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3 sneaky weight-loss saboteurs
You’ve tried it all—counting calories, ditching carbs, exercising until you’ve worn a path on the treadmill at your local gym. But even though you’re doing everything right, that excess weight just won’t budge. It turns out that there may be something more at work. Recent studies point to three hidden health conditions that can pack on the pounds—and make weight loss seem downright impossible.
1. Blood Sugar Imbalances
When you eat any type of carbohydrate—whether it’s a cookie or a carrot—the body converts it into sugar (glucose). The subsequent rise in blood sugar causes the pancreas to release insulin, a hormone that shuttles the glucose to your muscles. But when the body is flooded with too much blood sugar, the excess glucose is turned into fat in the liver. This fat is then transported to fatty tissue in the body for storage. Once sugar turns to fat, it cannot be turned back into glucose.
Since refined or simple carbohydrates, especially those found in white sugar and white flour, break down more quickly than the complex carbs in vegetables, legumes, or whole grains, they can overwhelm the body’s ability to process them. This can cause a spike in blood sugar, followed by the all-too-familiar “crash” that leaves you craving even more refined carbs. It’s a vicious cycle that prevents fat burning and promotes fat storage, especially in the abdominal area.
You can break the cycle by making simple changes, e.g., opting for brown rice instead of white, and by snacking on nutrient-packed fruits and veggies instead of chips, sweets, and other nutritionally bankrupt foods. A recent study at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. showed that regular, moderate-intensity exercise also helps regulate blood sugar by enhancing insulin sensitivity.
Supplements can help stabilize your blood sugar levels, too. Long used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, bitter melon makes cells more sensitive to the effects of insulin and activates a protein that regulates glucose metabolism in much the same way exercise does.
Salacia is an Ayurvedic herb traditionally used to treat diabetes. When scientists at Ohio State University gave salacia to 39 healthy adults, they found that the herb lowered insulin and blood sugar levels by 29 and 23 percent respectively.
The trace mineral chromium can also boost fat and carbohydrate metabolism. A review of research found that chromium picolinate reduced fasting glucose levels up to 15.3 percent and fasting insulin levels up to 29.8 percent.
Starch blockers such as Phase 2 can also help by reducing the amount of starch from food that’s converted to sugar.
Maitake mushroom shows positive effects on insulin and blood sugar, according to research from Japan’s Department of Food Science and Nutrition.
2. Hormones Gone Haywire
Hormones are the chief executives of the body, governing everything from our sex lives to how stressed out we are and even what we eat, why we eat it, and how these foods are processed by the body. While there are some 200 hormones circulating in the body at any given time, five specific hormones are key players that impact your weight.
The primary hormones that regulate hunger are ghrelin, which tells body when it’s time to eat, and leptin, which tells us when we’ve had enough. The problem is, we can’t always count on these hormones to accurately let us know when we’ve met our physiological need for food. New findings in the journal Vitamins & Hormones suggest that ghrelin levels also respond to the stress-induced desire for pleasurable or rewarding food—which may explain why you polished off that pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream after a bad day at work.
Cortisol, the well-known fight-or-flight hormone, can also hinder your weight-loss efforts by increasing blood glucose levels whenever you are under stress. While this might help you deal with a crisis, studies show that excess cortisol also leads to a heightened appetite and food cravings, especially for fat and sugar. One study at the New York Obesity Research Center found that overweight women with a tendency to binge had higher cortisol levels than overweight women who didn’t binge.
Your reproductive hormones can also contribute to cravings—which should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever succumbed to a premenstrual pigout. As estrogen levels plummet during the week before your period, so do your levels of dopamine and serotonin. Since carbs are the quickest way to restore these feel-good neurotransmitters, it’s little wonder you find yourself reaching for that jelly donut or a bowl full of mashed potatoes.
Deficiencies in estrogen and progesterone may also be linked to an uptick in appetite and the seemingly inevitable weight-gain that plaques many menopausal women. Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland have found that plummeting ovarian hormones may account for the 12 percent jump in the number of women who are overweight in midlife compared to women in their 20s and 30s. And a comprehensive review by the International Menopause Society has found that hormonal changes during menopause also lead to the accumulation of more belly fat.
The good news is that you can optimize your hormone levels by adding some interval training to your exercise routine; balancing insulin levels by making smart food choices; sleeping well; and lowering your stress levels. If that’s still not enough, try adding a fiber supplement to the equation. Fiber helps the body absorb sugars more slowly, which helps to normalize the hormones that regulate hunger. Supplements containing magnolia and phellodendron extracts have also been found to lower cortisol levels and help reign in stress-related eating. In one double-blind study of 28 overweight women that appeared in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 75 percent of the women taking a placebo gained weight compared to just 37 percent of those taking the herbal duo (sold as Relora).
3. A Sluggish Thyroid
Since your thyroid regulates your metabolism, unexpected weight gain and difficulty losing weight may be one of the first noticeable signs that you’re struggling with a sluggish thyroid. Reduced thyroid function may be the result of the thyroid’s impaired ability to produce hormones, or the body may have difficulty using the thyroid hormones.
It’s estimated that as many as 10 percent of adults suffer from clinical hypothyroidism, and most of these are women over the age of 40. However, even small changes to thyroid function can cause weight gain. In fact, many women who have been told their thyroid test results are “normal” may still have a reduced thyroid function (subclinical hypothyroidism) that’s enough to pack on the pounds. Ask your doctor to run a TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) screening. The higher your TSH level, the slower your thyroid. While normal levels typically range from 0.45 and 4.5, a level of 2 or higher can still indicate lower-than-normal thyroid activity that can prevent weight loss.
While iodine is the first nutrient most people think of for optimal thyroid function, most Americans get plenty from their diet. However, if your thyroid function is below par you may be in need of one or more supporting nutrients.
Pantothenic acid supports adrenal glands, which in turn support the thyroid (when adrenals are exhausted, thyroid hormone production can decrease). Selenium is a trace mineral that combines with proteins in the body to form antioxidants known as selenoproteins that help regulate thyroid function. Zinc is another mineral that helps the body convert the thyroid hormone thyroxine (T4) to triiodothyronine (T3), an important process for maintaining steady thyroid function. Several studies also suggest that taking the herb Coleus forskohlii may help promote thyroid health. A 12-week clinical trial of women with sluggish thyroid function conducted at Baylor University in Waco, Texas found that, while supplementing with coleus didn’t promote weight loss, it did help to prevent weight gain. The women taking the coleus also reported less fatigue and hunger.
Kim Erickson is a health writer based in Las Vegas, Nev.
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