The Psychology of Dieting: Hormonal Imbalance

01 April, 2021

            The Psychology of Dieting: Hormonal Imbalance

For the past few weeks, we've covered topics based around the effects of extreme dieting and the havoc it can wreak upon many aspects of our wellbeing. Our last post talked about Nutritional Deficiencies caused by extreme dieting and calorie restriction.

In continuing to discuss the deficiencies and imbalances caused by dieting, this week we're taking a look at hormone production. People turn towards dieting in order to enhance their self-image, essentially to lose weight. What's the point in losing weight if doing so causes such a hormonal imbalance that you struggle to enjoy your newfound 'health'? Many dieters seem so preoccupied with their external self that they fail to consider the ramifications of their malnutrition on their internal systems; and the consequences can be disastrous.

In this final part of the series, we discuss the endocrine system, the hormones that each gland secretes, and what hormones are responsible for in the body. We'll also cover how hormone imbalances caused by dieting can lead to mental and physical implications, and which hormones are most frequently affected.

The Psychology of Dieting by The Remedy Kitchen Manchester | Hormonal Imbalance Caused by Dieting and How it Can Damage the Body

What are Hormones?

Our bodies have an endocrine system, made up of glands that release hormones. Hormones are molecules that are released automatically, sending chemicals into the bloodstream that enable bodily tissues and organs to function properly.

Hormones are responsible for regulating most processes in the body, from our mood to how well the respiratory system works. They flow from the endocrine glands to the specific receptors designed to receive each hormone. They send signals to these receptors, operating as catalysts that initiate responses in particular areas of the body.

The body is generally able to regulate hormones well, sensing when they should be released or inhibited. Hormones are vital to our wellbeing, as self-adjusting mechanisms that automatically respond to stimuli. Their function is to maintain balance, keeping our bodies in a carefully co-ordinated state of equilibrium.

Sometimes, hormones fail to adequately respond to feedback. This can have a significant impact on the body, as a minor change in hormone function can disrupt entire organs and their processes.

Click through the sections below for an in-depth description of what each of our hormones do, and where they are released from in the endocrine system. We'll then move on to discuss why people might experience hormone problems, and the symptoms to look out for when hormones become unstable.

Endocrine Glands and Hormone Functions

➯ Hypothalamus

Located on the under-surface of the brain, directly above the brain stem.

> Growth Hormone Releasing Hormone (GHRH)
> Gonadotropin Releasing Hormone (GRH)
> Corticotropin Releasing Hormone (CRH)
> Thyrotropic Releasing Hormone (TRT)
> Somatostatin
> Dopamine

The hypothalamus is responsible for:

  • Mood
  • Body temperature
  • Our responses to stress
  • Melatonin production for sleep
  • Hunger, thirst, appetite and weight
  • Maintaining homeostasis by correcting imbalances
  • Libido

➯ Pituitary Gland

In charge of other endocrine glands and their secretions. Situated at the base of the brain, and attached to the hypothalamus.

> Growth Hormone (GH)
> Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH)
> Steroid Hormones, Cortisol
> Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH)
> Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH)

> Antidiuretic Hormone Vasopressin (ADH)
> Melanocyte Stimulating Hormone
> Luteinizing Hormone (LH)
> Prolactin
> Oxytocin

What does the pituitary gland control?

  • Growth
  • Water balance
  • Fat distribution
  • Body composition
  • Blood pressure
  • Protein production
  • Breast milk production
  • Water retention in the kidneys
  • Sexual maturation
  • Reproduction

➯ Parathyroid Glands 

A series of four small glands at the base of the neck, behind the thyroid.

> Parathyroid hormone (PTH)

What do the parathyroid glands do?

  • Control blood calcium levels
  • Maintain phosphorous levels
  • Help with bone development
  • Preserve muscle function
  • Initiate vitamin D metabolism in the kidneys

➯ Pancreas

The pancreas is long gland located behind the stomach, situated under the liver and near the gallbladder.

> Insulin
> Glucagon
> Gastrin
> Somatostatin
> Pancreatic Polypeptide

What does the pancreas do?

  • Maintains blood sugar levels
  • Produces digestive juices and enzymes
  • Metabolises glucose, protein and fat
  • Stores glucose energy in fat, muscle and liver tissues
  • Releases this energy as needed for metabolic processes, exercising and brain performance

➯ Thyroid

Situated in the front of the neck.

