The Real Reason Behind Weight Gain

February 06, 2019

The Real Reason Behind Weight Gain


There are so many diets out there that you may or may not have tried. 

  • Mediterranean diet
  • Keto diet
  • Paleo diet
  • Atkins diet
  • Jenny Craig/Weigh Watchers
  • Low fat/Low Carb
  • High fat/Low Carb

These diets all work, but how long does the weight actually stay off? What typically ends up happening is that you fall into the “binge-starve” cycle of dieting:

  1. Desire to be thin
  2. Start a diet
  3. Carvings kick in
  4. Binge eat
  5. Regain weight

The underlying issue behind most people’s weight gain is not just poor diet or a sedentary lifestyle. Some people eat all the right foods, and do all the cardio and strength training they can possibly fit into their schedule, and still manage to gain rather than lose weight! 

This is why we have to look at excess weight from a different perspective and see it as a symptom. So in holistic fashion, I like to look at the root cause of this symptom, rather than help my clients to just “lose weight”.

I don't see excess weight as the problem, but rather a symptom.

There are a few major causative factors behind weight gain, which I'll be talking about here:

  • adrenal fatigue
  • insulin resistance/elevated insulin levels
  • hypothyroid & Hashimoto's 
  • estrogen dominance

Adrenal fatigue

Adrenal fatigue or "adrenal insufficiency" refers to a condition which is not recognized in conventional medicine. It relates to the adrenal glands, which are “party hat”-shaped endocrine glands that sit on top of each kidney. They're responsible for producing several hormones, one of which is cortisol; famously known as our stress hormone. Cortisol has been vilified in the past, but in fact, cortisol is critical to insulin control and blood sugar balance. 

The normal cortisol cycle throughout the day is when you wake up, cortisol is high, and slowly decreases throughout the day. An irregular cortisol cycle is: cortisol is low when you wake up and slowly increases throughout the day. Leaving you tired and wired at night. You have trouble sleeping, you wake up feeling tired in the morning, etc. When you're under chronic stress (and who isn't these days?!), these glands are in high gear, producing cortisol at irregular times in the day, causing hormonal imbalance. This leads to: 

    • sugar and salt cravings (chips and cookies, anyone?)
    • a "second wind" in the evening
    • waking up at 3 or 4 am, with difficulty falling back to sleep
    • trouble opening your eyes in the sunlight during the day (therefore, always wearing sunglasses outside)
    • trouble losing weight, and gaining the "muffin top" (i.e. concentrated belly fat)
    • low libido
    • low blood pressure (you feel dizzy when you quickly stand up from sleeping position)
    • chronic fatigue syndrome (which affects up to 2.5 million Americans)

Oftentimes, you turn to coffee and/or tea (even multiple times a day), just to "keep you awake" or give you "more energy". But in fact, coffee and tea have the exact opposite effect.

These stimulants are putting the adrenal glands into overdrive, making them produce more cortisol, and driving into a vicious cycle of over-stimulation. 

So what's one to do to get the adrenals back into shape?

Here are some things to add to your daily routine to help revive your adrenals:

  • Minerals, and more specifically, salt, are vital for nourishing the adrenals, you can get this from adding high quality sea salt (Celtic or Himalayan salt only) (1/4 tsp to 16 oz water at room temperature). 
  • Avoid caffeine (this includes decaf coffee, because coffee in general is a diuretic, which means it depletes you of minerals)
  • Give yourself permission to rest
  • Go to bed at the same time each night, and get at least 7 hours of sleep.
  • Opt for gentler exercises (low cardio), such as walking, yoga, pilates and strength training (avoid high-intensity-interval training and running or sprinting)
  • Meditation and deep breathing exercises
  • Spend more time outdoors and avoid wearing sunglasses, even if it's uncomfortable. This will allow your circadian rhythm to reset and improve your sleep.

