Sometimes, it seems like you’re doing everything right when it comes to diet and exercise, yet you still aren’t making progress on your body composition goals.
If you’ve ever had trouble seeing the results of your hard work at the gym, what you may be observing is the outcome of your body’s internal struggle with your hormone levels.
Hormones can be thought of as your body’s “messengers.” These chemicals are made by your endocrine glands and travel throughout your body via your bloodstream, regulating important processes, including your growth and metabolism.
Because they’re such an integral part of your body’s functioning, having too much or too little of any hormone can have a very real impact on how well your body’s systems work.
In this article, we’ll go over some of the most common hormones that affect body composition.
We’ll also talk about some ways to bring any imbalanced hormone levels back to normal so that your body will begin responding more positively to interventions designed to improve your body composition.
Of course, you should consult your medical provider before implementing any of these suggestions!
5 Hormones That Are Important for Your Body Composition
Insulin is a crucial hormone for your metabolism. It helps your body to properly digest and store glucose, a kind of sugar.
However, because insulin is such a crucial player in your metabolism, this also means that having irregular insulin levels can negatively impact your body composition, not to mention your health as a whole.
Why? Well, one of the key roles of insulin is to bring the sugar that’s circulating in your bloodstream into your cells, where it can be used as an energy source.
If you are consistently eating a diet that is high in fat and sugar, your body needs to release more and more insulin to bring sugar from your bloodstream into your cells for energy.
Over time, these high insulin levels can make your cells less responsive to insulin, a state that is referred to as insulin resistance.
In cases like these, since your cells are less efficient at bringing sugar inside them to use for energy, the sugar remains in your bloodstream and is thus more likely to be stored for later use as fat tissue.
Insulin resistance is linked to a variety of conditions. It can often occur alongside obesity, and it’s also associated with long-term health concerns like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
As a result, your insulin levels can help or hinder your fitness goals. For example, a weight loss intervention study on healthy women with different levels of insulin resistance put all the women on a similar calorie restriction but instructed some of them to follow an at-home exercise program.
The researchers found that although the insulin-resistant women lost more weight over time, exercise promoted weight loss only in women who did not show any insulin resistance.
How to balance insulin levels
Dietary changes like increasing your consumption of fiber (found in whole grains, non-starchy vegetables, and raw fruit) and minimizing your consumption of simple sugars may help improve insulin resistance.
But it’s best to talk to a doctor if you believe that your insulin levels are imbalanced, or if you’re experiencing insulin resistance, since it can be linked to serious issues like diabetes.
In these cases, you might even need to take exogenous insulin as a medication to reach optimal levels.
If there’s one hormone that has gotten a reputation as a potential saboteur of fitness goals in the past few years, it’s cortisol, “the stress hormone.”
Cortisol is directly responsible for your “fight or flight” instinct—the feeling that kicks in when you’re faced with a potentially dangerous situation.
One of cortisol’s main modes of operation is to act on your liver, breaking down your stored glycogen into glucose (aka blood sugar), so that your cells can access a quick and efficient source of energy in the event that you need to spring into action.
In the short term, this makes cortisol highly beneficial (for instance, if you need to generate quick energy to run away from a life-threatening danger).
Unfortunately, many people are under chronic, ongoing levels of high stress that can contribute to consistent metabolic changes, which can have a negative impact on your health and your fitness goals over the long term.
For example, in a population-based study of Japanese individuals, researchers found that higher levels of cortisol were associated with decreased insulin secretion.
As we’ve already discussed, insulin is important for managing your metabolism, and low levels can lead to metabolic inefficiency (a potential factor in weight gain).
In addition, all of that stress can also take a toll on your behavior and habits.
For some people, stress may trigger overconsumption, or, “stress eating,” which can get in the way of hitting your body composition targets if you’re trying to reduce body fat.
How to balance cortisol levels
Stress can sometimes feel inevitable depending on your lifestyle. However, finding healthier ways to manage that stress may help.