> Thyroid hormones:
Thyroxine (T4)
Triiodothyronine (T3)
> Calcitonin

What does the thyroid control?

  • Heart rate
  • Brain development
  • Oxygen use
  • Heat production
  • Energy usage
  • Digestive function
  • Bone maintenance
  • Metabolism and how calories are used

➯ Adrenal Glands

There are 2 adrenal glands, each located on top of the kidneys.

> Mineralocorticoids:
> Glucocorticoids:
> Adrenal androgens (male sex hormones):
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)
> Andrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH)
> Catecholamines:

What do the adrenal glands do?

  • Control our physiological stress responses:
    increasing heart rate, stimulating blood flow and enhancing oxygen intake
  • Produce an anti-inflammatory effect
  • Maintain blood pressure
  • Regulate metabolism

➯ Pineal Gland 

Located in the epithalamus, where the two sections of the brain join in the middle.

> Melatonin

The pineal gland is responsible for:

  • Releasing melatonin into the blood to prompt sleep
  • Regulating our response to seasonal changes and daylight exposure levels
  • Controlling our circadian rhythm

➯ Ovaries

Female reproductive organs in the uterus (womb).

> Oestrogen
> Progesterone
> Testosterone
> Oadestriol

What do the ovaries do?

* The function of the ovaries is maintained by the gonadotrophin releasing hormone (GRH) from the hypothalamus. GRH eventually leads to the secretion of luteinising hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) from the pituitary glands. It is the release of these hormones, combined with oestrogen and progesterone, that regulates the menstrual cycle.

➯ Testes

Male reproductive organs.

> Testosterone
> Inhibin B
> Anti Müllerian Hormone
> Insulin Like Factor 3
> Oestradiol

The testes are responsible for:

  • Male sexual development
  • Hormone production
  • Sperm production
  • Some bone health

The Psychology of Dieting by Remedy Kitchen | Hormone Imbalance and Dieting | Sex Hormones and Our Health. | Image shows illustration of uterus in white with arrows pointing to the two ovaries on either side. Background is a dimmed out white flower.

Sex Hormones and Our Health

Some of the most frequently imbalanced hormones are the sex hormones, secreted and regulated within the sexual organs and the adrenal glands. These organs, as mentioned above, are the ovaries in women, and the testes in men. Oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone cooperate in maintaining key functions relating to our emotions, reproductive abilities and energy levels.

As we age, these hormones diminish because of stress and dietary issues, as well as the development of genetic problems and thyroid issues. The most common age for sex hormone imbalances to develop is around age 50.

Here are what sex hormones do, and some of the issues that can be caused by imbalances.

➯ Oestrogen

Oestrogen is present and necessary in both men and women.

  • When oestrogen levels are too low, we can experience low moods. This is because oestrogen helps with mood enhancing neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Low oestrogen and its impact on our emotions can cause food cravings, perhaps having a subsequent impact on weight and our eating habits.

  • Oestrogen also helps us sleep, and contributes to cognitive health. Women with imbalanced oestrogen levels might have disrupted menstrual patterns, mood swings, weight gain around the hips and thighs, and other symptoms that are concurrent with menopause experiences.

  • High amounts of oestrogen can be dangerous, as they increase the likelihood of developing hormonal cancers.

  • Men with low oestrogen levels may experience a diminished libido. Very high oestrogen levels in males can lead to infertility, gynecomastia (larger breasts in men) and erectile dysfunction.

➯ Progesterone

Progesterone is a female sex hormone that is produced in the ovaries, crucial to female fertility. Males naturally create a tiny amount of progesterone.

  • Progesterone is mainly released after ovulation every month. Low progesterone can lead to issues with fertility, as its main job is to prepare the womb for pregnancy throughout child bearing years. During pregnancy, it is essential in helping the foetus develop healthily.

  • This is why low progesterone levels are linked to infertility and PMS - premenstrual syndrome. PMS leads to anxiety and diminished serotonin levels.

  • Progesterone works to enhance GABA in the brain - gamma aminobutyric acid, a neurotransmitter that inhibits feelings of anxiety. Since GABA isn't present in any foods other than fermented recipes like kimchi, it's important that our bodies naturally produce enough progesterone to maintain feelings of calm.

  • Progesterone regulates the menstrual cycle and also works with testosterone and oestrogen to control ovulation patterns. High progesterone levels lead to fatigue as well as weight gain and overeating habits. It also leads to an increased risk of depression.

