Can Hormones Cause Weight Gain?
by Benjamin Bunting BA(Hons) PGCert
Written by Ben Bunting: BA, PGCert. (Sport & Exercise Nutrition) // British Army Physical Training Instructor // S&C Coach.
The conventional beliefs about hormones revolve around the idea of them being nothing more than some chemicals in the body. While some of us know that hormones do various small-to-large scale jobs in the body most of us don’t know much about hormones. In reality, hormones are needed for almost every single function of the body; whether it is small scale or large scale. For instance, hormones give you the ability to grow taller or grow muscles. similarly, if you ask me ‘can hormones cause weight gain?’, the answer is yes.
Hormones have a variety of implications for the body. One of them is weight gain. This is not always the case and weight gain due to hormones can be classified as good or bad. What I mean is that, if you put on 5 pounds of fat around your belly due to eating a lot of high-carb food, that is bad weight gain. On the contrary, you don’t gain 5 pounds of fat, instead, you gain 5 pounds of muscle. Well, the latter one is definitely a good one.
What are Hormones and How do They Control the Body?
Hormones are chemical messengers that are produced by numerous glands, particularly the endocrine glands. Endocrine glands are all glands that release substances into the bloodstream directly. These hormones then travel through the bloodstream and interact with specific target cells all over the body in order to regulate various bodily functions. These bodily functions can vary widely. For example, hormones can influence metabolism, digestion, respiration, tissue function, reproduction, and mood.
Each hormone has a unique structure that allows it to bind to specific receptors on target cells. This is to make sure that the hormones only exert their effects on the exact target tissue. Once a hormone has bound to its receptor, it can either activate or inhibit (stop) the function of that cell. In this way, hormones play a vital role in maintaining homeostasis within the body. Regarding homeostasis, it is just a fancy term for describing the balance within the body; hormonal balance, water balance, and balance within the blood1. Without hormones, the body would be unable to properly regulate its many functions. Even worse, if hormones become even slightly imbalanced it completely throws off the body’s sense of homeostasis.
Which Hormones Cause Weight Gain?
There are a number of hormones that can contribute to sudden weight gain. Hormones that cause weight gain are termed as anabolic hormones. Anabolic hormones are hormones that stimulate the growth of various tissues of the body including fat and muscles. Catabolic hormones, on the other hand, stimulate the breakdown of various tissues. We will be focusing on anabolic hormones since our focus is on weight gain.
One of the most well-known anabolic hormones is insulin, which helps to regulate blood sugar levels or glucose levels. Insulin is a hormone that helps the body use and store glucose (carbs) from the food we eat. It is made in the pancreas and released into the bloodstream, especially following a meal containing carbohydrates (e.g., bread). Insulin works by taking glucose from the bloodstream and moving it into the muscle and fat cells of the body. Insulin also aids in the development of muscles and fat tissues, hence weight gain.2
People with diabetes either do not make enough insulin or their cells do not respond properly to insulin. This causes too much glucose to stay in the blood which can lead to serious health problems like stroke or foot ulcers. Persistently high levels of insulin stimulate lipogenesis (fat synthesis) in the adipose tissue. This is especially common in people suffering from type 2 diabetes which leads them to be overweight. As a result, the body then converts the excess glucose into fat to decrease the alarming levels of glucose. The fat is then deposited all over the body including the stomach, legs, and arms causing an increase in body weight.2
The men’s favorite testosterone and growth hormones are not behind the anabolic race. These two anabolic hormones are widely known for their growth-stimulating roles and are unfortunately abused by many people. Testosterone and growth hormone (GH) stimulates bone growth, muscle growth, and fat breakdown. The perfect combination for athletes!
Testosterone and growth hormone have numerous effects on the body but they do have similar anabolic effects. Both of these hormones amplify the delivery of glucose and amino acid (protein precursor) to the muscle and bone cells. Simultaneously, they turn the growth-stimulating genes, causing an amplification of cell replication and growth. Resultantly, we gain weight. Once again, excess GH and testosterone, whether due to abuse or a disease, can lead to unhealthy weight gain and problems like a heart attack.3–5
Another hormone that can play a substantial role in weight gain is cortisol. Cortisol is sometimes called the "stress hormone" because it is released in response to stressful situations. This can be during exam season, a period of emotional distress, and/or trauma. Cortisol is a complex hormone. During certain periods it works as a catabolic hormone and at other times it works as an anabolic hormone. For example, cortisol is released when you hit a gym session. Normally, this will stimulate other hormones to promote muscle growth.
