Though you might blame intense period cravings on your hormones, those little guys also have the power to make you put down the Rocky Road. To help you build more muscle during every workout, and rev your metabolism. So yeah, you might owe them an apology.
What is it all about?
Whether it’s your period, menopause, stress, a hysterectomy, or plain old heredity, women have felt vulnerable to hormonal cravings and sluggish metabolisms for years, with little to prove it but instinct.
Now science is uncovering several links between female hormones, hunger, weight loss and fat metabolism. And in fact, evidence suggests that taking advantage of female hormones—mechanisms already in place in your molecular biology—may help you to manage your weight, shape, and appetite.
Here are a few suggestions:
1. Chill out
If you’re like many people, you’ve got a demanding job, a family who needs you, and a never-ending to-do list. No wonder you feel tired or depressed, anxious or irritable. Sex—or at least good sex—is a distant memory.
These are all hallmark symptoms of chronic stress. Stress activates the fight-or-flight response, the body’s involuntary response to a threat that makes our hearts pound and our breath shorten. Chief among the hormones released during this response is the stress hormone cortisol.
Cortisol automatically kicks up your appetite, prompting you not only to want to eat huge quantities, but especially to want sweets and simple carbohydrates-foods that make insulin levels spike and then plummet. This may leave you feeling hungrier than ever-and eating again, says Pamela Peeke, MD, and author of Fight Fat After Forty. “Stress fat” is also concentrated in the last place you need it: deep in your tummy.
Schedule regular play periods into your appointment book. Whether it’s piecing together a 1,000-piece puzzle or sledding with your kids, play distracts us from our worries, providing a temporary refuge from stress.
Laugh. In one study conducted at the Loma Linda University’s Center for Neuro-immunology in California, a group of men who watched a humorous video were shown to have 30% less cortisol in their blood and significantly lower levels of another stress hormone, epinephrine, during and after the tape compared with a group that sat quietly.
Get a massage. Deep-pressure massage stimulates the nerves that cause our levels of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine to go down, while the levels of two mood-regulating brain chemicals that act like the hormones serotonin and dopamine rise.
Make love. The more we do, the more endorphins our brains release. These “neuro-hormones”—chemicals released in the brain during exercise and, yes, after sex—are natural painkillers and also help to alleviate anxiety. (
2. Curb cravings all day long.
Commonly dubbed the “satiety” or “feel-full hormone,” leptin decreases your appetite. After it’s released from your body’s fat cells, the hormone acts on your brain’s hypothalamus, where it combats its nemesis ghrelin, the “hunger hormone,” says Alissa Rumsey, R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
In overweight and obese women, chronically high levels of the satiety hormone can lead to leptin resistance (the more fat you have, the more leptin your body will produce). But most women actually have low levels of the hormone, making you super hungry.
Sleep deprivation significantly slashes leptin levels, according to a 2012 review published in the “Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics“. That explains why people with sleep disorders, such as insomnia and sleep apnea, commonly battle with their weight, says Brian Quebbemann, M.D., a bariatric surgeon with the Chapman Medical Center in California. For optimum levels, research from Brigham Young University suggests that women get between 6.5 hours and 8.5 hours of sleep per night, and crash at the same time every day. So start working on that sleep schedule!
3. Build fat-burning muscle.
Women generally think of testosterone as a manly hormone, and ladies do have far less T than our hairy counterparts. But teeny levels of that hormone mean tiny weight-loss results.
Testosterone is actually one of your body’s primary muscle-building hormones. And the more muscle your have, the more calories you burn while doing literally nothing, says Quebbemann. What’s more, low levels of testosterone promote insulin resistance, encouraging your body to store calories as fat, says Pat Gilles, C.S.C.S., a Wisconsin-based trainer.
Pick up something heavy. Lifting heavy weights is the best way to promote the release of muscle-building, fat-burning testosterone, says Gilles. By heavy, we mean enough resistance that you can only do three-to-four sets of six-to-10 reps with proper form. What’s more, performing compound lifts like squats, deadlifts, and assisted pull-ups uses more muscle fibers and spurs optimum testosterone levels, he says.
4. Get outside.
The release of hormones in your brain is regulated by the nerve impulses sent by your retinas in response to light. In other words, living by the earth’s natural cycle of light and darkness keeps your serotonin and cortisol at their proper levels.
Getting at least 30 minutes of natural light a day helps reset our inner alarm clocks, so we’ll want to fall asleep at the right time, says Joyce Walsleben, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at New York University in New York City and author of A Woman’s Guide to Sleep: Guaranteed Solutions for a Good Night’s Rest.
5. Give Your Meals True Staying Power
Every time you eat, your intestines release cholecystokinin, glucagon-like peptide 1, and peptide YY (otherwise known as CCK, GLP-1, and PYY, stick with us). These hormones slow down the movement of food through your GI tract. The result of slow-moving food is that you literally stay full long after your meal, which prevents overeating, says Rumsey.
Begin with a protein “appetizer” 10 minutes before each meal. It’s possible that doing this sends your body the right signals not to overeat, since protein stimulates the production of the appetite-regulating hormones cholecystokinin and glucagon. Have string cheese or a very small handful of nuts before you sit down to dine.
Eat protein, fat, and complex carbs at each meal. To increase your meal’s staying power, first focus on consuming at least 20 to 25 grams of protein at every meal. After all, research from the University of Cambridge shows that high-protein meals, breakfasts specifically, lead to the greatest increases in some of these satiating hormones. Then, make sure to add in vegetable fats and fiber from complex carbs, both of which will improve levels of the gastric-delaying hormones, she says. Think: a veggie and avocado omelet with a piece of whole-wheat toast.
6. Set Your Metabolism Straight
Your thyroid, a bat-shaped gland in your neck, produces various thyroid hormones including T3 and T4, which control how many calories you burn just sitting on your butt.
Generally, autoimmune diseases are the cause of big problems in your thyroid hormone levels. So if you suddenly gain weight, notice your hair thinning, or experience extreme fatigue, reach out to your doctor. However, even healthy women can experience thyroid hormone dips that cause your metabolism to stall.
Eat more seafood. Since iodine deficiency can cause your thyroid to malfunction, try to eat more iodine-rich seafood, such as cod, tuna, and shrimp. Seaweed is also one of the best sources of iodine around, according to the National Institutes of Health. Just check your package’s label, as iodine content can vary widely between brands.
It’s time to get those hormones turnt, baby!