➯ Testosterone

The male hormone, testosterone is required for the healthy development and maintenance of libido in men and women. Muscle and bone health is also enhanced by testosterone.

  • Too much testosterone can lead to heightened risk of problems with health and emotional regulation. These include heart disease, becoming too aggressive, losing hair, having headaches.

  • Oily skin, acne problems and facial hair development are also influenced by the amount of testosterone.

  • Low testosterone is said to cause depression and low mood in men, making them tired and lethargic. Not having enough testosterone also leads to an increased risk of developing prostate cancer.

What Causes Hormonal Imbalance?

Hormonal imbalances can occur for a number of reasons. Due to the complexity of such systems, it can often be difficult to pinpoint exactly why your body is functioning differently. Here, we'll look at the causes and symptoms of hormone imbalances.

➯ Stress

The stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, prompt the physical and physiological effects we associate with the fight or flight response.These hormones cause a range of symptoms, including; increased heart rate, sweating, rapid breathing, heightened blood pressure and an upset digestive system.

  • Usually, we're only stressed for a short period, so these symptoms clear up when the imbalance of adrenaline and cortisol return to normal. Chronic stress, however, is an issue whereby the imbalance of these hormones causes further issues. Constant stress leads to the over-exertion of hormones and stress response systems, the build-up of which can cause medical issues and even emergencies.Heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes, stomach issues, a weakened immune system and fertility problems are all linked to chronic stress.

  • Chronic stress can be caused by not eating enough.
    Whether this is due to dieting or the presence of an eating disorder, under eating has been found to cause a stress response in many people. One study found that participants with a low calorie diet had higher levels of cortisol and were therefore more stressed.

    Researchers stated the increased cortisol levels were perhaps due to the psychological pressures with restricting food intake. Alongside this, however, it was determined that low calorie diets also cause biological stress. This is because the role of cortisol is to increase the amount of energy in the body. Without adequate energy from food, cortisol levels can overreact as they're unable to perform their task - leading to more stress.

    The study concluded that dieting and restricting calories is an ineffective way to lose weight. This is because restricting calories leads to both psychological and biological stress, increasing cortisol levels. These heightened cortisol levels end up causing weight gain over time.

➯ Medications & Treatments

While medications may be essential in treating our ailments and illnesses, they can also interfere with our hormone balance.

  • Chemotherapy for cancer
  • Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to treat menopause symptoms
  • Contraception for women
  • Prescription medications including oestrogen and medicines for diabetes
  • Stimulants such as caffeine and drinks containing aspartame

The Psychology of Dieting | The Remedy Kitchen UK | Image Shows Illustration of Thyroid Gland, Nutritional Deficiency, Hormone Imbalance

➯ Thyroid conditions

The most common issues that disrupt the balance between hormones are related to the thyroid. It's the thyroid that regulates: heart rate, heat production, brain functioning and development, metabolism, calorie expenditure and digestive functions, amongst other processes. Thyroid conditions tend to develop slowly, so it may take a while before you begin to notice symptoms.

  • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
    The symptoms of thyroid hormone deficiency are:

    > Reduced neurotransmitter performance (low mood & depression)
    > Mental apathy, a general lack of interest, brain fog
    > Female weight gain after a change in hormones
    > Muscle problems: aching, cramps, feeling weak

    > Weight gain caused by slower calorie burning
    > Malnutrition caused by slow metabolism
    > Genetic history of thyroid issues
    > Dry skin, nails and hair
    > Irregular menstrual cycles
    > Slow movements
    > Cold extremities
    > Constipation
    > Fatigue

  • Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
    Women are more likely to develop an overactive thyroid, so be aware of the symptoms listed below. The symptoms of having excess thyroid hormone are:

    > Heat sensitivity
    > Anxiety, mood swings

    > Insomnia, lack of sleep
    > Swollen neck glands - this is because the thyroid has become inflamed
    > Heart rate that is abnormally fast
    > Heart palpitations (irregular heart rate)
    > Frequent shaking and twitching movements
    > Eye sensitivities - seeing double, bulging eyes
    > Unexplained weight loss

  • Thyroid Storms are sudden onsets of a whole host of uncontrollable symptoms related to your overactive thyroid. Thyroid storms often happen when the overactive thyroid is poorly managed or undiagnosed. Certain events can trigger them. These include: trauma to the throat, infections, forgetting to take medications, emotional distress, trauma, surgery, pregnancy; they can also be triggered by other medical emergencies including having a stroke, diabetes complications and pulmonary embolisms.