All of this is essential to revitalize your adrenals and while quitting coffee is a must, fear not, because it's not permanent! Once you get back to your "normal self", you can enjoy that cup of joe again, but I wouldn't recommend it daily, as the addiction can quickly redevelop and derail your efforts.


Insulin Resistance & the Blood Sugar Roller Coaster

Insulin is the messenger hormone that's released whenever glucose is in the blood. When you eat carbs, they break down into glucose (i.e. sugar), which then activates the pancreas to release insulin to the blood so it can shuttle the glucose into the cells and the liver.

When you eat high-carb foods, it causes rapid increase in blood sugar, so the pancreas releases a large amount of insulin (more than needed) to reduce the amount of glucose in the blood. This causes glucose levels to drop more than they should, which puts the body in crisis mode. This makes you feel like fainting, you get the "hangry" feeling, you're irritable, weak or dizzy. This puts the body under stress. The adrenal glands hear that "stress alarm" and start to produce cortisol (yup, now it's making even more) and epinephrine (aka. adrenaline) because this is another way to make glucose. It does that to bring the body into "glucose equilibrium". Can you see how this depletes the adrenals even more, now from the food that you eat too?

When blood sugar is too low, the body also sees this as a "craving". You start to look for something that's high in sugar, because your blood sugar is low. You then go for that cookie or high sugar "energy bar" to raise your blood sugar levels, resulting in the blood sugar roller coaster.

Over time, you develop a condition called "insulin resistance", which means your cells and organs no longer respond to insulin's message to take in glucose. This results in a high level of glucose in blood as well as insulin, which is a recipe not only for type 2 diabetes, but also a high level of inflammation, and weight gain or the inability to lose weight is directly tied to inflammation. 

In order to prevent this, a low carb diet will help to reverse insulin resistance as well as keep blood sugar in balance. This means that the other two macronutrients (protein and fat) must then be increased. Thus, making the high fat/low carb (not to be confused with the ketogenic diet!) a viable option. Fat is needed for hormone synthesis, and as we've seen, hormone imbalance is directly related to weight gain/loss. What's more important is the type of fats consumed. For more on healthy fats, see my blog post on Fats 101 (coming soon).  Proteins are also important, but the reason I don't recommend increasing your protein to more than 20% of your plate is twofold: high protein will negatively affect your kidneys over time, as they are the key organs for helping break down protein; and protein in excess will convert to glucose, which will reverse your low carb efforts to begin with.


Thyroid Conditions

The thyroid is a very important gland responsible for the production of a number of thyroid hormones which are responsible for providing cells with more energy, and thus have an important effect on your metabolism. 

The hypothalamus (a small part of your brain) is responsible for managing hunger, thirst, sleep, hormones, and body temperature, among other important functions. It continuously monitors the level of thyroid hormones in the bloodstream and communicates with the thyroid to make more or less by sending hormonal signals. When the thyroid hormones are out of balance, it can result in hypothyroid or hyperthyroid. When a high number of thyroid antibodies are present, then this is an indication of an autoimmune condition attacking the thyroid gland.

Hypothyroid is the most common condition where the thyroid is not producing enough active thyroid hormone. Instead, it can leave you with any of the following symptoms: 

  • hair loss
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • brain fog (poor memory or concentration)
  • cold intolerance
  • constipation
  • fatigue
  • dry skin/hair
  • goiter (swelling in the front of the neck)
  • infertility
  • insomnia
  • frequent colds/infections
  • weight gain 

There are 4 main thyroid hormones and 2 thyroid antibodies to pay attention to:

  • TSH - Hormone produced by pituitary gland; it tells the thyroid to produce thyroid hormone (T3)
  • Free T3 - Most active form of thyroid hormone
  • Free T4 - Precursor thyroid hormone to active thyroid hormone (T3)
  • Reverse T3 - Inactive storage form of thyroid hormone T3
  • TPO (Thyroid peroxidase antibody) - The most sensitive test for detecting autoimmune thyroid disease
  • AntiTG Antibody - Thyroglobulin is a protein found in thyroid cells. This tests for antibodies to the TG protein.

