Why hormones make you heavy

To look further at hidden causes of weight gain, I’d like to address how hormone imbalance plays an important role.

In addition to other sneaky factors that cause you to gain weight, the hormones most directly involved in abnormal weight gain are low thyroid function and elevated cortisol (stress hormone), although the sex steroid hormones can also play a role.

Low thyroid function

Thyroid levels will be the first hormone your doctor will test for if you complain of unwanted weight gain. Chances are your TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) level will test normal and your doctor will feel this rules out low thyroid as a contributing cause. But there is more to know about thyroid hormone test results. Let me explain.

While it is true that standard TSH, free T3 and free T4 tests measure circulating hormone levels, they do not necessarily measure their function in your thyroid-sensitive tissues. This may explain the disconnect for many of you who have been feeling low in thyroid hormone yet your doctor reports that your thyroid is normal.

Here are some ways this happens:

  1. Decreased thyroid hormone uptake by target tissue cells; reduced lymphatic drainage associated with low thyroid function results in the accumulation of connective tissue waste products that impede blood circulation to these tissues
  2. Decreased conversion of T4 (more prevalent) into T3 (more biologically active) forms of thyroid hormone
  3. Hormones vary tremendously during the day, and these blood tests are only a snapshot in time. Stress, in particular, will increase many hormones but not necessarily increase their utilization in target tissues
  4. The TSH test is a feedback hormone and will only change when thyroid levels drop substantially, lagging behind what may be circulating in your blood (but once again, not necessarily indicating what is happening inside tissue cells)
  5. Understand that lab reference ranges of “normal” are established by measuring thyroid levels of a general population, not from optimally healthy individuals

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Thyroid function self-test

Some European endocrinologists identify thyroid deficiency without using blood tests. They then successfully manage low thyroid based on this self-test. It is called the basal body temperature test, and here’s how you can do it at home…

Using a thermometer, check your axillary (armpit) temperature first thing in the morning while still lying in bed for 3 minutes. Check your temperature at least three different mornings. If your temperature is consistently below 97.8 °F (and if you have several symptoms of low thyroid — see below), then you can be quite certain you have low thyroid hormone function.  For menstruating women, it is best to check on or near days 2, 3, and 4 of your menstrual cycle.

Here are the most common early symptoms or signs of low thyroid function

  1. Sensitivity to cold; hands and / or feet often or usually cold
  2. Can put on weight easily
  3. Feel tired in daytime when resting
  4. Face puffy / eyelids swollen in the morning
  5. Trouble getting up in the morning or anxiety / depressed mood upon waking
  6. High cholesterol or high blood pressure
  7. Memory problems or impaired concentration; nervousness, depression, or bipolar
  8. Frequent colds, sore throat, ear ache, or other infections
  9. Dry skin / thick skin; brittle, thick, or weak nails / excessive hair loss
  10. Constipation, abdominal bloating or colitis symptoms

Low thyroid function is easily corrected with natural thyroid hormone replacement, prescribed from a doctor knowledgeable in this area.

Cortisol excess from stress

Another hormone involved in weight gain is elevated cortisol (your stress hormone).

What happens over the years when you are constantly or repeatedly under high stress demands, be they physical, mental or emotional? You probably guessed it: excess cortisol production. Similarly, what happens if you constantly worry or have to keep a fast-pace life? Yes, the same thing. One of the heralding sign of excess cortisol production from repeated or chronic stress is weight gain around the middle: the classic apple-shape obesity, even if you are exercising and eating healthy!

Elevated cortisol is can be lowered by stress reduction. Here are some important stress-reduction concepts: Identify your stressors (financial, relationship, ill health, etc.) and evaluate if they are worth keeping in your life. Then do your favorite “feel good technique”:

  • Deep, slow breathing for 10 minutes while visualizing something you enjoy or that makes you happy, with no stressful distractions. Do this whenever you feel stress building up inside you as a feeling of anxiety, or other negative emotions.
  • Meditation, yoga, Tai Chi or other meditative exercises
  • Find your best music and listen to it often to lift your mood and inspire your personal power. Then write how you feel (journaling) to soft music about your major concern.
  • Tapping techniques are quite effective but must be learned. Here is a great diagrammatic informational chart to explain what this is and how it works. You can watch a great demonstration of the Emotional Freedom Technique here.
  • Find inspiring audio instructions from authors such as Wayne Dyer, Michael Beckwith, or Esther Hicks (Teachings of Abraham). For example, you can listen anytime for free to inspiring audio tracks at Abraham-Hicks.com.

