7 imbalances that may hinder weight-loss efforts

Common health conditions like chronic inflammation, low serotonin or high cortisol levels can make it tough to shed pounds.

Woman Stretching before a workout

Photo, Getty Images.

This article was originally published in March 2013, and was updated in June 2016.

Have you been unable to lose weight even with diet and exercise? No matter how an imbalance manifests on the outside, the internal reality remains the same — many hormonal imbalances lead to difficulty losing weight and an increased risk of obesity. Unfortunately, the most common imbalances can’t be solved by dieting alone. In fact, they can prevent successful fat loss even when great diet and exercise plans are in place. If you haven’t been successful in the past, chances are, one or more the following hormonal imbalances could be your culprit:

1. Inflammation
Digestive disorders, allergies, autoimmune disease, arthritis, asthma, eczema, acne, abdominal fat, headaches, depression and sinus disorders are associated with chronic inflammation, which has become recognized as a root cause of obesity and many diseases associated with aging, like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and cancer. At the 2007 Postgraduate Nutrition Symposium at Harvard University, researchers revealed findings suggesting that inflammation and excess insulin are the major contributors to rising rates of type 2 diabetes and the rising obesity rates of North America.

2. Insulin resistance
Insulin is an essential substance whose main function is to regulate glucose in the bloodstream and allow cells to use it as fuel or stored as fat.

When you have insulin resistance, your cells fail to respond properly to insulin, which causes your pancreas to produce and release even more insulin. High insulin levels encourage your body to store unused glucose as fat, and also blocks the use of stored fat as an energy source.

High insulin levels, obesity, high lipid levels and insulin resistance all characterize a disorder called hyperinsulinema, which can be a precursor to diabetes. The leading risk factors are being overweight or obese, or leading a sedentary lifestyle.

Here are seven ways to improve you insulin sensitivity.

3. Low serotonin
Serotonin exerts a powerful influence over our mood, emotions, memory, cravings (especially for carbohydrates), self-esteem, pain tolerance, sleep habits, appetite, digestion and body temperature regulation. When we’re depressed or down, we naturally crave more sugars and starches to stimulate the release of serotonin.

Plenty of sunlight, supplementing your diet with a B vitamin, and regular exercise all support serotonin. When we measure our current lifestyle against all the elements necessary for the body’s natural production of serotonin, the prevalence of low serotonin is certainly not surprising.

4. Chronic stress
Under situations of chronic stress — whether the stress is physical, emotional, mental or environmental, real or imagined — our bodies release high amounts of the hormone cortisol. If you have a condition like anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder, or if you have a digestive issue such as irritable bowel syndrome, you can bet your body is cranking up your cortisol. Through a complicated network of hormonal interactions, elevated cortisol results in a raging appetite (specifically cravings for carbs), belly fat and a loss of hard-won muscle tissue, elevated blood sugar, and visceral fat storage.

Did you know that workplace stress can be as toxic to your body as second-hand smoke? Check out some tips to stay calm and beat stress.

5. High estrogen
Researchers have identified excess estrogen (in both sexes) to be a risk factor for obesity. Researchers have found that estrogen receptors in the brains of animals are responsible for controlling foo intake, energy expenditure, and body fat distribution.

There are two ways to accumulate excess estrogen in the body: we either produce too much of it on our own or acquire it from our environment or diet. We’re constantly exposed to estrogen-like compounds in foods that contain toxic pesticides, herbicides and growth hormones. A premenopausal woman with estrogen dominance will likely have PMS, too much body fat around the hips and difficulty losing weight. Menopausal women may experience low libido, memory loss, poor motivation, depression, loss of muscle mass and increased belly fat.

Click here to find out how estrogen may be making you gain weight.

6. Low testosterone
Testosterone enhances libido, bone density, muscle mass, strength, motivation, memory, fat burning and skin tone in both men and women. When testosterone is low, an increase of body fat and loss of muscle may still happen — even with dieting and exercise.

Testosterone levels tend to taper off with age, increased obesity and stress, but today men are experiencing testosterone decline much earlier in life — an alarming finding, considering low testosterone has been linked to depression, obesity, osteoporosis, heart disease and even death.

Dr. Mitchell Harman, an endocrinologist at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, blames the proliferation of endocrine-suppressing, estrogen-like compounds used in pesticides and other farming chemicals for the downward trend in male testosterone levels. Phthalates, commonly found in cosmetics, soaps and most plastics are another known cause of testosterone suppression.

7. Hypothyroidism
Without enough thyroid hormone, every system in the body slows down. Those who suffer from hypothyroidism feel tired, tend to sleep a lot, experience constipation and weight gain typically occurs. Extremely dry skin, hair loss, slower mental processes, feeling cold, brittle hair, splitting nails, infertility, poor memory, depression, decreased libido and an inability to lose weight are also symptoms to watch for.


Natasha Turner, N.D., is a naturopathic doctor and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet, The Supercharged Hormone Diet and The Carb Sensitivity Program. She’s also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique and a regular guest on The Dr. Oz Show and The Marilyn Denis Show. For more wellness advice from Natasha Turner, click here

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