    Thyroid storms can be life threatening, so it's crucial that you seek medical emergency care.

    Hypo and hyperthyroidism can be detected by blood tests.
    These should test for the presence of TSH, T3, Free T4 & Total T4 hormones in the blood, and can be handled by your GP. Your doctor may also recommend thyroid antibody tests that check for anti-thyroglobuin and anti-thyroperoxidase, as these can help determine whether you have Hashimoto's Disease.

  • Hashimoto's Disease is an autoimmune disease where the thyroid is attacked by the immune system. This is also referred to as thyroiditis. It's not directly a problem with your thyroid gland, so it's a very different condition to hypothyroidism.

➯ Health Problems

Health conditions, other than thyroid issues, can also disrupt hormonal activity.

  • Decreased liver function can raise oestrogen levels.
    Alcohol, drugs, and foods like sugar, refined starches and fried food, can restrict the liver function and therefore increase oestrogen.

  • Constipation can mean our old hormones aren't being released from the body, and they're instead being 'recycled' back into our systems. Constipation can be caused by a number of dietary issues.

  • Other endocrine diseases - Addison's Disease, Graves' Disease, Growth Hormone Deficiency and others, can lead to hormonal imbalance.

  • Diabetes

➯ Natural ageing processes

It is natural for hormone balances to shift as we age, as our receptors become de-sensitised over time. Some hormone levels decrease as we grow older, some remain the same and some increase.

The Psychology of Dieting: Hormonal Imbalance | by The Remedy kitchen Manchester | Image of Fruits and Flowers

➯ Reproductive hormones & changes

Specific to women, hormonal imbalances are often experienced due to matters relating to reproduction. A few of these hormone altering phases occur due to natural changes in the body, while others may suggest that there are underlying issues with hormonal functions. If the woman gains a lot of weight after one of her reproductive milestones, this may signify the presence of a thyroid problem.

  • Menopause andpremature menopause
  • Birth control medications
  • Pregnancy and post pregnancy
  • Breastfeeding
  • Puberty

➯ Genetics

Women can experience thyroid problems during the hormonal milestones listed above - the phases related to the female reproductive system. The thyroid problems in these cases are normally caused by genetics.

➯ Nutrition, dieting & eating disorders

  • Cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, sprouts, cauliflower, etc.) contain glucosinolates, which studies have linked to the lowered production of thyroid hormones. They are, however, a necessary staple in our diets due to their anticarcinogenic effects and various nutritional benefits.

  • Soya contains isoflavones. Isoflavones are very similar in structure to oestrogen, which means they can easily connect to oestrogen receptors. This may enhance the effects of the hormone, and some have said soya is beneficial in reducing menopausal symptoms - although further studies are needed.

    Despite this potentially positive interaction, isoflavones have been noted to reduce thyroid hormone secretion in some women.

  • Some chemicals found in food and the environmentcan interfere with hormones. These chemicals are found in processed foods, including meat and dairy. Pesticides used when farming, and growth hormones that resemble oestrogen can be present in these foods.

  • Vegetarians and vegan diets lack some of the nutrients we need for the thyroid to work properly. They may need to take extra supplements to boost levels of nutrients such as selenium, iron and zinc.

  • Nutrient deficiencies impact hormone production, and may be caused by not eating enough sustenance. While dieting or restricting food intake, the body is not receiving the nutrients it needs for hormones to efficiently regulate. This lack of energy slows down the thyroid, and it's common to see a severe imbalance over several endocrine secretions. Common nutritional deficiencies that affect the thyroid are B12, folic acid, B vitamins, iron, zinc and selenium.

  • Low calorie dieters and those with eating disorders suffer from hormonal imbalances. When the body doesn't have enough fat, our sex hormones are unable to function effectively. This is why those with long-term eating disorders may experience fertility issues. During menopause, fat cells are also essential in producing oestrogen from the stomach, otherwise menopausal symptoms may increase.

Even a tiny imbalance in the production of hormones can lead to a major disturbance to the body and how it functions.

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Dieting, Hormones and Hunger

In part III of the Psychology of Dieting series, we referred to a study examining the effects of starvation on the body. Even in the 50s, this study reported that calorie restriction led to significant disturbances concerning the physical and mental health of participants. When people are dieting, they're limiting calorie consumption in the hopes it will help them lose weight fast. More recent studies have uncovered that dieting is typically a recipe for failure when the end goal is weight loss.