Here are adrenal-supporting herbs and supplements to lower the need for high cortisol levels. You may want to learn more about these online:

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Specially Formulated with Essential Nutrients to Support Healthy Thyroid Function!


  1. L-theanine is an amino acid derived from green tea (Camellia sinensis) known to reduce your emotional and physical response to stress. 1 The usual dose is 200 mg once or twice daily.
  2. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an antioxidant herb that can help reduce anxiety, panic attacks, phobia and depression. In one study, Ashwagandha for five days had anxiety-relieving effects similar to the benzodiazepine medication lorazepam and antidepressant effects similar to the antidepressant medication imipramine. 2
  3. Siberian ginseng contains a precursor for DHEA and cortisol. Usual dosage is 100 mg twice daily and if it has an energy-boosting effect you can detect be sure to take it in the mornings.
  4. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is another useful herb. At 600 mg daily subjects improved mood and calmness in one 2004 study 3 and in another study when combined with valerian root they lowered anxiety. 4
  5. Kava kava (Piper methysticum), valerian root (Valeriana officinalis), and passion flower (Passiflora incarnate) are relaxing, and sedating. They have GABA-like effects. Taken as pills, they are used to treat both insomnia and anxiety. Tea from chamomile, peppermint, lemon balm, kava kava, passionflower, and valerian root will also calm anxiety when needed.
  6. Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) is an herb that supports your ability to handle stress.

A study using 300 mg daily for 12 weeks in elderly patients without dementia reduced anxiety and improved cognition. 5

  1. Essential oils are calming 6 and they are a safe and effective: lavender, sweet marjoram, chamomile, sandalwood, ylang ylang, neroli, bergamot, frankincense or vanilla bean extract.
  2. Magnesium deficiency is a growing concern with the “SAD” standard American diet. Magnesium deficiency is a known cause of anxiety. Magnesium 500 mg daily is a safe starting dose. At higher dosages it could cause diarrhea.
  3. If you have depressed mood, consider taking 5-HTP (5-hydroxy-tryptophan) which is a precursor to the brain neurotransmitter Serotonin; SAMe (s-adenosyl-Methionine, an amino acid) 750 mg twice daily or St John’s wort (an herb).
  4. Vitamins B1, B3, B5, B6 and B12 help you produce more serotonin. Low vitamin B is linked to anxiety, restlessness, and emotional instability. Vitamin B complex supplementation is recommended especially if you are vegetarian.

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[1] Kimura, Kenta; Ozeki, Makoto; Juneja, Lekh Raj; Ohira, Hideki (2007). “L-Theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses”. Biological Psychology 74 (1): 39–45.
[2] Bhattacharya SK, Bhattacharya A, Sairam K, Ghosal S. Anxiolytic-antidepressant activity of Withania somnifera glycowithanolides: an experimental study. Phytomedicine. 2000 Dec;7(6):463-9.
[3] Kennedy DO, et al. Attenuation of laboratory induced stress in humans after acute administration of Melissa officinalis (lemon balm). 2004. Psychosomatic Medicine. 66:607-613.
[4] Kennedy DO, et al. Anxiolytic effects of a combination of Melissa officinalis and Valeriana officinalis during laboratory induced stress. Phytotherapy Research. 2006 (20):96-102.
[5] Calabrese C, Gregory WL, Leo M, Kraemer D, Bone K, Oken B. Effects of a standardized Bacopa monnieri extract on cognitive performance, anxiety, and depression in the elderly: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. J. Altern Complement Med. 2008 Jul;14(6):707-13.
[6] Mi-Yeon Cho, Eun Sil Min, Myung-Haeng Hur, Myeong Soo Lee.  Effects of Aromatherapy on the Anxiety, Vital Signs, and Sleep Quality of Percutaneous Coronary Intervention Patients in Intensive Care Units. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013; 2013: 381381. Published online 2013 February 17 at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3588400/

Dr. Michael Cutler

By Dr. Michael Cutler

Dr. Michael Cutler is a graduate of Tulane University School of Medicine and is a board-certified family physician with more than 20 years of experience. He serves as a medical liaison to alternative and traditional practicing physicians. His practice focuses on an integrative solution to health problems. Dr. Cutler is a sought-after speaker and lecturer on experiencing optimum health through natural medicines and founder of the original Easy Health Options™ newsletter — an advisory on natural healing therapies and nutrients. His current practice is San Diego Integrative Medicine, near San Diego, California.