Various studies have found that meditation may decrease cortisol levels in at-risk populations. Additionally, exercise might also help improve cortisol levels in some populations, especially people dealing with long-term conditions.
Finally, if you find that you tend to put your sleep on the back burner, you may find that prioritizing high-quality sleep can help, since cortisol is released based on your natural circadian rhythms.
Testosterone is another important player in your fitness level, because it can directly influence your body’s ability to build muscle.
Testosterone is perhaps best known as a male reproductive hormone. However, testosterone is an important driver of muscle growth and maintenance for everyone and can influence lean mass in women as well as in men.
In addition, testosterone is also thought to play a role in body fat. For instance, in men, testosterone deficiency is associated with increased fat mass. Testosterone is especially associated with increased belly fat.
How to balance testosterone levels
Testosterone levels largely depend on your genetics and your age, and it’s fairly normal for testosterone levels to decrease as you get older.
But you can also increase your testosterone levels with lifestyle changes.
For example, studies have shown that testosterone levels increase immediately after moderate-intensity and high-intensity training, although this result is temporary.
There’s also some evidence that certain herbs can increase testosterone in healthy young men, but talk to your doctor first to determine whether this is the right course of action for you.
Avoid over-the-counter steroids, which are marketed as supplements that increase your testosterone but can have dangerous symptoms and side effects like heart and liver damage.
Finally, some circumstances may warrant testosterone replacement therapy. If you think testosterone replacement therapy might be appropriate for your needs, reach out to a medical professional.
If you find that your appetite is often high, and you’re eating more than your body really needs for energy, it may be in part due to the hormone ghrelin.
Ghrelin is a hormone that’s responsible for triggering hunger. Along with leptin, another hormone that plays a role in inhibiting your appetite, ghrelin can influence your eating habits.
Having high levels of ghrelin in your system naturally increases your appetite and cravings, which may drive calorie overconsumption.
Because your body’s ability to maintain its weight depends largely on the amount of energy that you consume versus the energy that you spend during the day, eating more calories than necessary can ultimately lead to fat storage and/or having a harder time losing weight.
In addition to the behavioral aspect, ghrelin may also play roles in influencing how your body stores fat. Plus, ghrelin can influence how your body releases growth hormone, a hormone that regulates various aspects of body composition—including muscle growth.
So, you can see what a strong impact ghrelin can have on body composition!
How to balance ghrelin
To manage your appetite, start by filling your plate with nutrient-dense and filling foods that trigger fullness.
Foods that have plenty of dietary fiber and/or lean protein are good choices, since they can fill you up while delivering the nutrients your body needs for growth and fat loss.
It’s also a good idea to prioritize your sleep if you find that your appetite is larger than your caloric needs. Studies show that ghrelin levels can increase with sleep deprivation.
5. Thyroid Hormones
Finally, if you find that your body is holding onto fat even if you’re doing everything else right, it’s worth looking at your thyroid levels.
Your thyroid is an organ that produces several hormones that are important for regulating the speed of your metabolism (in other words, how quickly your body uses energy).
As a result, if there is something wrong with your thyroid, and it can’t produce enough hormones, it can cause your metabolism to slow down, ultimately leading to unexplained weight gain.
On the other hand, you can also have thyroid levels that are too high, which will speed up your metabolism to abnormal levels. This may contribute to unexplained weight loss.
How to balance thyroid hormones
If your thyroid is underproducing or overproducing hormones, your best bet is to talk to your doctor.
While there is evidence that eating a healthy diet with micronutrients like iodine, selenium, iron, zinc, and Vitamins B12, D, and A may help reduce symptoms of thyroid issues or prevent thyroid risks in the future, an over- or under-active thyroid is a medical issue.
Treating it may require medication to supplement low hormone levels or inhibit overactive thyroid activity.
Your diet and exercise routines are absolutely the most crucial pieces of the puzzle when it comes to improving your body composition.
However, if your hormone levels are not where they should be, it can make your progress much slower.
By investigating and addressing any hormone imbalances, you can help your metabolism become a more efficient system that helps you reach your goals.