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.