However, when cortisol levels are constantly high, it can scale you to a bad type of weight gain. Persistently high cortisol levels push the body into breaking down muscle and storing fat instead, the worse thing for most athletes. Moreover, cortisol initiates food cravings. First, cortisol signals the body to release stored glucose into the bloodstream, providing a sudden burst of energy. This energy is then used to help us deal with stressful situations. However, once the stress has passed, we are often left feeling tired and hungry6. This in return, may cause an increase in overall body weight along with a disproportionate-looking body (often described as a pear-shaped body).7
Finally, estrogen and progesterone are two hormones often regarded as female sex hormones. These hormones are responsible for regulating fertility, menstruation, breast development, and other functions in the female body. Estrogen also has anabolic properties. The primary hormone that makes a woman’s body store higher fat is estrogen. This is not bad as women physiologically need extra stores of fat for carrying a baby and breastfeeding. However, an imbalance between estrogen, progesterone, and androgens (testosterone-like hormones) in the body leads to harmful weight gain.
A common condition in women that is notorious for causing sudden weight gain is PCOS. Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) results from an imbalance between various hormones including estrogen. Estrogen is a hormone that helps to regulate our menstrual cycle. When our estrogen levels are too high, it can cause water retention and bloating, which can lead to weight gain. Estrogen can also cause your body to hold on to more fat, and it can also lead to an increase in appetite8.
Treatments for Hormonal Imbalances
Hormonal imbalances are often undiagnosed for years. They start occurring behind the scenes and lead to unnoticed problems. After a certain time, they start causing visible symptoms and weight gain is one of them. The increased in weight occurs even when you are eating healthy and exercising regularly. If you are struggling to lose weight due to hormonal imbalance, there are a few treatment options available. First, you may want to try adjusting your diet. Cutting out processed foods and eating more whole foods can help to regulate hormones and promote weight loss. The goal here is to activate the good weight gain, i.e., muscle gain, and reduce fat gain (bad weight gain).
Additionally, certain supplements can be helpful in balancing hormones and promoting weight loss. There are a number of different supplements that can help to promote hormone balance and weight loss, such as omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and probiotics. A commonly used supplement is zinc. Zinc promotes the synthesis of testosterone and this will help you increase the muscle to fat ratio – positively gained weight.
Moreover, a 2018 study showed that omega-3 fatty acids have shown a substantial improvement in metabolic profile in many obese individuals9. Finally, working with a hormone specialist can help you to identify imbalances and develop a treatment plan that works for you. With the right approach, it is possible to overcome hormonal imbalance-related weight gain and achieve your desired weight.
Hormones are essential for life. They control how our cells work and interact with each other. Hormones are required for a healthy weight gain and a lack of hormones may be the reason many people are underweight. However, when hormone levels get out of balance, it can cause problems in the body such as weight gain. Fortunately, there are ways to correct hormonal imbalances and restore your health. If you’re struggling with sudden weight gain and think hormones might be to blame, with the right treatment, you can get your hormones back on track and start maintaining a good weight.
- Campbell M, Jialal I. Physiology, Endocrine Hormones. StatPearls. Published online October 1, 2021. Accessed May 20, 2022. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538498/
- Wilcox G. Insulin and Insulin Resistance. Clinical Biochemist Reviews. 2005;26(2):19. Accessed June 3, 2022. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16278749/
- Growth Hormone (Somatotropin). Accessed February 9, 2022. http://www.vivo.colostate.edu/hbooks/pathphys/endocrine/hypopit/gh.html
- Nassar GN, Leslie SW. Physiology, Testosterone. StatPearls. Published online January 4, 2022. Accessed May 20, 2022. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK526128/
- Vodo S, Bechi N, Petroni A, Muscoli C, Aloisi AM. Testosterone-induced effects on lipids and inflammation. Mediators of Inflammation. 2013;2013. doi:10.1155/2013/183041
- Torres SJ, Nowson CA. Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity. Nutrition. 2007;23(11-12):887-894. doi:10.1016/J.NUT.2007.08.008
- Chao AM, Jastreboff AM, White MA, Grilo CM, Sinha R. Stress, cortisol, and other appetite-related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6-month changes in food cravings and weight. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2017;25(4):713-720. doi:10.1002/OBY.21790
- Leeners B, Geary N, Tobler PN, Asarian L. Ovarian hormones and obesity. Hum Reprod Update. 2017;23(3):300-321. doi:10.1093/HUMUPD/DMW045
- Albracht-Schulte K, Kalupahana NS, Ramalingam L, et al. Omega-3 fatty acids in obesity and metabolic syndrome: a mechanistic update. J Nutr Biochem. 2018;58:1-16. doi:10.1016/J.JNUTBIO.2018.02.012