jennifer’s? You’ve tried it all – pills, starvation, various diets – but nothing seems to work. When I first met Jennifer, she weighed 323 pounds – down from her highest weight of 350. She could no longer fit into airplane seats, shop at her favorite clothing store, or play softball. Squeezing in and out of her car was almost unbearable. Depressed, tired, and angry, she sought advice from every doctor who would listen to her story. No one could find anything “wrong” with her. Her thyroid tested normal, removal of her gall bladder made things worse, and prescription weight loss drugs made her bloated and jittery. Her weight was interfering with her sleep – she tossed and turned at night, trying to get comfortable, and suspected she might have sleep apnea.

When Jennifer walked into my office, she hadn’t eaten anything that day and it was already noon. She’d been skipping breakfast in hopes that would take the weight off, but confessed that it only lead to 3:00 pm sugar and caffeine cravings that often resulted in binge eating. She complained of daily bouts of nausea, vomiting, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Near tears, Jennifer reflected that all these years she felt like her body was fighting against her.

She was right. Her body – her hormones, in fact – was fighting against her.

I hear these things all the time – heart wrenching stories of weight loss struggles and – most of all – frustration. Maybe you’ve experienced symptoms similar to Jennifer’s. Unstoppable cravings for foods you know aren’t good for you. Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Constant fatigue. Weight gain no matter how hard you try to lose weight: the “shrinking pants syndrome.”

You’re not alone. 85% of all people who diet gain back more weight than they lost – usually within 2-3 years of their initial weight loss. Have you ever wondered what your body’s trying to tell you?

No? Maybe it’s time to start.

When Jennifer stopped to think about it, she realized her body was screaming loud and clear, but she wasn’t heeding its messages. So she kept putting on weight. Why? Jennifer’s body was fighting against her weight loss attempts because her hormones were out of balance. Whenever she went on an extreme calorie diet, her body thought Armageddon was coming and made her store fat in preparation.

The good news is that you can change this. You can learn to work with your hormones rather than against them. You can make peace with food and your body. And you can lose weight. In the coming weeks, we’ll discuss how all of these hormones work and what you can do to achieve hormonal and weight loss, but first we need to set the record straight.

Hormone Hell

In all of Jennifer’s trips to the doctor, the only hormone anyone ever tested was her thyroid hormone. And even then they only checked her thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). While it is true that irregularities in your thyroid hormone levels can cause a small amount (5-10 pounds) of unexplained weight loss or weight gain, fewer than 5% of Americans suffer from hypothyroidism. With over 50 hormones in the human body, several of which have a direct impact on weight, you’d think hormone levels would be checked more often. Think again.

In truth, like Jennifer, many women seek out assistance from their general practitioner (GP) or family medical doctor when they are having trouble with their weight. While these doctors are fabulous at treating colds and flus, most aren’t trained in helping patients deal with hormone-related weight issues. Nor are they trained in nutrition. Jennifer might have had better luck asking her gynecologist about her weight gain – but at her age (36), they may not have suspected reproductive hormones were to blame.

But maybe they should have. One of the biggest culprits of unexplained weight gain and trouble losing weight in females aged 30-50 is estrogen dominance. In fact, over half of American women suffer from this condition. What is estrogen dominance? Estrogen dominance occurs when you have little or no progesterone to balance the effects of estrogen in the body. It can cause a host of symptoms, including weight gain.

But estrogen isn’t the only hormone to blame. Ever heard of products like CortiSlim? Cortisol is a hormone that is produced when we’re stressed – and who isn’t stressed these days? Cortisol has been blamed for everything from heart attacks to belly fat (especially if you’re on synthetic hormone replacement therapy). You may have even seen infomercials on late night TV for products such as CortiSlim, which promised to “block” cortisol production and make you lose weight. (The makers of CortiSlim actually got sued for false advertising in 2007 and had to retract that claim.) But the idea behind the product wasn’t wrong: cortisol has been linked to weight gain .

Finally, most people aren’t aware that appetite regulation is controlled almost entirely by your digestive hormones: ghrelin, leptin, CCK, and orexin to name a few. What we eat determines when and how those hormones get triggered. Yet, no one ever explains that to us. Hormones cause us to be hungry, but it’s not always because we truly need to eat. Ready to learn how to control your hormones to manage your hunger and lose weight – naturally? Stay tuned next week for your first lesson.