People are often told in order to meet their weight loss goals they need to eat clean, work out consistently, and limit the number of calories in versus calories out. Unfortunately, despite working these modifications into their daily lives, they still find their weight loss goals unachieved. I’ve worked with numerous frustrated patients who work out strenuously 5 to 6 times per week, yet are not seeing the results they would like. The overlooked missing piece to weight loss is hormonal imbalances. These imbalances may be preventing you from reaching your weight loss goals.
The two hormones I will focus on for weight loss are cortisol and melatonin. Please note, hormones such as grehlin and leptin (hunger and satiety), testosterone and estrogen (male and female sex hormones), and insulin and glucagon (energy storage and utilization hormones), are all intimately involved in weight loss, but cortisol and melatonin are a simple and effective place to start.
Cortisol often gets a bad rep as our body’s ‘stress hormone’. Cortisol is a primary hormone involved in the body’s stress response, however, cortisol is more appropriately defined as our ‘awake’ hormone. Cortisol is released in the morning and helps us get out of bed, use the bathroom, and provide us with the stimulation to start our day. In a normal functioning endocrine system, cortisol release is high in the morning and then tapers off in the afternoon to allow our sleep hormone, melatonin, the chance to take over.
Melatonin is our ‘sleep’ or ‘darkness’ hormone and it’s release is inhibited with exposure to light. Melatonin helps us wind down in the evening and prepare the mind and body for sleep. Melatonin and cortisol work in opposition to each other. Having one with high levels means the other is not fully expressed. With this in mind, if cortisol levels are abnormally elevated in the afternoon and evening, the normal release of melatonin around lunch time is inhibited, therefore impairing our ability to fall asleep. The entire system is regulated by our circadian rhythm which responds directly to light exposure on the eyeballs. Bright light in the morning stimulates cortisol release, the dimming of light in the evening stimulates melatonin release.
Cortisol becomes a stress hormone when levels remain elevated in the afternoon and early evening. When cortisol release is improperly timed and is still high in the afternoon, we feel anxious and crave sugary, fried, and fatty foods. If our ‘awake’ hormone is elevated in the evening when we are trying to prepare for sleep, we will feel uneasy and distressed. The combination of excess calories from sugary, fried, fatty foods and poor sleep due to excess cortisol and deficient melatonin is what leads to weight gain and the inability to lose weight. Even if you eat a clean diet excess cortisol in the evening will create a stress response causing systemic inflammation. Systemic inflammation and insulin resistance each make weight loss more difficult to achieve and maintain.
The best way to normalize your cortisol/melatonin system is with direct sunlight exposure within 30 minutes of waking. Dr. Andrew Huberman, neurobiologist from Stanford, was recently interviewed on The Tim Ferriss Show Podcast where he suggests everyone get 2-10 minutes of direct sunlight exposure on their eyes first thing in the morning. By stimulating photoreceptors in the eyes, cortisol release is amplified. Going outside for an additional 2-10 minutes in the evening, when the sun is at a low angle, will help to stimulate melatonin and prepare us for sleep. Start your weight loss journey by normalizing your circadian rhythm using direct sunlight exposure in the morning and again in the evening.
Post written by Dr. Riley Kulm, DC. Check out his bio here.
Sleep is the most important cornerstone for optimal health. Without the foundation of a healthy night of sleep, all other health interventions, such as nutrition and exercise, will fall short. Our memory, cognition, and ability to learn new tasks all depend on healthy sleep. ‘Sleep hygiene’ refers to the quality and quantity of sleep you are getting each night. I recommend my patients get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night, depending on activity level, as well as season. During the winter months, you should opt for close to 9 hours of sleep. During the summer months, 7 hours of sleep may be adequate since days are longer and the nights are shorter. Additionally, more sleep is needed the more active you are as it is important to allow your body adequate time to recover after difficult workouts. When helping patients improve their sleep hygiene, there are three interventions I use most frequently, outlined below.
First morning sunshine
Going outside first thing in the morning with as much skin exposed as possible stimulates the body’s release of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is known as our ‘awake hormone’ and gives us the energy to start our day. Cortisol naturally starts to decline around lunch time, and by the evening levels should be low as it starts to get dark and we prepare for sleep. Cortisol becomes problematic when levels remain high in the afternoon. When cortisol levels remain elevated, it becomes a stress hormone and causes us to crave sugary and fatty foods. Additionally, high levels of our ‘awake hormone’ in the evening work against us falling and staying asleep. The best way to ensure cortisol levels are low in the evening is to secrete as much as possible in the morning. Sunshine stimulates cortisol secretion, meaning it is optimal to get plenty of sunshine in the first half of the day.
Turn off electronics at least 90 minutes before bed
Blue light exposure tricks your brain into thinking it is still light outside, decreasing the release of your sleep hormone, melatonin. I recommend turning off all electronics 90 minutes before bedtime. Not only does blue light manipulate our brain into thinking it’s light outside, but often the things we are looking at on our screens, such as social media feeds or work emails, stimulate our brain in a way making sleep difficult. Scrolling through your social media feed causes a release of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which plays a role in the brain’s reward system. When dopamine is released, the brain is stimulated and there are feelings of pleasure. While satisfying at the moment, excessive release of dopamine prior to sleeping will make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Therefore, put those phones away before bed time!