    Signs that you have hypothyroid are very similar to adrenal fatigue. This is primarily because 

    Hypothyroid is almost always preceded by adrenal fatigue.

    Chronic stress (i.e. high cortisol level) signals the body to conserve energy, which means your thyroid is told to put a hold on anything but the bare necessities of energy production. Fat burning and metabolism don't fall into the "bare necessities" category. That includes other functions that require a lot of energy, such as sex drive and reproduction. 

    Your general practitioner will most likely have blood labs run to check your TSH, and sometimes free T3 and free T4. To get a true sense of what is truly going on, it's essential to have a sense of the value of all of the above hormones and antibodies. While TSH may appear normal, your T4 or T3 might be out of range. Similarly, your T3 can be within range, while TSH is not. What those numbers look like will give an overall picture of what the thyroid is struggling with. And with that, it will give us an indication of what nutrients are needed to help optimize those hormone levels, because the chemical reactions that occur to produce those hormones require specific nutrients, such as vitamin C, zinc and selenium. Without them, these reactions cannot occur.

    Think of the thyroid gland as the gas that runs the car engine, which is your metabolism. Without enough of the thyroid hormones, your metabolism will be slow, and thus lead to weight gain. 

    Getting thyroid antibodies checked is also important to rule out the thyroid autoimmune condition called Hashimoto's Thyroiditis. This is a condition where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, which then leads to inflammation, extreme fatigue, hair loss, weight gain, and if left untreated, can be life-threatening. 

    Blood lab ranges for thyroid hormones are much broader than functional ranges that a health care practitioner would use. Functional ranges are narrower and are used to asses the risk for disease before it actually develops. Meanwhile, if you're out of the lab range, then you're already in the chronic state of the condition/disease. 

    If you feel any of the above symptoms but your lab results are within the lab range, then follow your gut and seek the help of a health care practitioner who can help you get back to your normal self!  


    Estrogen dominance

    Contrary to common belief, estrogen is actually a group of hormones that play an important role in the sexual and reproductive development in women. There is no single hormone called "estrogen", but rather a group of sex hormones classify as estrogen. The ovaries produce most estrogens, as well as the adrenal glands, and, to a lesser extent, fat cells. However, the more fat cells in the body, the more estrogen is produced, because of the vicious cycle of fat cells producing estrogen, and that estrogen in turn promoting fat gain. 

    Brining cortisol back into the picture, not only does it have an impact on insulin and thyroid hormones, but it also affects your ability to clear estrogen from your body through your liver. Under chronic stress, elevated cortisol causes the accumulation of estrogen, because cortisol causes fat cells to become larger, giving them the ability to produce more estrogen.

    Signs that you have estrogen dominance: 

    • excess weight around thighs, hips, buttocks
    • heavy periods
    • breast swelling and pain
    • depression
    • fatigue
    • low libido
    • oily skin
    • excess facial hair
    • high insulin levels (overproduction of insulin)
    • acne
    • diagnosis of estrogen dominant conditions (polycystic ovary syndrome, uterine fibroids, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, breast cancer)

    In order to eliminate this excess estrogen, good digestion, strong liver support and detoxification, as well as daily elimination are key. This means that an adequate intake of fibre (at least 35 grams per day), and supporting the liver by making 75% of your plate comprise of vegetables. It's important to also limit the intake of starchy carbs (such as grains, white potatoes) as they lead to increased insulin, which also results in a build up of fat cells.

    So to make a long story short, quit stressin'!! I know that's much easier said than done, but get started with some of the suggestions above and get the proper testing done, so you can get to the root cause of your weight gain and stubborn weight issues. Work with your physician or health care practitioner to get the lab results interpreted and get started on reversing those causative factor!

    You can book a free 20 minute call with me to discuss your concerns with any of these root causes to weight gain!

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