Weight gain and obesity have a high and rising prevalence in most countries these days, and women are at an increased risk. According to the World Health Organization’s World Health Statistics Report 2012, one in six adults is obese and nearly 2.8 million people die each year due to being overweight or obese globally.

Obesity is also linked to other metabolic disorders including hypertension, diabetes, dyslipidemia, cardiovascular disease and even some cancers. A study conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research and India Diabetes (ICMR-INDIAB) in 2015, found that (a) India’s 2.8 billion-strong population is already at risk of issues related to obesity and (b) Indian women have a higher prevalence of obesity due to a number of reasons.

Weight gain in women can naturally happen owing to a number of causes, but most are related to hormonal imbalance. The endocrine glands in the body secrete hormones, which are chemical messengers that travel around the body via the bloodstream and tell organs and tissues how to function. Too much or too little of a hormone refers to a hormonal imbalance and can affect the normal function of the body.

Among women, this imbalance - especially in female hormones - might be associated with certain stages of reproductive life, like pregnancy and menopause, or it can happen due to other health issues. In all these cases, the likelihood of weight gain and obesity is quite high. Here is everything you need to know about how hormonal imbalance in women can lead to weight gain:

  1. High-risk stages that can lead to weight gain
  2. Weight gain due to hunger hormones
  3. Weight gain due to estrogen levels
  4. Weight gain due to thyroid hormones
  5. Weight gain due to cortisol levels
  6. Weight gain due to insulin levels
  7. How to treat weight gain due to hormonal imbalance?
Doctors for Can Hormonal Imbalance Cause Weight Gain in Women?

There are a number of natural stages in a woman’s life which involve major hormonal changes. These are also landmarks when the risks of excessive weight gain are increased. The following are the stages of a woman’s life when she’s at a greater risk of weight gain due to hormonal imbalance.

  • Puberty: This is the period of a woman’s life when she starts menstruating since her body starts producing estrogen, luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). Most girls usually hit a growth spurt during this time, and it may involve weight gain depending on dietary patterns, exercise and other issues.
  • Pregnancy: During pregnancy, estrogen and progesterone levels shoot up and play an important role in the development of the foetus. Weight gain occurs partially due to these high hormone levels and also because the body goes through nesting. It stores fats to provide for the foetus and the mother’s energy levels in case there is a requirement later. This weight is usually easy to lose post-pregnancy if the mother follows a proper diet during pregnancy, exercises regularly, and follows a similar regimen after the baby is delivered. 
  • Interval between pregnancies: Many women find it difficult to lose weight after pregnancy. If these women get pregnant soon after delivering their baby, they are at an even higher risk of gaining more weight during the second pregnancy. Hormonal imbalance in the cases of these women makes weight loss more difficult still, leading to obesity. This is the reason why a gap of 12-23 months between pregnancies is necessary.
  • Menopause: Menopause refers to the time of life when a woman stops menstruating. The body naturally stops producing estrogen, LH and FSH, and other reproductive hormones. These inevitable changes often lead to weight gain, depending mostly on dietary changes, lifestyle factors and other health issues.
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There are two chief hunger hormones in the body - ghrelin and leptin. Leptin is a hormone made of fat cells that decreases appetite, while ghrelin is a hormone that increases appetite. Fluctuations in the levels of these hormones are related to weight gain. Moreover, people who are already gaining weight tend to build up a resistance to leptin, which makes it even more difficult for them to suppress hunger. This in turn leads to overeating and more weight gain.

Estrogen is the primary female sex hormone responsible for the proper function of the reproductive system and other gender characteristics. There is a natural increase in estrogen levels during pregnancy, and menopause refers to the time when estrogen production gradually peters out - and these stages are also linked to weight gain among women. However, low estrogen levels can occur at any time due to the following reasons, which in turn can cause weight gain. 

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The thyroid hormone, secreted by the thyroid glands located in the neck, regulates metabolism. People whose thyroid function is not normal - that is, they have been diagnosed with hypothyroidism - have a low metabolic rate, while those who have an overactive thyroid function (hyperthyroidism) have very high metabolic rates. This obviously affects how your body metabolises food and creates energy, which is in turn related to weight gain. Hypothyroidism usually leads to weight gain - in fact, being overweight or obese is one of the key symptoms of hypothyroidism. Obesity and weight gain due to hypothyroidism can be quite difficult to deal with.

You might also be interested in: Yoga for thyroid problems

Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, is secreted by the adrenal glands in a pattern that depends on the time of day. Usually, cortisol levels are highest early in the morning and lowest around midnight. Cortisol helps maintain blood pressure levels, stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism and regulates blood sugar levels.

Disruptions in cortisol secretion not only impairs these functions and promotes weight gain, but also determines where in your body is it likely to add that gained weight to. Most studies prove that high levels of stress and increased cortisol levels can lead to an increase in abdominal weight, which in turn is linked to the occurrence of cardiovascular diseases.

Insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas, regulates blood sugar levels in the body. It helps break down and transfer glucose to all the cells of the body. So, when the insulin levels in the body are low or when your body has a resistance to insulin, this function does not take place properly and the glucose stays in the bloodstream instead of reaching the cells and being used up as energy. This leads to diabetes and weight gain, and the latter specifically occurs because glucose in the blood which is not used up gets stored as fat in the body.

Read more: Gestational diabetes symptoms, causes, treatment and prevention

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The first thing to understand is that weight gain due to hormonal imbalances is quite common among women, but should not be taken lightly because it is usually linked to other comorbidities like cardiovascular disease, infertility, diabetes, hypertension and disorders of the reproductive system like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, uterine fibroids, etc.

Getting yourself checked and conducting hormone tests to confirm which hormones are depleted (or shooting up) is the first step in dealing with weight gain due to hormonal imbalance. Once the hormones that are not being secreted or used by the body properly are identified, your doctor will recommend a treatment protocol. Usually, the following therapeutic steps are recommended by doctors:

  • Balanced diet: Depending on the hormones that are out of balance, your diet will have to be regulated. Usually, the consumption of saturated and trans fats, high-sugar foods, processed foods, sugary drinks and alcohol is linked to hormonal imbalance. Eliminating these and following a balanced diet including more fiber, protein, vitamin, mineral and antioxidant-rich foods can improve hormone function.
  • Exercise: Getting proper exercise and achieving high fitness levels is very important to maintain hormonal balance in the body. Unless the problem is with estrogen and testosterone levels, or your doctor recommends otherwise, jogging, walking, yoga, aerobic exercises, swimming, cycling, etc are good exercises that regulate hormone function in the body.
  • Hormone therapy: This type of therapy involves taking hormones or hormone medications orally. Once the doctor knows which type of hormones you have a lack or surplus of, he or she will recommend hormone medications which you will have to take for a period of time to regulate hormone function in your body. This type of therapy requires the guidance of a specialist and proper adherence of medications and protocols by the patient.
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