Read fiction before bed
Reading before bed is one of the best ways to prepare our brains for sleep. Giving the brain a singular point of focus, such as a captivating fictional story, will allow you to stop thinking about the stresses of work and life and prepare your brain for sleep. With this in mind, reading materials related to work or checking emails will continue to stimulate our minds and keep us thinking about the day. Consequently, I recommend reading fiction. It is a better way to take your mind away from the pressures of the day. If you are a fan of historical fiction like myself, check out Ken Follet’s new novel, Pillars of the Earth.
Post written by Dr. Riley Kulm, DC. Check out his bio here.
Goal setting has been touted as the most effective way to achieve success in life. We’ve been told to write them down, stick them to our refrigerator door and even to write them on our bathroom mirror. You’ve heard that goals should be SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time oriented. I even wrote a blog post on effective goal setting. Recently, I’ve moved away from goal setting with both myself and my patients, focusing instead on daily habit formation and the implementation of routines that set you up for success now and in the future. The inspiration for this change came after listening to the Atomic Habits audiobook by James Clear. Clear argues that goals are easily procrastinated upon, and can often be too daunting to even get started in the right direction. By focusing on daily habits and routines, you will improve yourself each day, setting yourself up to achieve success and ultimately to conquer even the loftiest of goals.
The problem with goal setting
One of the main problems I see with goal setting is that time oriented goals are susceptible to procrastination. If my goal is to lose 20 lbs. by the end of the year, it’s very easy to let myself wait until 6 or even 3 months are left in the year to start working towards the goal. Why start now when I have an entire year to accomplish my goal? A goal that is set out over a year may lose steam after a couple of months, which is what I commonly see with patients looking to make health changes at the beginning of the New Year. Everyone knows that you will see more people out walking in your neighborhood or exercising at the gym in January, February and March only for it to taper off as the year progresses. Rather than setting a time oriented goal, instead pick daily habits that will incrementally help you achieve whatever you envision for yourself.
Define your ideal self
Before completely throwing away your list of goals, make sure you have a clear idea in your mind of what you want for yourself. Envision your ideal job, body composition, and skill set. Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years? Where do you want to be financially? How do you define your ideal self? Once you’ve established these parameters, you are better suited to implementing daily habits that align with this vision. If you envision yourself as having a fit and healthy body, implementing a daily habit that helps you save money or be more organized doesn’t necessarily bring you closer to your vision. Instead, for weight loss, pick habits such as a consistent gym routine, a healthy breakfast at the same time each morning, or reading a book before bed to help promote optimal sleep and recovery.
Do this instead
As stated previously, the alternative to goal setting is the implementation of daily habits and routines. Habit formation is beneficial because it focuses on daily growth. If we aim to grow and improve ourselves little by little each day, the culmination of consistent work will be incredible in the long term. We may not notice the improvements on a day to day, micro level, however, if we step back after a year and look at the macro improvement the results are substantial. True growth and change does not come with drastic lifestyle changes such as an extreme 10 day fast or juice cleanse but rather with small steps each day in the right direction.
Next, I show you how to reframe your goals into daily habit formation.
Goal #1: ‘I want to lose 20 lbs. before summer’
Habit: I will work to implement a habit where I do 3 sets x 15 push-ups in the morning followed by drinking a 16 ounce glass of water.
Habit: Weather permitting, I will go outside in the morning for a 10 minute walk in the sunshine before work.
(First morning exercise and sunshine stimulates cortisol release and helps to regulate our circadian rhythm. Sufficient cortisol release in the AM will decrease cravings for fried and sugary foods in the evening which occurs if cortisol levels remain high.)
Habit: I will place a pan, plate, and eating utensils out in my kitchen before I go to bed each night. Already having the pan on the stove increases the likelihood that I will cook a homemade breakfast and adopt a more consistent eating schedule that includes breakfast each day.
Goal #2: ‘I want to increase my sales at work by 15% this year’
Habit: I will wake up at the same time every day to ensure a consistent sleep schedule and to increase my productivity at work.
Habit: I will call 2 potential new clients each day prior to leaving for lunch.
Habit: I will send a thank you card to 2 existing clients each week thanking them for their business.
For work related goals, consider setting up a daily, weekly, and monthly checklist in a binder or whiteboard to track progress of tasks to be completed. Make these tasks part of your habits at work and you will see your productivity increase.
Goal #3: ‘I want to improve my relationship with my parents’
Habit: Each morning I will practice gratitude by writing down 3 things in my life that I am grateful as part of a journaling routine.
Habit: I will call one of my parents every Friday after work to check in.
Goal #4: ‘I want to be more organized’
Habit: Each morning I will make my bed as the first task to be completed in my day. Making your bed each morning sets yourself up for success throughout the rest of your day and helps you to establish a task completion mindset.
Habit: Each morning when my coffee is brewing I will take 5 minutes to tidy up my living room so I leave for work with an organized living space.
Goal #5: ‘I want to get better sleep this year’
Habit: I will develop a habit where I turn off all electronics at least 1 hour before bed time. Blue light exposure stimulates cortisol release at the wrong time of day and will make falling and staying asleep more difficult.
Habit: Prior to going to bed I will write out tomorrow’s ‘To Do’ list in a journal that I keep by my night stand. Getting tomorrow’s tasks written down will give you peace of mind and allow your brain to turn off before going to sleep.
Habit: I will read for 20 minutes before bed. Reading, especially fiction, gives your brain a singular point of focus, and helps you get your mind off of the day’s stresses.
I hope this article gives you valuable insight into daily habit formation and the power it can have. I finish with a quote from W.H. Auden – ‘Routine, in an intelligent man (or woman), is a sign of ambition.’
Post written by Dr. Riley Kulm, DC. Check out his bio here.