Why is it so hard for some people to lose weight?
Sometimes, there is more to weight loss than simply cutting calories. For some, despite all their efforts (following a diet and exercising consistently) progress is fleeting and painfully slow. This is a familiar story for many and they know the problem isn’t a lack of willpower. There's often more going on than a matter of simply exercising more and eating less. In this three part article series we look at the underlying causes of the difficulty in weight loss that so many run into.
The problem can be an imbalance in one or more of the underlying systems of the body, making weight loss difficult if not impossible. The good news is that there are ways to remove these obstacles. Identifying these imbalances and resolving them should be the first step in your weight loss plan.
Obesity is all too common in our culture. While the availability of empty calories and our sedentary lifestyles are largely to blame, there is more going on here than just sloth and gluttony. For many there is a hidden problem in the body that is locking their metabolism in a fat storing mode. In the first part of this series we’ll cover three common obstacles getting in the way of successful weight loss. In a following article we’ll give you the basic steps for addressing each of these. Our third article will cover the steps for successful weight loss once you have these first three obstacles addressed. Following these steps will result in significant changes in most people seeking weight loss.
After pain, the second most common complaint we hear from our patients is that they have difficulty losing weight. While obviously exercise and proper diet are essential to weight loss, in some that won’t be enough to reach their weight loss goals. Without addressing the underlying imbalances, progress will be painfully slow and difficult. The three main obstacles that we see are:
1. Excessive burden of environmental toxins
2. Hormonal imbalance
3. Latent inflammation
Any one, or all of these, could be shackling you to your extra pounds and these three issues are surprising common in Americans. Let’s look closer at each.
Excessive burden of Toxins
We live in an environment that is increasingly laden with chemical pollutants. Many of these compounds have entered our environments within the past few decades. Unfortunately, despite all your efforts to minimize exposure, it is unlikely that anyone is able to truly avoid these chemicals. Studies have shown the presence of more than 200 chemical pollutants in the umbilical cord blood supplying newborn babies. Even in this most precious of places, at the deepest recesses in the body, and filtered by the placenta, these chemicals are still able to find their way. Just imagine what is running through your blood! These toxins burden the liver, interfere with hormone signaling and trigger inflammation. All of these can indirectly cause weight gain by interfering with fundamental processes in the body. But, some of these compounds can also directly cause weight gain. Called "obesogens", these compounds include Bisphenyl A, polybrominated flame retardants, pthalates, many pesticides and even many medications, including the popular SSRIs, used to treat depression. These compounds directly alter your physiology, resulting in weight gain. They compounds bind to receptors in the body that regulate metabolism or appetite and directly cause increased weight gain and make weight loss more difficult.
Many of these compounds are fat soluble. Because they dissolve in fats, they become stored in fat tissue. This makes losing weight increasingly difficult. As soon as you make progress in weight loss you liberate more of these compounds into your blood stream, making future progress even more difficult. In order to make weight loss possible in the presence of these toxins, you need to support your body’s natural detoxification processes, so that as these toxins are liberated they are effectively flushed from the body, allowing your weight loss to continue unfettered.
Identifying if you have an excessive toxic burden can be done through a combination of blood work, reviewing your occupational history, and discussing your personal medical history. One blood test called GGT, or gamma glutamyl transpeptidase, measures the activity of an enzyme that becomes elevated when the requirement for the body’s natural anti-oxidant, glutathione, is increased. This increased demand can indicate that there is an increased toxin burden on the body, requiring targeted treatment and dietary interventions.
The HPA axis is a term used to describe the triad of endocrine glands: hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal. These three glands interact and influence each other and a great many other hormones and glands in the body. When dietary, emotional, lifestyle, and environmental factors cause a disruption in any of these glands there can be a cascading influence on the body. Weight gain is one of many possible symptoms when these hormones are out of balance. Improperly converted, produced, or binding thyroid hormone, for example, can result in difficulty losing weight. Impact on the hormone leptin can result in difficulty regulating appetite properly. Excessive, or deficient adrenal output of the hormone cortisol can result in elevated blood sugars, insulin resistance, and weight gain. Simultaneous fatigue and anxiety can also make weight lose much more difficult. If you experience certain symptoms including unexplained fatigue, a history of extreme or prolonged stress, anxiety, short temper, or difficulty regulating temperature these symptoms may indicate that a closer look at your hormones is warranted. Identifying if there is an underlying hormonal imbalance can often be done through simple saliva testing, and herbal, lifestyle, and dietary interventions are often sufficient to restore balance.
When most people hear the word inflammation, they think of something red, swollen and painful like a sprained joint or an infected cut. But inflammation doesn’t always have to be so obvious. Sometimes inflammation can be more like a smoldering fire hidden within the body, quietly eroding your health. This type of latent inflammation may be occurring anywhere in the body. Common locations include the digestive system, a dental abscess, or the blood vessels. This constant inflammation causes weight gain by driving up the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn drives up blood sugars. It also reduces the body’s sensitivity to insulin, making your body store more energy as fat. The longer the inflammation is present the more damage is done to your metabolism. Identifying and treating the underlying inflammation is essential to losing weight and restoring a healthy metabolism.
How do you know if you have a smoldering fire hampering your weight loss efforts?
Often, current symptoms or clues in your health history can raise suspicion, which is further investigated by looking at some specific blood tests. The specific test will depend on the organ system that is suspected. Tests such as C reactive protein, homocysteine, adiponectin, and an essential fatty acid profile can all help to identify locations and causes of latent inflammation.
Identifying the systems in your body that are imbalanced is the first step in restoring a healthy metabolism.
Once you know how your metabolism is going wrong, that paves the way to determine your specific interventions. Even though the goal weight loss is the same, the interventions for you may be very different from someone else with a different set of metabolic challenges. This is one of the reasons that no weight loss program works for everyone. If you've tried many different approaches without seeing results, it is likely that there is something going on beneath the surface that needs to be addressed before weight loss can proceed. You may have a suspicion that one of the above issues applies to you, and fortunately, there are many interventions that you can do yourself that are both effective and safe to try at home. We'll cover strategies to resolve each of these issues in the next article.
Kieran Jones MTCM L.Ac.
I'm Kieran, clinician and owner of Cotati Community Acupuncture. I'm an acupuncturist, herbalist, and functional medicine practitioner for the past 10 years. I have a deep curiosity in health, biology, culture, medicine, history, and a healthy obsession with the pursuit of the perfect state of health.