Alongside the key aforementioned hormones described above, there are a number of hormones and amino acid peptides that are directly related to the consumption of food and how our bodies react. We'll discuss a couple of them below, and their links to food intake and energy storage and distribution.

➯ Cholecystokinin (CCK)

Cholecystokinin (CCK) is a hormone made in the gallbladder, and is recognised as the hormone that makes us feel full when we eat. CCK is produced when the stomach stretches as we eat food. It supports the digestive system by breaking down macros (carbohydrates, proteins and fats), by creating bile and releasing enzymes. Since CCK is a short-acting hormone, it is recommended that we eat smaller meals, but more frequently This helps uplift and maintain CCK functioning so we feel full for long enough before our next meal.

➯ Neuropeptide Y (NpY)

Neuropeptide Y (NpY) is responsible for the growth of fat tissue. Created in the hypothalamus and other specific locations in the endocrine system, it's an amino acid that controls our food intake and regulates how energy from food is stored in the body. NpY is said to have a role in regulating moods such as anxiety and helping to control stress, also reducing blood pressure. Increased neuropeptide Y has been linked to lack of control over appetite.

Studies have looked into NpY and its relation to obesity, due to its role in the growth of fat cells. Researchers found enhanced levels of the hormone in rats who then go on to experience genetic obesity. When injected into rats, the rats also exhibited increased food intake behaviours.

➯ Leptin

Leptin is a hormone created by fat in the body. It helps to regulate a few functions related to eating, energy consumption and body composition. It works to reduce appetite by blocking NpY, and so those with diminished levels of leptin can experience more hunger.

The more body fat an individual has, the higher their leptin concentration is. Studies show that calorie limitation through dieting can reduce the amount of leptin, as weight is lost and the concentrations of leptin reduce in proportion to the amount of body fat remaining. Suggestions have been made that decreased sensitivities to leptin could be responsible for obesity. Since leptin reduces feelings of hunger, this theory has potential.

Leptin plays another undesirable role in heightening the risk of inflammation. Ongoing inflammatory responses in the body lead to further health issues. These include the development of insensitivities to insulin, which can potentially lead to type 2 diabetes.

The Psychology of Dieting Hormonal Imbalance Eating Disorders Weight Loss by The Remedy Kitchen Manchester | Healthy Food Restaurant and Cafe in Manchester City Centre

The ultimate point here is easy to distinguish. The spotlight must shift from dieting for 'weight loss,' and focus on healthy eating attitudes that lead to positive results instead. You can achieve the body composition you want - without the unhealthy side effects of extreme dieting, nutritional deficiency and hormone imbalance.

Keep Your Hormones in Check with Remedy Kitchen

At The Remedy Kitchen, we follow an intuitive way of eating. That is, when the body needs something, we believe it tells us exactly that. Backing up our instincts with nutritional science, our curated meal prep plans and recipes are infused with ingredients that enhance your health.

If you're looking for pre-planned meals designed to keep your hormones entirely balanced, visit our online meal prep shop. Our new Tailored to You collection lets you choose the dishes you love, from a selection of Remedy's most loved recipes. Order them straight to your door, or for local collection from our Manchester city centre restaurant. We're making healthy eating easy.

For more nutritional treats from
The Remedy Kitchen, find us on social media.

For more nutritional treats from
The Remedy Kitchen, find us on social media.

Katie McIntosh Remedy kitchen Manchester Founder Concept Creator and Managing Director | Best Healthy Food Restaurant in Manchester

Thanks for Reading

The Remedy Kitchen concept and ethos was created by Katie McIntosh, Remedy Kitchen's Managing Director and co-founder.
Katie is a specialist in Nutritional Interventions for Eating Disorders & Obesity. Her expanding range of wellbeing-centric qualifications include Detox Specialist, Advanced Sports & Exercise Nutrition, Performance Enhancement Specialist with the National Academy of Sports Medicine, Precision Nutrition Level 1 Coach and BSc Psychology. Katie is also a member of the British Psychological Society.
Katie first launched her career as a fitness professional in 2015. In doing this, she realised her real passion was in helping others use nutrition to elevate their health, and knew her expertise would thrive elsewhere.It was this realisation, along with the identification of a stark gap in the market, that has nurtured the Remedy Kitchen concept into what it is today.